“One of the gifts of being young is that particular blend of self-confidence and self-consciousness.” This is the opening line of New York Times Style Magazine writer Su Wu’s recent profile of Jaden and Willow Smith. It was a strange interview, characterized by a string of abstract questions and bizarre responses from two young celebrities who claim to have astrophysicists living in their minds. However, Wu’s opening lines seem to suggest that all young people are characterized by this odd mix of “self-confidence and self-consciousness.” I decided to put this to the test.
I chose three current campus celebrities, USG presidential candidates Ella Cheng ’16, Will Gansa ’17, and Molly Stoneman ’16, and decided to interview them using the same questions Wu uses in her profile. I never told them that I was following a specific model in my questioning, and I never explained the ambiguous or out-of-context questions. I did, however, replace the word “music” with “political work” whenever it appeared in the interview transcript.
First, a little background on the subjects of my experiment. Ella is a Woodrow Wilson School major and former intern for the U.S. State Department. Her work managing the University Student Life Committee has earned her a rousing endorsement from the Daily Princetonian Editorial Board. Molly is also a student in the Woodrow Wilson School, and she currently serves as the VP of USG. She has an impressive election website with many professional-looking portraits. Will is the wild card in this election. He has no experience in USG, and he is not apologetic about it. His website touts, “I firmly believe that I’m a candidate for president of Government Club [USG].” He refuses to speak to the Prince.
On a cold November evening, I sat down with Ella, Will, and Molly on the floor of the African Art room in the Princeton University Art Museum for their first-ever joint interview to discuss fashion, the experience of time, and waffle fries.
HN: What have you been reading?
EC: I read a lot of comics. I like to read the news a lot. I used to work for the Prince. I have this inner journalist in me still.
MS: When I’m not reading books for class, I love reading memoirs. Sonia Sotomayor’s memoirs are life changing.
WG: I have been reading Leviathan and the political writings of Rousseau.
HN: I am curious about your experience of time. Do you feel like time is moving really quickly? Is your political work one way to sort of turn it over and reflect on it?
EC: That’s a really good question…really deep. For me, I’m a New Yorker, so time passes super fast. I am always running around on my bike—it’s like a Hot Wheels bike. It has flames on it. In terms of politics, I don’t know. You are trying to influence the flow of time. It’s stop and go.
WG: Can you repeat the question?
I think my political process is pretty divorced from time.
MS: I have the Ferris Bueller quote on time hanging by my mirror. He’s talking about the monarchies of Europe. He says, “Life comes at you fast. If you don’t stop and take a look around every once in a while, it will go right by you.” I try to keep that in mind.
HN: What are some of the themes that recur in your work?
EC: For me, it’s sacrifice. There’s so much behind the scenes in politics. If you are a good leader, you have to support others, pick up the slack. That comes at a physical and mental cost. That’s really what public service is about.
WG: Can you repeat the question?
I think happiness. Just trying to make as many people as happy as I can.
MS: One common theme I see is community versus separation. At Princeton, there is pressure to fit in, to not fit in, to stand out. As public servants, how can we get people to feel part of a community while not forcing them to fit in necessarily?
HN: Do you think of your politics as a continuation of your past work?
MS: Definitely. I have been Vice President for the last year and I am really passionate about USG and making Princeton the best it can be.
WG: No, I don’t.
EC: It’s a continuation, but it’s a fresh, new page. I took this step because I think there is room for a lot of growth in USG. It’s not about the image, the fame, or the attention.
HN: How do you write? What’s your process?
EC: I used to be writer who overwrote, spilling my thoughts out on the page. Then I took philosophy here, and I learned writing is like a math proof. I tend to gravitate to that style a bit more now.
WG: What type of writing are you talking about? Expository? Fiction? I am a decisive writer. Once the sentence is the on the page, it’s going to stay there.
MS: I am all about the outline.
HN: What are you searching for in those pieced-together moments?
MS: Can you elaborate a little bit more?
HN: It’s supposed to be an open-ended question.
