Beyond the Tyranny of Should. By Jennifer Robinson (Australia-at-Large & Balliol 2006) and Katharine Wilkinson (Tennessee & Trinity 2006)

This article first appeared in the recently published Rhodes book Fighting the World's Fights and was inspired by a talk at the 30th anniversary of Rhodes Women. It is being published here with permission from the authors and the Rhodes Trust. 


In 1977, twenty-four women arrived in Oxford as the first female Rhodes Scholars. In the spring of 2008, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of that event with a global, cross-generational gathering of Scholars at Rhodes House. For many of us in residence at the time, the highlight was a talk by Karen Stevenson (Maryland/DC & Magdalen 1979). In a space so often marked by efforts to impress, posture, upstage, Karen shared her own story with authenticity and vulnerability. She spoke openly about the taboo topic of coming unhinged at Oxford – and about finding a critical community of support amongst Rhodes women.

Over seven years later, many details of her talk have become hazy. But the feeling in the Beit Room that day remains palpable, as does Karen’s crystallization of an experience we, as Scholars, were watching unfold around us, if not encountering ourselves: “unhinging.” Unhinging is decidedly not included in scholarly criteria laid out in Cecil Rhodes’ will. It is decidedly not depicted in portraits adorning the walls of Milner Hall, nor is it catalogued in class letters. And how in the world can anyone coming unhinged “fight the world’s fight”? Yet, for many Scholars, it’s a defining element of the Rhodes experience and, as we have learned since, one of the most critical elements in discovering how we might each fight a good fight in our own way.

What is that unhinging all about? We can only speak with confidence about the stories we know well: our own and those of our close community of Rhodes women, specifically Jeni Whalen (Australia-at-Large & Balliol 2005) and Alex Conliffe (Quebec & Hertford 2004). So that’s our dataset, and we’ll use it to tease out the insights we’ve uncovered through explorations in and with that community – insights that are, necessarily, still emerging and far from definitive.

Let’s be honest, most Rhodes Scholars are really, truly excellent box-tickers. Throughout adolescence and as undergraduates, we diligently, passionately, meet and exceed the expectations of our elders and institutions – wowing teachers of all subjects, setting high water marks for our coaches and instructors, impressing anyone excited by excellence, amassing accolades and awards. Indeed, identifying and excelling at ticking boxes of “success” paves the way to the Rhodes.

We arrive at Oxford, then, having perfected the art of should, and often keenly attuned to the shoulds that can feel bound up with the Scholarship itself: to live up to the potential perceived in us, to pursue a path that befits a Rhodes Scholar, to “fight the world’s fight” in some terribly (and conventionally) impressive way. McKinsey. Google. Yale Law. Prestigious government jobs. Even as Scholars are transitioning to Oxford, they’re already wrestling with the transition beyond the dreaming spires. And deploying should against one another, assessing one another’s notions and choices, can become all too regular a pastime.

As Katharine described in The American Oxonian during our second year: “As we squeeze out of Oxford rich and wonderful experiences, we are haunted by anxiety about what comes afterwards. […] For a group of people who, in many ways, have gotten where they are by seeking to please and have received the constant confirmation that comes along with being a pleaser, the real challenge is being our own evaluators and finding our own sources of satisfaction.” It is no small task to discern a sense of direction and purpose in what Mary Oliver has called our one wild and precious life, and that challenge is only intensified when should looms so large. Too often it blurs our vision, rather than sharpening it, and hems us in, rather than fostering exploration of richer paths.

For our band of Rhodes women, our wrestling with Oxford-and-beyond came in waves – as did the unhinging that accompanied it. For Katharine, it started with transitioning out of an ill-suited MSc and into a deeply enriching DPhil, despite American academic mentors urging that she pursue a “real PhD” in the U.S. Jen, on the other hand, recalls that it started during the DPhil:

I came to Oxford as a lawyer with a passion for human rights and casework that effects tangible change. But after completing the BCL and MPhil, I found my clarity of professional direction muddied. “Of course you should do the DPhil!” people I respect and admire told me with conviction. The world’s top international law academic, my supervisor, assured funding. And the title of “Dr.” was alluring. As a Rhodes Scholar, why wouldn’t I go for the highest academic credential? Of course I should.

