The Power of Institutions
Whether we like them or not, institutions are here to stay. Although there are definitely times throughout history where tearing down the old and building something new paid off, for most of us, most of the time, it‘s most efficient to work within their confines rather than try to break free.
In the past year, I‘ve struggled to cobble together an unconventional year abroad outside of UChicago‘s institutional norms. This, and other challenges have provided some useful lessons for best navigating the world‘s institutions whatever your goals may be.
1. Institutions are like bee hives
They have an established leadership structure, and are great at accomplishing their single focused goal. This also means that they are not as good at things outside of their norm. Like bee hives, all their resources are directed at accomplish that task, which might take shape in different ways, for example a career advancement office, a study abroad office, etc., but all leading back to the goal of life-long education. Whenever the structure doesn’t recognize a new aspect, even if it fits into this goal, it can easily get lost or ignored in the shuffle.
2. Define your goals first, then fit them into the mold
Don‘t let the mold define your goals. While perhaps obvious, it‘s easy to fall into the trap of looking at what‘s popular and choosing from that. Many things are popular because of they are the best at what they offer, but equally many things are popular only because they are what most people buy, wear, or subscribe to. If you want to lead a fulfilling and exciting life, it’s probably best to have a better reason for what you do than that it was the popular choice. Of course, sometimes what you actually want will align with the common preference, and that’s fine, just try to pick your own objectives first.
3. Individual people will always be the most important players.
While institutions themselves tend to not be very flexible, individuals can bend the rules in their own individual regions of the group. If you get enough people to do this, suddenly you‘re a lot closer to where you want to be. If you’d like, think about it the way airlines tend to view seating-a tiny change across many repetitions can yield to a whole extra row of seats, or in this case, the space to pursue your true passion and goals.
While this is not meant to be an exhaustive list, these adaptations should be enough to get you well on your way to making institutions work for you, instead of them making you conform to their often narrow standards. If utilized properly, institutions can be one of the most valuable resources in life, and I wish you all the best of luck interacting with them.
Photo is of the North entrance to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, one of the largest museums of its kind in the world. Went there on a class excursion last year to analyze their representations of food in cultures throughout history.