The American Idol Audition, Ph.D. Dissertation Defense, and the Human Longing for Quest

Unknown-2My favorite part of American Idol is the first few weeks. The Idol Machine travels around the country and people come out by the thousands to stand before the judges and sing their heart out. The goal is the get the coveted yellow piece of paper and to be told “Your going to Hollywood.” As I watched the show these past few weeks (yes, I admit it), it dawned on me that there are a lot of similarities between an American Idol audition and a Ph.D. defense. I’ve been through one, and I’ve watched the other for a while now. As I watch Idol, a funny thing happens to me, I find emotions reminiscent of the day when I defended my dissertation arise within the contestants and sometimes within me. The audition and the defense are of the same piece:

Success on that day requires years of training, study, and work. Except in rare cases, one does not show up at an Idol audition and “wing it.” Those who make it to Hollywood have honed their craft over a lifetime, preparing for the moment when they can step up and show their skill, talent, and originality as a singer. Obviously, this is the case with someone who walks into a dissertation defense. To make it to that day requires perseverance, hard work, ingenuity, and some chutzpah.

Cultivating one’s craft over years doesn’t guarantee success. For starters, one has to perform well in the audition—if one chokes, starts on a bad note, becomes intimidated by the “star power” of the panel, or just acts goofy (“pants on the ground”) during the big moment, all is lost. The same is true of the dissertation defense. There is no guarantee that one will succeed. It is possible to become intimidated by the judges (read: dissertation committee—mine had “star power”) and one may simply fail to defend his or her thesis. If so, the committee will have a hard time passing him through to “Ph.D. land.”

Making it to Hollywood is only the first step of an uncertain and difficult road. Making it to Hollywood is a long way from making it to the final 24, or to becoming THE AMERICAN IDOL. Further, when one makes it to Hollywood, he or she just joins the crowd of others who have as well. Now they are competing with each other. So, imagine you make it through. The reality is there are others who are better singers than you, who look better than you, have a better pedigree than you, and are cooler (or more bizarre) than you. Likewise, if you pass your dissertation defense, there is no guarantee that you’ll ever land a job in the academy. For suddenly there are hundreds of other newly minted Ph.D.’s who have made it through as well and are now “competing” for those few teaching positions. (See this article where Ph.D.’s are working at McDonald’s to make a living because full-time teaching jobs are hard to come by).

This all makes me wonder. Why does anyone do it? That is, why does anyone try to be the next American Idol? Why does anyone get a Ph.D.? The chances of making it to Hollywood, much less making it far in the show are so small, that it defies logic to even try. The chances of successfully earning a Ph.D. are small, and once completed, there is no guarantee of that you’ll be gainfully employed as one. The road is unclear, the end result uncertain, and the only promise is that there will be many trials and tribulations along with way.

I think that folks try out for American Idol, even as the chances are slim that they’ll have success, for the same reason I began the process of pursuing a Ph.D. Passion. For me,  (I think for all of us, until we mute it) there is (as Aristotle put it) an innate sense of wonder. I want to understand the truth about God, the world, and the self. And philosophy is a great way to explore these topics. I am intrinsically motivated to read philosophy, to write philosophy, and to teach philosophy. I’d do it even if I didn’t get paid for it, because I love it. I think this is why people try out for American Idol. They love to sing—singing moves them—and they can’t help but enter the quest.

I also think there is more going on below the surface. We long to live lives bigger than ourselves. We long to live an adventure, to embark on a quest that pulls us out of ourselves and into a wider world of opportunity, risk, and reward. This is what drives people to try out for American Idol. It is what drove me to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy. I think, deep down, we all have this sense that we are part of a bigger story and we long to find our place in that story. Of course, all this begs a question: is there a bigger story in which to locate our life? For those familiar with my blog you will not be surprised when I say “Yes.” There is the great story of God—the true story of the world where God bids us to discover all that He has for us and all that He has created for us to be and do as we follow Him. What are you waiting for? The adventure is yours for the taking….














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