But it was a recipe for unhappiness – and then depression. Ultimately, I quit. People told me I shouldn’t “cop out,” I should just buckle down and do it. But after much reflection, I realized the true cop out was staying at Oxford and opting for the path of should. The alternative should of big, prominent law firms was safe and recommended. But I let myself be drawn by the truth of my passion to a small firm where I could do the work I love. And I went from languishing to thriving.

This change of course was hugely victorious for Jen – for her sense of aliveness and her ability to contribute to the world. It opened up a set of professional opportunities she could never have imagined. But while Jen’s work was hitting the front page of the New York Times, hidden behind the headlines was the group of confidants that enabled her to shed a debilitating should.

The four of us are now scattered across three continents and four countries, but somehow continue to gather, once or twice a year. Amidst cocktails and long meals and storytelling, continued exploration of our post-Oxford paths remains a central focus. We have all had our experiences of hitting a dead end of one kind or another – in consulting, in government, in academia – of finding ourselves in roles or ecosystems that we had chosen but ultimately found stunting or even soul crushing. We have all experienced our own unhinging, our confidence deeply knocked and a sense of ourselves as dreamers and doers thrown off kilter.

We have navigated unhinging with one another’s help and support. Our little community provides encouragement to counter the malaise we sometimes find ourselves in and creates space to dream anew. Perhaps most importantly, we remind each other of our authentic selves – the selves our dearest friends see with clarity – and reaffirm the value of being guided by authenticity, rather than the familiar pull of should. This ritual has created a powerful bond between us, and it’s also helped each of us find our way, and continually re-define it.

Katharine, for instance, took a leave of absence from strategy consulting to take an academic book on the road – a seeming detour that helped her realize the necessity of shifting to a professional space where big questions of why take precedence over what and how. Jen also recalls a second critical inflection point, with matters of authenticity at its core:

Just three years after leaving the DPhil behind and beginning legal practice, an unexpected opportunity arose: creating a global program to support emerging human rights lawyers. It would mean another significant rerouting – a very different role at a little-known foundation – and again mentors counseled me to stay put and stay the course. Feeling beaten down by the stress of my work, this should seemed both reasonable and appealingly straightforward.

But Alex, Jeni, and Katharine helped me re-evaluate again amidst new circumstances and to trust my instincts. With their support, I came to see that the law firm job that once excited and sustained me was now limiting, making me deeply unhappy. Beyond titles and conventional trajectories, I gained clarity about the content of this new role and its potential for impact on social justice – both profoundly aligned with who I am and what I believe. Why be one human rights lawyer when you can facilitate so many more?

Jen now spends her days with brave, like-minded young lawyers and their allies, supporting their bold and important work around the world. Much to her surprise, her greatest contribution to “fighting the world’s fight” has not been fighting cases herself, but creating opportunities for so many others to do so.

All four of us are on paths different to those we chose out of Oxford. The journey most definitely continues, but we feel more aligned with true north. We have found our way into roles and ecosystems that allow us to be our more authentic selves, play more to our strengths, and thus make more significant contributions. Getting to this place has had everything to do with the community of reflection and support we share.

For Karen Stevenson, for the four of us, and for so many others, the Rhodes experience sparks a lifelong journey – a journey of navigating away from should and towards authentic choices that allow our true selves to thrive and give. There is no obvious or clear answer on this journey and no path that will resolve the questions. Heeding Rilke’s advice, we can, instead, love the questions themselves, and live them. The Scholarship opens an incredible opportunity to embrace uncertainty, to take risks, to test, tumble, and try again, uncovering insights – often unexpected – along the way.

In this spirit, we reimagine “fighting the world’s fight.” Instead of a dictate – another should – to strive towards, quarrel with, or rebel from, what if we approach this call with a deep sense of curiosity? We might begin to see it as an invitation to explore the intersections where, in Frederick Buechner’s words, our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need – where we can bring the best of ourselves to bear on work that matters. We might begin to see it as a call to support one another in exploration and evolution, rather than a bar by which we can evaluate and should one another.  

Remembering that spring afternoon in the Beit Room, we share Karen’s deep appreciation for sustaining relationships among Rhodes women, especially when the road gets rocky. We also know now what we didn’t realize then: there is an unlikely beauty in the unhinging. It injects rich data into our continual process of learning and listening to the lives that want to be, of bringing who we are and what we do, our inner worlds and worldly work, into alignment. It’s amidst unhinging that we may hear the powerful inner call of must and move beyond the tyranny of should.