Needless to say, I resisted such praise. “But I’m so cool and interesting,” I protested to my non-USG, non-Wilson School friends. “I listen to Neutral Milk Hotel and read David Foster Wallace.” These statements only confirmed their suspicions. But after a while I noticed that being called a “tool” is not inherently offensive, that the label was misapplied in my case. I was toolish because of my membership, but not necessarily because of my actions. This misrepresentation became the greater insult as I realized that there are some benefits to being toolish.
At some point in the last four years, it hit me that toolish actions — trying too hard, being fake, networking — are the flip side of activities we learned in elementary school to become socialized: being friendly, making connections, covering your bases. Many Princeton institutions actively reward these actions. It begins in our courses. Students who ask questions in lecture hall, religiously attend office hours and dominate precepts are probably more noticed than those who don’t. Forming stable relationships with professors is key to intellectual growth, but it is also a type of networking.
Outside the classroom, many extracurricular clubs also reward networking skills through the process of elections. Most clubs have elected leadership positions that require candidates to reach out to the general membership, present their platforms and convince voters to like them. Even positions that ostensibly require applications are easier to get if you know the decision-maker or have others vouching for you behind the scenes. Then there’s the most obvious example of the usefulness of “toolish” behavior: Bicker. I’m no expert since I was hosed, but it seems like doing well in the process requires being super-friendly to strangers, telling meaningless yet amusing stories about yourself and using existing contacts to meet more people.
Similarly, the recruitment and job-finding process also requires the ability to meet new people, to present oneself well and to follow up with e-mails. Networking events at the Nassau Inn may spawn derision, but they work. In exchange for dressing up and pretending to be interested in supermarket management, students get business cards and job interviews. Networking is even more necessary for industries that don’t recruit heavily on campus — i.e., public service. For these less visible sectors, it’s even more important to reach out to existing contacts and to make new ones through alumni. While submitting a resume through TigerTracks for a consulting or finance job will yield some kind of reply, submitting a resume to the federal government guarantees little.
If toolish behavior is so widely rewarded, why is the word “tool” so insulting? At Princeton, it’s easier to label people who “try too hard” by doing these things as “tools” for two reasons. First, these activities are frowned upon because they aren’t meritocratic. As Princetonians, it’s comforting to believe that some combination of hard work and talent got us to such an elite institution. We like to think that the components of a college application — high school GPA, standardized test scores, extracurricular activities and essay — all measure some level of achievement through hard work and talent. We ought to be able to rely on these skills through college and life as well. We don’t want to believe that non-meritocratic criteria like connections also play a role.
Second, “toolish” people set a higher bar for the rest of us. The many self-described introverts amongst us wince at the idea of badgering professors after class, forcefully introducing ourselves to strangers, or e-mailing unknown alumni from TigerNet. But if others do it, we do too. It’s easier just to scoff at the people who do these things so the rest of us don’t have to.
Though it’s dismaying to think that Princeton rewards toolish actions, I’ve come to terms with it by thinking of these actions as a set of skills that college teaches to prepare students for the real world. In the real world, aggressive connection-seeking and friendliness are ways to get your foot in the door. I’d rather learn these skills at Princeton now than have to read books like “Savvy Networking,” “Million-Dollar Networking,” or “Nonstop Networking” later.
Cindy Hong is a Wilson School major from Princeton. She can be reached at email@example.com.