It’s Okay to Play the Fool

Yeah, yeah. It’s April Fool’s Day and I’m writing a post about the Fool. Sue me for being topical.

Readers of this blog may recall that I recently subjected myself to the hellish process of applying for Ph.D programs in philosophy. (Truly. Hellish.) Well, application season is over, and acceptance season is drawing to a close as well. I now know which places accepted me and which did not. For the past two weeks or so, I’ve been touring around several of the schools where I got admitted, meeting with faculty and current students, sitting in on classes, and generally trying to get a feel for where I would be happiest committing myself to five-to-eight years of academic indentured servitude. Honestly, it’s been great fun. Life as an academic is far from glamorous* (the job market is crap, there’s no money even for the people who can get jobs, and completing a Ph.D is a harrowing process filled with sleepless nights and mountains of work), but it’s a life that suits me and that will make me happy in the long run. I’m thrilled to be making a step towards that goal.

Of all the programs I visited, there is a clear choice. I loved all the faculty and current students I met there, the program is structured to encourage independence and broad academic interests, and the campus is so beautiful that it was almost an affront to my eyes. In addition, from a shrewder point of view, this program is really prestigious. Like, so prestigious that I applied without any genuine expectation that I might have a chance of getting in. And the other programs I got into, while all wonderful in their own right, aren’t in the same weight class.

The notion of prestige is weird and slippery, and I have a lot of complicated feelings about it. For one thing, I’m a bit of a snob, and I know that. I do my best most of the time to combat that snobbery, although I still pour a lot of effort into obscure rules of etiquette, dress codes, and the like.** So even though I feel guilty for caring about prestige, it does still matter to me on some level. But secondly, and more importantly, I refer you to my note above about how terrible the job market in academia is. Although this is a crappy thing to admit, scholars coming out of more prestigious programs have a better shot at landing halfway decent jobs. Even in a very real, practical, divorced-from-the-snobbery way, the reputation of this program is an important consideration.

But this is all just prologue. The real content of this post is about the Fool.

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This image is shamelessly stolen from the Internet.

I spent a decent portion of my visit to Glamour Program X feeling rather foolish. Well, perhaps “foolish” isn’t quite the right word, but I’m choosing to use it because I’m connecting this post back to Tarot and to April Fool’s Day. I felt slightly out of my element, as if I didn’t quite belong. This is an exceedingly common way for people in graduate school to feel, and is often dubbed “impostor syndrome” (although I personally have a violent distaste for that phrase). It’s a measure of insecurity and self-doubt, the feeling of being surrounded by awesome people and of being unsure whether one really ought to be counted among their number.

The prospective students of Glamour Program X were all, without a doubt, awesome. And frankly, in a lot of ways, more awesome than me. I don’t for a second doubt my intelligence or my ability to do well in this program–I’m far too arrogant*** for that–but there’s a difference between intelligence and knowledge. I consider myself the equal of everyone I met as far as intelligence goes, but most of them know far more than I do. Everyone I met had extremely specific interests and a depth of knowledge with regard to those interests, whereas my philosophical interests are much more general. I know a little bit about everything, and I like everything, but I am not an expert in anything.

And of course, this is okay. I’m at the beginning of a Ph.D program, not at its end; I don’t need to be an expert at this stage in my career. It’s acceptable, and in many ways encouraged, to be a generalist, to be interested in everything, and to be unsure of where I want to specialize. Glamour Program X wouldn’t have admitted me if they didn’t believe I will flourish with them, and I have every intention of proving them right. However, the insecurity is still there, and I think it’s important for me to be able to acknowledge that insecurity and grapple with it.

person-stream-cliff-river

This brings us to the Fool. I can think of no better Tarot card to represent this particular stirring of emotions. I’m standing at the edge of a cliff, looking at the big wide world with wonder in my heart, but I’m also aware of my precarious position and part of me is worried about falling.

In my first ever Tarot journal (ah, those were the days… back before I realized I would never be an artist, when I drew a painfully bad sketch of each card alongside my written notes), my one-off keyword for the Fool was “potential”. That is, undoubtedly, at the core of what the Fool represents. But I think we can go a little bit deeper. The Fool isn’t just potential; he’s directionless potential. When we see the Fool, he hasn’t yet met the Magician. He doesn’t know where he’s going with his life or what his purpose is; he just knows that he has a rucksack over his shoulder and a dog at his side, and he’s definitely going somewhere. In this sense, the Fool is the ultimate potential: he has the potential for everything and anything. The potential to succeed. The potential to fail. The path before him branches out in a thousand different directions, and he hasn’t even begun to process them all, let alone to make a choice between them.

Right now, I’m vibing pretty strongly with the Fool. Like him, I’m in a place of beginning, where I am (in many ways) innocent and ignorant in comparison to the people around me. But like him, I don’t really need to worry about the people around me. The Fool never stops to consider that the Magician knows more than him. He never doubts himself just because the High Priestess really seems to have her shit together. His path is his own to walk, and he walks it undaunted. He knows he’s foolish, but that doesn’t matter; everyone has to start somewhere. Even the High Priestess was a neophyte, once upon a time. So he walks, not knowing where he’s going but confident that eventually he’ll end up where he needs to be. And if other people appear to be farther along their paths than he is, that’s none of his concern.

As I embark on this next stage of my life and my career, I want to work to embrace the Fool’s attitude more. Right now, I’m very much playing the Fool. I don’t have everything figured out, even though a lot of other people around me seem to. But that’s okay. For now, that’s what I need. So I’m going to enjoy being foolish while it lasts, commit myself to a track that I know will make me happy and successful in the long run, and trust that–one way or another–I’ll end up where I need to be.

Happy April Fool’s Day.


*Okay, well, part of me feels like it’s glamorous. Sometimes I dream about having business cards that list my profession as “Professional Smart Person”. And then I remember that I generally want to avoid being a supercilious prick.

**There’s actually a lot of really interesting research that shows the people (in the US; it’s a different case altogether in Britain) who care most about these class markers are not the wealthy, but members of the lower and middle classes who want to act above their station. The upper class generally demonstrates a sort of cultural omnivorism, where high culture figures like Wagner and pop culture figures like Beyoncé are treated with an equal hand. On the other hand, members of the middle class who aspire to a higher social status will take great pains to distance themselves from the Beyoncé-like aspects of culture, attempting to engage exclusively in interests and behaviors that are seen as markers of socioeconomic distinction.

***Or shall we say “self-assured”? The King of Wands and I are old friends.

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2 thoughts on “It’s Okay to Play the Fool

  1. So interesting to ponder prestige. “They” say it’s all in the mind, but if you graduate from the prestige place, with the prestige PhD, people do notice, it awes them. Hard to resist that.

    One of the things I learned about being an artist from a dream I had: act as if. So if you feel you don’t have the knowledge, act as if you do and then get it. Chances are you are perceived in a similar way by others too. Perhaps there are those who envy your generalist attention to detail? It’s a silly old game perception.

    Oh boy, you are going to love the challenge of it all.

    Like

    1. That’s definitely a good approach. For myself, I’ve always been the sort to acknowledge the insecurity, publicize it, and make a joke out of it. Taking my lesson from the Fool, I get the impression he would never be the sort of person to try to act like he knows something he doesn’t.

      Liked by 1 person

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