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What Princeton students can learn from Russian folklore

<h6>Courtesy of Gabbie Acot</h6>
Courtesy of Gabbie Acot

Princeton students are constantly planning ahead, and for good reason: society rewards those with foresight. In many ways resume-building hinges on one’s ability to recognize how actions taken today can contribute to a successful tomorrow. Students investigate summer opportunities during fall semester as applications for competitive summer internships are often due months in advance. Undergraduates interested in health professions are encouraged to enroll in classes that cover subjects tested on the MCAT as early as freshman year.

The University provides a wide range of resources to assist students in organizing their futures. The McGraw Center’s semester on a page makes it easy for students to anticipate major deadlines, while the student-designed website TigerPath enables students to construct an outline of their entire Princeton academic career. Students who take full advantage of these resources are applauded. At Princeton, fortune seemingly favors those with foresight.


Russian folklore tells a different story. A recent assignment in my Russian for Heritage Speakers course gave me cause to revisit the fairytale “As the Pike Orders.” According to the famous folktale, Emelian is a lazy, unambitious peasant who spends all day lying on the pechka, a traditional Russian heating stove. When his two older brothers go to the market one day, their wives persuade Emelian to fetch water from the frozen river.

After chopping a hole in the ice, Emelian discovers a pike swimming just below the water’s surface and catches it with his bare hands. The pike, which happens to be magic, promises that it will grant Emelian’s every wish if he sets it free. Emelian agrees to the bargain and is instructed to say a magic phrase whenever he desires something. Instead of asking for incredible wealth, power, or success, his first command is for the water buckets he filled to walk themselves home. Emelian’s wishes remain equally mundane until, after a series of misadventures, he becomes tsar.

Unlike Princeton students, Emelian’s success cannot be attributed to ambition or foresight. He achieves success, in fact, because he lacks those traits. Emelian is a fool, a character type popular in Russian folklore and literature. As the Russian saying goes, “fools are lucky” or, in other words, fortune favors “fools.”

I am not suggesting that laziness and lack of ambition lead to success. I do, however, fear that constant planning for the future hampers our ability to enjoy the present. I entered the University this August with the goal of living each day of my undergraduate experience to the fullest. Instead, the realities of university life have shifted my attention to the future.

As a first-year, I have been repeatedly reminded to plan ahead. Upperclass students and professors have stressed the importance of studying far in advance for midterms. Academic advisors have emphasized the significance of considering general education requirements in long-term course scheduling. Summer programming highlighted the importance of parallel planning to keep doors to different concentrations open, despite the overarching message that selecting a concentration is not a pressing concern for A.B. students. It is difficult to savor the present in an environment saturated with talk about the future.

As a Princeton student, I have fallen into the foresight trap. When I am not ahead, I feel behind. The Princeton community’s unceasing reminders to prioritize the future make this feeling difficult to overcome. As the semester comes into full swing, each of us must remember that the present is more than a vehicle for shaping our futures. As Russian folklore suggests, the most forward-looking individuals are not necessarily the ones who will catch the magic pike. Sometimes taking a few hours to sleep on the proverbial stove is just as important as scheduling an appointment at the Center for Career Development or reviewing that challenging p-set problem. After all, it is impossible to become the person you want to be in the future without taking the time to value yourself in the present. Life-changing “pike” moments often occur not when we are planning for the future, but when we are savoring the now.


I have heard from many former students that they under-appreciated their undergraduate experience while they were living it. Only a lucky few look back at their time at the University and do not wish that they had spent just a little bit more time savoring the experience. Even at Princeton, fortune favors “fools.”

Genrietta Churbanova is a first-year from Little Rock, Ark. She can be reached at geaac@princeton.edu.

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