The things we have been told are important are not what matter

By Davis Hill, Opinion Editor


I have wanted to be a member of Phi Beta Kappa for a long time.

This organization, which calls itself “a leading advocate for excellence in the liberal arts and sciences,” is one of the oldest and most rigorous collegiate honors societies. It only admits students who display high academic and leadership qualifications, who speak more than one language and who pursue advanced courses outside their major. I would like to think that is my kind of crowd.

I didn’t get in. In fact, I’ll never get in — it’s open only to undergraduates; this was my last year of eligibility. When I learned this several days ago, I was crushed.

More crushing, however, was the slow realization that I have been living for things that, in the grand scheme of life, don’t matter. Phi Beta Kappa is very cool, but what is it really? You go to a ceremony, shake a bunch of hands, and get your photo taken. Maybe you do some networking, or even land a job. After that, it is a bullet point on your résumé.

Several weeks ago, I was involved in a serious automobile accident. In the space of two seconds, our car veered off the freeway, shrieked across an exit ramp and smashed headlong into a roadside berm at 65 miles per hour. For the record, I was a passenger, and no one was seriously injured.

Safely at home later that night, I reflected on the experience. Images stand out much more clearly than thoughts, as they always do when trauma is involved. I am not sure exactly what I was thinking at the time.

But I will tell you about what I did not think. I did not think about Phi Beta Kappa. I did not think about my GPA, my final government project or my LinkedIn profile. I did not think about my career prospects.

As I sat there, alone in the dark, I regretted many of my choices. I regretted basing so many decisions on what would look good to a graduate admissions committee. I regretted not making more friends, and not spending enough time with the ones I have. I regretted that all of the amazing music my friends and I have made over the past four years is doing nothing more than sitting on hard drives.

As students, we give up much. We develop habits, lifestyles and desires that are unsustainable. We do whatever is necessary to facilitate academic success, often at the cost of everything else. We should; after all, that’s why we’re here. But we must also remember to reconnect with the things that are truly important in life.

“Genius,” as philosopher Charles Philip once said, “doesn’t have a damn thing to do with test scores.” What it means, he said, is that one is able to leverage excellence—and to effectively share it with others. Knowledge and prowess are worthless until you put them to use.

Many of our greatest intellectual and artistic figures were school dropouts, dilettantes, “failures” or had enormous debt. They didn’t worry about getting a job or having a long list of recommendations. They believed in what they were doing and stuck to it, no matter the consequences.

The end, as I have learned, may well come before we expect. Don’t waste your time living for someone else’s idea of “employable.” You have a finite amount of time; spend it on your own goals. They are worthy. Anything meaningful to you is worthwhile.

I didn’t make it into the nation’s oldest honors society, but that’s OK. I’ll take “draws breath” over “a handsome certificate of membership” any day. I have personal goals that need tending, and I’ll bet you do too.

My first CD is out in August.