Princeton University, 1995, B.A., Religion and East Asian Studies
University of Oxford, 1998, M.A., Politics and Philosophy
Matthew Polly, the eldest of two children of a doctor and a homemaker, grew up in Topeka, Kansas. After his junior year at Princeton, he dropped out to study kung fu with the famous Shaolin monks in rural China for two years. He has documented his experience in his recently released book called American Shaolin. He has also written articles for Esquire, The Nation, Playboy, Publisher’s Weekly, and Slate. He’s currently looking for suggestions on a career that doesn’t involve any work.
The following interview was conducted by email.
Q. Obviously, you’re intelligent, but what drove you to do more, or excel when you were a teenager?
This is an emotionally difficult question to answer. To be honest, I grew up in a small town in Kansas and it was made very clear to me from an early age that I didn’t really fit in. Doing well academically was my ticket out. I wanted to find a place where I’d be accepted. I think it is the reason a lot of young people leave small towns for the big cities.
Q. What values did you have growing up?
I grew up in a very conservative, achievement-oriented family. If I accomplished something, then the family had accomplished something. If I failed, then the family had failed. I love my parents and I always wanted them to be proud of me.
Q. Did your parents have any bit of wisdom that they tried to instill in you all through the years?
A good reputation is hard to earn but easily lost.
Q. One would think that with your parents being very conservative and achievement-oriented, they wouldn’t have let you drop out of Princeton. Why were they supportive of your idea, which at the time probably seemed “crazy”?
They weren’t supportive for obvious reasons. If they could have stopped me they would have. But I was determined to go to China. It was the best decision I ever made.
Q. Who, or what were big influences in your life and why?
The biggest influence in my life was my AP English teacher, Mrs. Bakalar. She took me aside my junior year in high school and said, “My father was a teacher and had one Rhodes Scholar as a student. You will be my Rhodes Scholar.” I didn’t know what a Rhodes Scholar was. I had to go to the local library to look it up. But no one had ever believed in me like she did. So it became my mission to fulfill her dream for me.
Q. Did you have any role models growing up? How about now?
I wanted to be Bill Bradley. Now, I wouldn’t mind Sam Shepard’s life.
Q. Looking back, what do you think made you stand apart from your peers?
Honestly, I don’t know. But I think there was a drive, determination, and willpower that marked me out. I had a purpose. And I have found that if you have a clear purpose, the universe tends to bend to your goal, assuming it is reasonable and not outside your reach.
Q. All the qualities the Rhodes selection committee looks for, “offers the promise of effective service to the world in the decades ahead”. What does that mean to you?
To me, it means finding where your talent lies and applying that to the broader world. In my case, my skills are observation and storytelling. I’ve tried those skills to writing about politics and other countries.
Q. Clearly, by the time you graduated from college and won the Rhodes, you had accomplished more than the average person. So what would you say to anyone, young, or old, who would like to go beyond a mediocre life and lead a rich, fulfilling life, not just a contented, conventional one?
I think it comes down to identifying what you are passionate about and being willing to risk failing at it.
Q. What are you most proud of?
That I finally sat down and wrote the book I’d always talked about writing but put off for years.
Q. What do you currently do and what are the three things you like about it?
I am currently a writer living in New York. First, I love the city. It has a tremendous energy that is created by all the people who have come here to try to fulfill their dreams. Second, my job is to tell people what I think about things in as entertaining a way as possible. And it is a real pleasure to be paid to explore one’s innermost thoughts. Third, I simply love the process of writing because it is so frightening. You face a blank page and have to create something from nothing. It is the closest a man can ever get to giving birth. I think about quitting all the time, but the thrill of the process always draws me back.