INTERVIEW   Education advice Philosophy

Work Hard; Play Hard; Explore Hard: Justin McDaniel on College and Life

Justin McDaniel is the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Endowed Professor of the Humanities and undergraduate chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His research foci include Lao, Thai, Pali and Sanskrit literature; art and architecture; manuscript studies; and Buddhism. He also edits several journals, is currently working on the study of human flourishing, and has won both teaching and advising awards from several universities, including Penn's Ludwig Prize. He is especially regarded for innovative pedagogical methods, notably in his two iconic courses, Existential Despair and Living Deliberately. Throughout his life, he has spent considerable time abroad, including a period when he was a monk.

On Discipline and Culture  

What do you make of serendipity versus disciplined pursuit, considering how, on the one hand, you had this chance encounter of going to Asia and uncovering your passion, but in equal measure, you've also lived a monastic lifestyle and devoted whole decades to meticulous scholarship? Do you think every student needs an experience like dropping everything to explore Asia? Or is there a way to prioritize the structured element alone and consciously strive toward a specific goal?

I teach a whole course based around this very idea that liberation comes through discipline, through structure in your life. I don't mean a moral structure; I mean a physical structure in terms of what your body does at certain times and how you move your body. I believe that your body and your mind are completely connected. I don't see them as two separate realms. You create space for creativity and inspiration to happen, the ability to meet people, by being very disciplined. I mean, I think I'm fun. I hope.  

I'll give you an example from college: I absolutely despised when you'd be having a drink with a guy or just a nice conversation, and they'd be like, “Oh, I got to write this paper tonight; it’s due tomorrow. I gotta bail at eleven.” And I'd be like, “Fuck you. Get your fucking work done during the day. Don’t half-play and half-work. When you work, work. When you play, play. And get it done. Discipline yourself. Don’t procrastinate; don't say, ‘I'll do this later’; don't say, ‘Oh, I'm going to clean my room first.’ No, just do the fucking work. Treat school as a nine-to-five job. Discipline yourself, so when you're not working, you can be spontaneous.”

When I was in college, I worked more than full time, almost seventy hours a week, sometimes more, and I took six to eight classes a semester because I wanted to grow. Well, money wise, I had no money, so I graduated in two and a half years, but it was not that hard, to be honest. It really wasn't. I thought school was easy. I graduated second in my class. I was tired a lot; I was certainly tired, but I just thought, “Get the work done, and then, you can be free.” My policy was that I would talk to a professor at the beginning of, or even before, the semester. I would say, “I want to know all the work. I want to know all the syllabus. I want to know everything and when it's due.” And they’d give it to me. This was before the internet, but they could just give a paper syllabus.

I would get the entire work done for the course within the first three weeks. I would start a couple weeks early, get all the reading done and take meticulous notes, never a highlight, underline, anything. You write notes, so you don't have to read it twice. You summarize it, putting it in your own words. You write all the papers, everything. I do not believe in due dates. If I had work to do, I'd get it done. I didn't care what the due date was; I'd get it done immediately. That way, I could allow myself to be spontaneous. If I met somebody really interesting, I could drop everything because I was already done with my work. If I got an interesting opportunity to talk to someone or an interesting opportunity to go on a trip or something like that, I could take advantage of it because I had nothing hanging over my head.

I firmly believe in that disciplined approach. What happens is that people get behind or they allow other people's deadlines or rule to dictate their life. I, as much as humanly possible, control my time. And that way, I feel I can be serendipitous; I can be spontaneous. And I can be spontaneous without guilt. It's not a choice of being disciplined or spontaneous. I simply work ahead. So, it's not hard. It actually makes life a whole lot easier. It’s like Ben Franklin said, “Why leave for tomorrow what you can do today?” And I have to credit my father with that. He just said you had to work. And it wasn't about school. My parents did not expect me to go to college; they were shocked when I went. This was not about success. It wasn't about any of these things. It was simply about the way you conduct your life. If you had a sudden chance, an opportunity, you could take it, and that was a beautiful lesson I learned all the time, and I really, really value that. It's not like my parents were successful; they weren't. But they believed, “Be ready for anything to happen. Be ready for any opportunity.” And the only way you can do that is if you don't have work hanging over your head, if you discipline yourself every day.

