On Reputation and Self-Deception

“Just be yourself!” — Advice given to me before my first day of college. It’s hard to find, but deep within the scope of this maxim lies a necessary and urgent prerequisite, which I’ll detail after some background about my story.

Reputation might have been the single most forceful motivator in my life entering college. It’s almost debilitating. Even as I write this essay, there is this lingering fear of being judged on my thoughts that somehow grips my hand and prevents me from typing further. As difficult as that is to admit, it was nowhere near as hard as letting go of a version of myself built from idealization and self-deception. In high school, it was all about appearance — who had the best clothes, car, hairstyle, physique. In college, it’s been all about experience — who knew the most, who had the most talents, sharpest wit. I was sure it was going to be me sitting at the top of every pedestal. Since allowing myself to get swept up by the current of superficiality was what made high school so unbearably difficult, there was no way I would make the same mistake. Right? Wrong.

As a transfer student who spent two years at Arizona State University and two years here at UNC, it’s almost alarming how clear the divide between who I was then and who I am now appears. In almost every decision I was faced with, I chose in accordance with what I thought I should want rather than what I actually wanted. When it came time to pick a major, I circled ‘chemical engineering.’ Why? Not because I have any passion or experience in the area, but because it was one of the more difficult majors ASU offered. I thought it would make me respected in the eyes of my peers, professors and family members. Philosophy, psychology, English — topics which have lots of intuitive theory associated with them have come relatively easy for me. You can’t intuit your way through a chemical engineering degree. As much as I wanted to continue to be the self-reliant person I was throughout high school and in lots of classes in college, I was forced to make a choice. Give up the reputation of being the brilliant, know-it-all, or fail.

After succeeding in exactly the opposite of what I thought would happen from idealizing myself and trying to prop up a reputation on a bed of air, I ended up in UNC. Toward the end of my fall semester organic chemistry class, as the professor clicked ‘X’ out of the last lecture he presented, he stepped in front of his desk and asked the class “does anyone know why we go to college?” Someone yelled out “to acquire a taste for coffee!” He lightheartedly corrected them by saying “no, there are two criteria that make up a person in his or her path toward marking their place in this world: discovering what you like to do, and discovering what you are good at. By the end of college, hopefully those two things converge.”

This is the idea of letting my internal compass guide the decisions I make throughout my life. I do not believe in a deterministic view that all my choices are already mapped out for me, and that I just float through life wherever the wind blows. If even my choices are predestined, well then I have nothing to be blamed for. Instead, I believe at the very essence of my being is control over my attitude in response to my circumstances. But during my time at ASU, I struggled with making both trivial and substantial decisions. Instead of having my inner compass to guide me toward a decision that would leave me happy, I let the expectations that built up around me do that instead.

So what’s the necessary prerequisite I learned to truly being myself? Letting go of who I thought I wanted to be in order to embrace who I really am. That’s the only way I can act in accordance with my beliefs. I may not be accepted or admired by everyone, but those who do choose to embrace the real ‘me’ will love me for it. My time in college has taught me what really not caring what other people think of me meant. It means to not let the opinions, perceptions and expectations of others change who I believe I am, but instead embrace their opinions as a natural part of perception vs. intention, first impressions, and general misunderstandings. This lesson and the idea of battling self-deception will orient my course of action in the future. I owe that all to college, the perfect place to defend your ideologies against everyone including yourself.