Asteroid City, a "Wake Up" Call for Incoming College Students
Updated: Jul 11
WARNING - Some minor spoilers below in case you didn't see the movie!
“You can’t wake up if you don’t go to sleep.” In a stirring moment in Wes Anderson’s latest movie, Asteroid City, a group of actors chant this phrase to drive home a paradoxical message. Interviews of the movie’s cast members show a range of interpretations of these ten words from a reference to a previous Wes Anderson film, to a statement about woke culture, to commentary about the digital world always being on. As I left the movie theater the chanted line continued to play in my own head, and left me wondering how different it feels to be at rest versus stuck. You only need to consider the feelings of being stuck or at rest in a traffic jam to appreciate the challenge of mind over matter. Incoming college students, members of the incoming class of 2027, were uniquely impacted by covid, having had to hit pause just as you were getting started with your coming of age. For this class of students, what narrative have you adopted: were you trapped or simply at rest?
Asleep during the pandemic
Wes Anderson’s movie as always includes a unique cast of characters who convene on Asteroid City, a deserted town, to attend a high school science fair. Fairly quickly the characters are placed in quarantine, unable to leave and restricted from communicating to the outside world. As the characters find ways to pass their time, the movie conjures up some absurd comparisons to global pandemic, giving us an opportunity to laugh and reassess our own pandemic experience. As in real life, even in Asteroid City, one’s essential worker status, age, wealth, health, and geography played into their experience.
In my own pandemic experience, I was quite anxious. Having worked with global macro risks in a prior job, I believed there was a chance we were going to experience a humanity changing event. I moved my family away from the city, I didn’t let my kids attend school when it first went back in-person, and I was the person in my group that insisted on covid tests long after people were already going back to restaurants. I was preparing for something bad to happen and in doing so, I found survival through re-engagement with my meditation practice, lots of walking, and finding gratitude in the time I had.
Despite being more than fully employed (teaching and building a new academic program at NYU and supporting my kids in virtual school), from the outside an observer might have seen me as a caterpillar turned chrysalis. The pandemic took us away from our outwardly engaged way of life, leaving us focused within. While we may have appeared asleep or still on the outside as the NYTimes’ Sam Anderson observed during the pandemic, we were actively shedding away part ourselves to begin a new growth.The pandemic allowed us to reconsider ourselves and gave us the possibility of waking up to new opportunities our former self couldn't imagine.
Waking up in 2023
Waking up in the summer of 2023, I look around at how the world has changed during my slumber. My youngest child, potentially impacted by covid, has lost full functioning of his pancreas, making him a Type 1 diabetic. And while unrelated to the pandemic, I lost my mother to a tragic car accident. Bad things did happen. Bad things happen. And yet, I’m grateful for the pandemic–for the forced rest. The lifestyle changes and new perspectives I gained during the pandemic are again helping me through my new reality. Like the body’s ability to create antibodies to fight off an illness, the pandemic stimulated me to develop practices to experience life as author Pico Iyer described it as the“Joyful Participation in a World of Sorrows”.
At NYU I teach entrepreneurship, a field viewed as the science of starting a new business. In my teaching and research, I explore another way of viewing entrepreneurship as a disposition of engaging in the world that is defined by uncertainty. Defined in this way, being entrepreneurial means looking at the uncertainty in front of us as the soil that offers us opportunities for discovery and creation through action. In a post global pandemic world, I invite the incoming class of 2027, to examine whether the personal challenges you face today are any different than they were in 2020. Back then, we were burdened by the uncertainty that suffering lay around the corner. In 2023, that uncertainty still exists.
You will soon be immersed in the uncertainty of a new environment, surrounded by new people, and new ideas. Some of you will be lucky enough to find the greatest degree of freedom and comfort that you have ever had, and might ever experience again: the freedom to try new things, to express yourselves in new ways, and to engage fully in this uncertain world. Having endured your time in your cocoon, you are now able to extract all that you can from this coming of age moment in college. In other words, the class of 2027, forced into rest during their high school years, has earned the opportunity to wake up and transform.
Special thanks to Evan Crosby for this suggestions and reactions based on his own college experience.