Or it's like with food: I'm pretty disciplined with food, but if somebody comes to me like with an amazing cheese steak for free, I can eat it. I get invited to go a restaurant, and they have this amazing dessert. Well, I don't feel any guilt. I hate when people half-do things. I hate when they half-order in a restaurant or half-drink wine, or half-work or half-play. Do all of it, but be regulated in it, so you can really enjoy it. I love when I meet a person who just simply loves to eat and drink or simply loves to laugh or loves to spontaneously go to a show or things like that, and most people I find that can do that seem so free, seem so light-hearted because they're disciplined during work time.

Monastic life is like that. Monastic life is extremely disciplined. I was in a very orthopraxic sect, and you create this physical discipline, temporal discipline so that your mind can be free. You have space to think because you're not spending your time making decisions; you're not spending your time wondering, “Should I do this or do that?” There’s no question what you do. You physically have to sweep at a certain time; you have to clean at a certain time; you have to chant at a certain time; you have to work on repairing the monastery or conduct a ritual at a certain time. There's no choice. And that way, you take away those little decisions that people make every day, so your mind is free to deal with the big things, those intellectual conundrums, those emotional struggles, those things that are hard to work through and understand. Your brain is freed up to do that. And I love that about monastic life.

Do you think there’s a cultural difference there? You’ve mentioned, for instance, that most Thai men become monks for portions of their lives. Is that sort of shared expectation maybe what we've lost—or never had—in America? Or is it more transcultural in reality, like you discuss regarding your parents.

I think it's transcultural. You have monastic life in all cultures. But I would love the United States to have mandatory social service like Korea or Switzerland, places where you have to serve the public for three years of your life when you're young. I think that's great. Or for example, in Thailand, all dental students have to work with the rural poor for three years before they can start any private practice. The dental school is free, but if dental school is free, that means you have to work in areas you don't want to work in; you're not going to make a lot of money; you serve people who can't afford dental care before you start a private practice. Imagine if we had that for every medical student. Imagine if we had that for every engineer. That would be wonderful. I don't think that'll ever happen in the US, but I love that. College would be affordable then; you wouldn't have these backbreaking tuition charges.

What I find strange is when a child is told by parents, “Just work, and get good grades. That’s your job.” You’re never told why or never asked to question. It’s just work for the sake of work. What are the benefits of that? Most adults that I encountered growing up were poor, but I still wanted to be an adult. They looked like they had fun. They loved their families, and they hung out at bars on Friday nights, and they went to the racetrack and led happy lives. Yeah, there’s sadness, and people got sick, and people struggle with bills and everything, but this idea that success comes with wealth and prestige and with fancy titles and impressive things to say at college or high school reunions, success for the sake of success or status for the sake of status or work for the sake of work, I didn't see that growing up. But I see it now with my college students and meeting their parents and talking to them.

Students don't know why they wanted to go to Penn or one of these elite schools; they don't know why they were working so hard. Just getting into the school was the end in itself. And then, you get here, and you can't actually enjoy it because the next thing is to get the internship or to get into the professional school. It's just the next step. You're always working and not actually questioning, “Should I be taking these steps? Should I be on these stairs? Is there another path? Do I really need to go to the second floor?”

But I find the most interesting people, every step of the way, maintain that kind of awareness and a healthy self-contempt, asking, “Why am I doing this? Who am I helping? Who am I serving? Who am I edifying? Who am I inspiring? And how am I using my success to spread the wealth and help people who haven't had the opportunities that I've had?”

When it's just profit for the sake of profit, degrees for the sake of different degrees, it all seems like we're trying to impress people for no reason. We have all these expectations on us, but many of us realize, “People didn’t actually give me these expectations. I just have this vague sense of not wanting to disappoint everyone.” And that frustrates me because I find, once you're on the success train or the status train, it's very, very hard to get off. I find so many students right after graduation struggle because they don't have a perfect plan. And that upsets me because, in a sense, it's almost too late. They feel like they're a constant disappointment because they didn't stay on that train. And I like to congratulate them when they get off that train or question it. I find that that people who do question it end up being the ones that are most successful, the most happy, the most aware, long-term.