EC: Life is a puzzle. It’s a set of memories. When you work in politics, not everything is directly connected. The main point in life is to find the strand that connects them all.
WG: I’m sorry, could you repeat the question?
MS: I would say intersectionality and intentionality is the key to the work that we do, if that answers the question. I don’t think that things come chronologically or linearly necessarily, but if we can find the intersections where they all touch and be intentional about their intersections, that’s how I try to approach my work.
WG: I have no idea what you are asking, really.
HN: Do your collaborative relationships inspire you in different directions?
EC: My life, honestly, is collaboration. I have a twin sister, who is five minutes older than me. When you’re a twin, you don’t have any privacy in life. Your life is tied to this individual. You have to like each other.
MS: I think we grow the most from the relationships that push us out of our comfort zone. In fact, I feel most inspired by the relationships that push me to opposing views. That’s what college is all about—getting to know people with different viewpoints and pushing yourself out of the zone you thought you were. I am a very different person than when I came to college. Hopefully, we all are.
WG: If you’ve looked at my website, you’ll know that there are four central tenets to my platform. The first two, the waffle fries and the ripe fruit, are ones that I’m really pushing for. The other two [bike reform and resurrecting ICE] are ones that people I have talked to have said: we want this, we want to hear about this.
HN: How does fashion relate to what you do?
EC: What’s the name of Anne Hathaway’s character in The Devil Wears Prada?
EC: I feel like Andy. I grew up in New York, so I appreciate beautiful clothing. I view it as an art. But me myself, I’m a little lost. My mom likes J.Crew a lot. I really like art.
MS: I have learned that the secret to fashion is one nice thing and then you can be slouchy with everything else. I guess that can be expanded to say, whatever you’re doing, try to make at least one part of it really nice.
WG: I think fashion can be branding. I try to wear this jacket whenever I go to political events, and in all the videos that I’m releasing. But other than that, I don’t think fashion has any place in politics.
HN: What are the things worth having?
MS: The things worth having are intangible. If you can put your finger on it, then it’s replaceable or breakable. But intangible things—like love, happiness, humor—those are what is most worth having.
EC: Being a pragmatic person, how the intangible manifests is really in my family and my friends.
WG: Good friends. Good food. Good wine.
HN: I think you mentioned breathing earlier. Is that an idea that recurs in your political work? [No one mentioned breathing.]
EC: Absolutely. Breathing is like—you need to take time to reflect and meditate on what you’re doing. Often I think politics forgets to do that. If you look at Washington, clearly they’re just going down this train, and they just keep on going. You don’t grow if you just keep going straight along the same path. You need to have a few detours.
MS: I think especially in Student Government where projects can extend from semester to semester, you have to be constantly reevaluating and reinventing these projects. So that it’s never the same. So that we’re never staying stagnant.
WG: I can’t speak for real world politics. This is a campaign for student government, so we have plenty of time to breathe.
HN: What do you think of this statement: “The hardest education is the unlearning of things.”
EC: I think the best lessons I’ve learned in life—and the hardest ones—are when you are breaking hard habits. For me it was being too fast-paced in life, and not spending enough time investing in people. Another hard lesson I learned was putting myself first. My habit is to just always give and give to other people, but sometimes that comes at some kind of physical expense to me, my health. I’m a hard-wired New Yorker.
MS: I think the hardest education is contained in the hardest lessons. If you learn something easy and then unlearn something easy, that’s not necessarily hard.
WG: I think there are a lot of quotes circling around the web that sound nice but don’t really mean anything. I think that’s one of them.
HN: What’s next for you all?
MS: A nap.
EC: I am going to go try to talk to more people, and also run a Model UN conference simultaneously.
WG: Again, what do you mean by that? How do you want me to answer that? I’ll probably go get dinner. Hopefully there are waffle fries in the dining hall, but I’m sure there won’t be.
HN: Right on.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Postscript: I would like to acknowledge that Will Gansa was the only one to realize I was asking questions from the Wu interview. He politely waited until the interview was over to tell me, so that it would not ruin the experiment for the other participants.