Monday, October 03, 2005

Melancholy Monday: Don't Stockpile the Love

I spent 5 hours on Friday writing a letter of recommendation for a student. He is applying for a Rhodes scholarship and has, to my mind, a good shot at it. I spent so much time because I read a lot of letters of recommendation and I know what you shouldn't do if you want your candidate to get the scholarship or job. I want this student to get the Rhodes and I want the committee to know that.

Yet, writing this letter made me melancholy. After I had finished the last draft, had several people vet it, I was exhausted. It consumed my entire day. The student is worth it, but nonetheless, that was a lot of time and energy poured into his future.

What I realized, upon completion of the letter, is that I am certain that not one of my former professors ever put that much energy into a letter for me. I had a chance to read both my letters of recommendation to graduate school and my letters for a job. They were strong. Yet, they read like templates for any strong candidate.

Sometimes the letters described my research more in terms of their own work than in my work. Other times the letters described aspects of my personality that were unrecognizable to me. It's as if they cut and pasted this from someone else's letter.

I have never done that. If I am going to write a letter of recommendation, I am going to put a lot of effort and time into it. I am going to paint a picture of who this person is so that the committee reading it gets a sense of who they are evaluating beyond the numerical data in front of them.

The only cure for my melancholy is to know, someday, that the time, energy and passion that I poured into these students will not be wholly abstorbed by them. I hope they give some of that back to their future students, younger colleagues, or children.

I want them to realize that what it took for them to get where they were was more than their brains, their decisions, or their cunning. People like me cared a lot about them and wanted them to be the very best. I don't get paid for that part of my job. I do it because very few people did it for me and I now know that it was what I most needed.

We don't succeed in life, in our profession, or in our relationships solely by our own wits. Others gave of themselves and told us we mattered. Without that kind of support we simply cannot thrive.

What I always fear when I invest in students is that they will stockpile the love. I want them to turn around and invest in someone else, because without that kind of world, very few of us will shine.