On Insight and Connection

How do you approach looking at Southeast Asia both as a scholar, with certain analytical distance, and as having been a part of the culture, with intimate personal experience? Is there a distance at all, or is that merely a construct?

I always feel like every time I think I know something, I realize all the things I don't know. I'm always, “How did I not know that? How have I spent so many years doing this? But that's kind of great too because it makes life more interesting. Life's not about getting to the end of things; it's about the process of doing things. And most great musicians, artists, chefs and dancers, they're not satisfied; they don't want to get to the end of cooking or the end of music or the end of art. They want to always be challenged and realize what they don't know.

I wouldn’t like myself very much if I sat down and said, “You know what, I really know Burma. And so, I'm good with Burma now.” I want to be continually surprised by Burmese history or Thai history or Thai culture. I hope never to get to get to the end of it. And then, the second you say you know something, you realize there's so many other places. Like I've never been to Peru. I really want to go to Peru and Chile. I have no idea why. There's a whole area of the world I just don't know. I'm going to Ethiopia next year. I've been studying Ethiopian monasticism for a long time, and I can actually meet the Ethiopian community in Philadelphia through my children and work I do, but I feel like, no matter how much I study, I don't really know it. So I'm really, really excited, and that gets you up in the morning.

But you don't have to travel abroad. It could be that I don't really know Kierkegaard—well, Kierkegaard’s one of my things—but I really don't know Wittgenstein. I've read it; I think I understand the gist, but I haven’t really dived in. That would be, for me, like another culture. That's another country. That's an intellectual process that I want to go through and take seriously. I feel that way right now with Zadie Smith. I've resisted reading Zadie Smith for years because she's just so fucking popular. And I just have this resistance like, “Well, everybody likes it. Everybody's boring. I'm not going to read it because everybody likes it.” Well, I'm reading Zadie Smith now, and I'm an idiot. It's been awesome. It’s like somebody saying, “I don't like candy because everybody likes candy.” Eat some fucking candy! Candy’s awesome.

And there's so few people into intellectual projects. My best friend introduced me recently to this conceptual artist in Mexico, never heard of her, didn't know anything about her. I have to say I've spent three months studying this artist. And it has been so enlightening. I just can't believe the whole realm of ways of thinking about art and physicality that I've never known, and I'm loving it. You don't need to travel. You don't need to have a lot of money. You don't need to have access to enlighten your mind or at least entertain yourself. I think the Penn library system is like 7.2 billion books or something ridiculous, some huge number of books. It has 111 libraries, twelve or thirteen museums.

But I met a senior who’s never been in Van Pelt library. I've met many seniors who have never been to the archeology and anthropology museum, who have never been in the Arthur Ross gallery, who have never been in the ICA. For God's sake, the ICA on Penn's campus is where Warhol had his first show. It's an amazing museum, and it's on campus. And so many students I've met have not seen a show. They should be seeing every single show there. It only takes an hour, every two months, to go in to see an exhibition there. And it's free. You pay for tuition; I just can't believe it. And all of the great shows, and that's just on campus. I mean, Philadelphia's this amazing, dynamic cultural city, and I'm shocked how you have students who know some interesting, creative sushi place or one bar or something that every lame-ass goes to, and they won't know about all the museums, all the venues. You don't know certain streets; you've not studied the architecture of the city. You don't need money to do this. The vast majority of things are student discounts or free. Or just take a fucking walk, and read a little bit about what streets you're on.

This idea that a student would ever be bored or a human being would ever be bored is just maddening to me. There's life teeming around us. Go out, and find it. It doesn't have to be another culture. It doesn't have to be another country. It doesn't have to be backpacking through Europe or going on a safari in Tanzania. It can be a book. And I know that sounds lame and cheesy like, “Books expand your mind. Take a journey with a book.” But I firmly believe that.

There’s Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, Morrison’s Beloved, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Bolaño’s 2666. I spent basically a year on that book. For me, that would be the equivalent, in many ways, of a semester abroad—a semester with that book.

