Learning to Know Thyself

How does one define success? It is a good job, money in the bank, or doing what one loves? Does making a difference make one successful? Being happy? The move into adulthood, the search for identity and success, is a complicated mix of what we bring to the table, what has been done to us, what we want to do, and what we are able to do. The growth of child to adult, from dependent to independent – individuation – lies along the spectrum of transition to separation, from old to new. We are creatures of our histories, contexts and environments. Figuring ourselves out, knowing why we do what we do is essential if we want to make sense of who we are – and that holds true with or without any concept of success.

In Emi Nietfeld’s scorching memoir Acceptance, the growth is more difficult and complicated than for many. She is a brilliant, highly motivated and driven woman who believed that an elite college education would be the path to right her life. Her acceptance into Harvard and eventual graduation, what many would characterize as a traditional story of overcoming obstacles and being successful, is one big way to describe her growth. Other parts of the why and what of her development, her motivation, the many pushes and pulls shaping Nietfeld’s life are darker and less clear. She fought through an extraordinarily difficult childhood and adolescence. Her book takes a critical look at her journey. Importantly, she knows that the familiar narratives that so often accompany a young person’s maturation and successes can belie many truths. Simple stories of success are not necessarily the best way to understand a person.

The “rag to riches” outline of Nietfeld’s life are a very good example. Her parents divorced when she was in fifth grade. Her mother, a woman with significant psychological problems, was granted full custody. Her biological father, who began the process to transition to female as the marriage disintegrated, disappeared from Nietfeld’s life. Behavioral problems emerged as family issues multiplied, and Nietfeld’s mother was unable to provide a stable and consistent home life. Nietfeld’s counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists, of which there were many, began prescribing medications. Nietfeld’s condition worsened. Nietfeld’s mother, who was a recurring source of many of her problems, was a hoarder with poor judgment. A suicide attempt at the age of thirteen gave Nietfeld a much-needed respite in a mental health clinic, a clean and safe space with structure. The time apart also gave the young woman perspective. Neitfeld loved her mother and yet also came to understand that her very well-being depended upon exiting from her mother’s many pathologies. None of the professionals seemed to listen closely to Nietfeld. She had a difficult time parsing the advice and figuring out what she believed would be a healthy path.

Nietfeld courageously elected to separate from her mom. Time with a foster family was better, yet far from a good or healthy fit. The family’s traditions and strict rules added more stresses. Exceptional writing ability and a Victorian work ethic provided Nietfield with an out. She gained acceptance and a scholarship to an elite boarding school. That was a vital platform as Nietfeld dedicated herself to enrolling at a top college. “Why dream of the Ivy League? Think about a safe school or a trade” the counselors, teachers and advisors emphasized. In contrast, Nietfeld’s mother, with whom she remained in contact, called her a genius. How does one in their teens manage through this?

Nietfeld cut herself and engaged in other forms of self-harm. She also worked hard and excelled in other parts of her life. A smart academic coach helped her with the college application process. The coach gave Nietfeld tools to craft narratives that would help. The young woman developed stories of her self that she could share, stories of her worth, her need, and her ability to overcome obstacles. These and other tropes gave Nietfeld access to more resources and opportunities. It was an necessary game that had to be played if she was going to find her way to an Ivy. Nietfeld proved to be a very good student.

Being admitted to Harvard and an almost accidental major in computer science were the next steps. Nietfeld’s account of “acceptance” and “belonging” at Harvard are sharp. They are not triumphal, though there is a great sense of accomplishment. Is belonging something an institution does, grants or is it something that students pursue? Or does it come from one’s classmates? More academic successes and opportunities followed, yet Nietfeld is far from secure as she struggles with her self-identity. The very real consequences of no home – she was unhoused several time throughout her teens and early twenties – are horrific. Worse still, Nietfeld is raped while traveling in Europe. It is terrible, adding to the many traumas she has struggled through. 

The memoir moves quickly through Nietfeld’s twenties. Nietfeld’s self-actualization, through, proves to be far from finished. There’s is no “I’ve got it all sorted out” moment, no epiphany and realization of fully realized success. Not covered in this memoir, after several years of working at Google, Nietfeld reports sexual harassment from a colleague. Google is less than fully supportive. She resigns, writes a piece for the New York Times highlighting her story (it goes viral), and Nietfeld begins another chapter in her life. That period led to the writing of this fascinating memoir.

From the perspective of an educator – and it’s unavoidable from where I read and understand this remarkable book – Nietfeld challenges oft-shared arcs of success. It is troubling and disappointing that many educational professionals failed to listen closely to Nietfeld. The rush to pigeonhole, to medicate, and to label consistently took place. This is a critical warning, a real problem for all of us pledged to the growth and development of young people. Confidence in that we know best, for we have the benefit of time and experience, is no reliable recipe for meaningful help. We may advise and prescribe without serious listening and gaining meaningful understanding. It’s understandable, with the transactional nature of so many of our interactions with those we educate and serve. That explanation, though, is not enough. Nietfeld’s growth to adulthood could have been healthier and better if she had received stronger support.

From a wider lens, Nietfeld’s journey is further evidence (if any was needed) of the power of social capital to redirect other kinds of capital. Nietfeld might have found equally good advisors and caring professors at one of the four-year colleges she was told to attend. She might have found better help. But Nietfeld’s focus and ambition told her to avoid the recommended educational path. Her ambition told her to set her expectations elsewhere. I believe that without Harvard, she never would have found a position at Google. Nietfeld would never have accessed the network of friends, acquaintances, supporters and, importantly, the high salary as a college graduate to give her life structure. An top boarding school and a Harvard education were the means of transformation. While it was far from easy and often traumatic, these institutions were essential to many of the positive changes in her life. That said, they cannot truly be identified as the cause for Nietfeld’s growth. To the extent that Nietfeld is successful, it very much seems to has come from her efforts.

By any measure, Nietfeld is an exceptional person with tremendous gifts. Her acceptance of those gifts and their realization is the other “acceptance” that frames the memoir. External validation, though Harvard and Google, are but one signs of her success. Acceptance also articulates that knowing and understanding one’s self is an even more important form of validation.

David Potash

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