You’ve talked a lot about attitudinal qualities that you gained from your time as a monk, but is there any other practical wisdom you acquired that guides your life? How do you think about that period, and to what extent has it changed you?

There are a lot of things, probably stuff I don't even realize. My entire time in Asia had an impact. I was there for several years, as a monk and not. I was a volunteer teacher and traveled and did lots of other things. But I would say mediation is important. I mean to be really disciplined and undertake serious meditation. It can be ten, fifteen minutes a day; it doesn't have to be an hour, two hours, whatever, once you develop an access into meditation. There are so many things, but with meditation, if you get to a level of it, you get easy-access meditation, meaning you can go into it whether you're on a bus or walking and things like that, just like exercise. I consider meditation like physical exercise. I think they're very, very similar. It's muscle memory in many ways. I couldn't go out and run a marathon tomorrow. But if I trained over a couple of years and slowly built up to it, then I could. Even if I didn't run the marathon, that wouldn't matter. If I had to run to catch a bus or run across town and help my child or something like that, I could just start running. With meditation, you get to a certain comfortability with it, and you can access it, and that helps. I learned that, and I really appreciate that.

But more importantly, I think you learn this kind of physical humility. You are disciplining your body, wearing robes, shaving your head, and all of those things. That physical discipline allows you to help others. I'm very uniformed in my dress. I've had the same haircut for twenty some years. I buy the same types of shoes. For me, it frees up my time. I've taken care of the physical things. I do these physical routines, shower at the same time, dress in the same way, and that allows, I hope, to free up more time to make bigger decisions like I was talking about before. That I certainly learned from monastic life: don't discount the physical. A lot of people think, “Oh, it's not deep if you're not in deep thought.” No, start with your body first, and your mind will follow. And I didn't know that before. And I really do appreciate that.

Speaking of inspiration, do you have any idea about your next innovative course? You created the monk class and “Existential Despair.” Is there a third trick up your sleeve? Or is that proprietary information…?

I do. I do actually. I'm not going to talk about it now. It's still in the lab, in my mental lab, but I do have something coming up. But I'm looking to start a program, not a class, but it would be something that would be both off campus and on campus, meaning the larger Philadelphia community and the campus community. I've done this before, at a smaller scale, about twelve to fourteen people at my house, but not largely with students. I'm thinking of having a monthly read-a-thon, like a monthly salon that would take place in a larger venue somewhere on campus. The public would be invited, and we would all come together—I'm talking like two hundred people, so something bigger—and we would all collectively read something and then have these breakout groups and maybe invite the author. We would read a whole book cover to cover like in “Existential Despair,” but it would be for the community.

We could have creative conversations, but not around issues. What I find is that we have plenty of venues—and we should—for social and scientific issues, worries about the future, pandemics, social justice, racial equality, women's health, access to health. All of these are hugely important issues, and we have a lot of forums for them. I find we don't often have the forums for reflecting on more foundational, existential issues around things like loneliness and despair and indecision and procrastination and betrayal and the way we love and relationships and the very idea of children or of growing old, the thing that every human shares, whatever culture. These are existential issues that I think fiction and poetry and art and music have given us access to.

I would love a night like that. I’m designing it; I'm talking to people. We would have one song, one piece of art, one piece of fiction, one kind of film, and it would be a night where we would try to integrate them and discuss them, and we'd have different ages. I find that students only speak to other eighteen- to nineteen- to twenty-year-olds. What are you going to learn if you're only speaking to people your age who have the same social status and similar goals, meaning they want to be professionals of something? So people of different ages and people of different backgrounds and opportunities would be really awesome. I don't know if I'll be able to pull it off, and it's going to take some time, but that's what I'm designing right now.

I went to a show one time that started at midnight and ended at six in the morning. It was this amazing night of music, where people dressed in PJs at a grand opera hall. It was really inspiring to be in a joint project together, and I'd like to do something that takes us out of our routine a little bit—but in a disciplined space that has parameters and use that discipline, like I said before, to allow spontaneity and creativity to happen. That’s what I’m looking for.


Live deliberately

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