When I was younger, I thought getting into a good college was my goal in life. I had your typical tiger parents (except, back then, they were just “parents”). I have a distinct memory of being five years old and getting ready for bed. My dad was quizzing me as I brushed my teeth with sparkly fruity toothpaste, the kind for kids. “What colleges are you going to apply to?” Even then, I knew the answer: “Harvard, Yale, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, and mayyybe Berkeley.”
Fast forward thirteen years, and, I got in. You would think that this would have made my life, or at least, made my life a little bit happier. You would be wrong.
Getting into Princeton ruined my life. I realized that I had spent all my life grinding to meet what my parents or admissions would want to see, but I never had the time to think about what I might want. I had thought getting into college would be a huge milestone, and that I could relax afterwards, but my parents were already saying, “What about med school?” and “Now it’s time to think about a job.”
Getting into a good school didn’t get my real-life parents off my back, and, worse, it didn’t get their voices out of my head, either. I’m not sure if the self-critical, achievement-driven monologue in my head even really comes from them anymore. It’s been there so long that it’s become a part of me, like a malignant tumor — a foreign growth that drains the life out of me, slowly killing me.
Worse, an environment like Princeton magnified these self-critical monologues. Classes were hard. Really hard. Everybody tells you that you’ll have world-class peers, which is true, but nobody tells you that this will result you being kicked in the ass by a world-class curve. The median is usually a B (or B+ if you’re lucky). I came from a public high school where we would watch Disney movies if the teacher didn’t feel like teaching, which was often. My physics teacher had a degree in chemistry, not physics, and our class took the whole year just to cover kinematics and forces. In my physics class at Princeton, we went over everything I had learned in high school in the first lecture. I was already in the lowest level, but I still struggled to keep up. When I asked my classmates how they picked things up so quickly, most people said that they’d already seen it in their AP Physics class, which wasn’t even offered at my school. Being curved against people who had already taken the class felt impossible, so my goal was just to pass, which I did, but only barely. It felt like I had fallen so far, and I would never catch up.
In high school, if I was hard on myself, it didn’t matter too much because I was (objectively) doing well. Sure, I could nitpick about getting a 95 instead of 100, but deep down I knew it wouldn’t affect my future too much, and I was confident that I could do better. This was different. Getting a B or a C isn’t the end of the world, but it does have real implications for grad school or job applications. I have a friend whose lifelong dream was to be a mathematics professor, but because of their average grades, didn’t get into any grad schools. They’re doing all right in a decent job, but it’s not what they wanted for themselves.
The process destroyed my self confidence. In high school, I was confident, almost cocky — at least, I believed that if I worked hard enough or set my mind to something, I would be able to do it. At Princeton, that wasn’t the case anymore. I could work 80 hours on an assignment and still not do well. I could apply for every internship at the career fair, but it didn’t matter if I didn’t have the technical skills to answer their questions.
Other Princeton students reinforced my tiger mentality, too. It’s not necessarily a cutthroat place, but when it comes to rankings and grades and prestige, people care. They care a lot. People ask you about your summer plans over dinner, and you can see them tense up when you answer that you have something (alternatively, you can see the pity in their eyes when they have plans and you don’t). Everyone is doing an internship at McKinsey or Google or a fellowship in Beijing or making a documentary in Africa, and it’s easy to feel like you’re not keeping up.
Professors liked to make things a competition. In my introductory CS class, there were several competitions as part of the homework assignments, like who could make the “best” animation. The professor would announce the winners in class. I remember the person who won making his way down the stairs of the lecture hall, smugly grinning, as if he knew he had it in the bag. Maybe it was sour grapes, but still: why does everything have to be a competition?
At graduation, it finally came into focus how much my classmates cared about prestige. Each department has their own reception, where they give out awards. When they were preparing to announce, I watched a guy in my aisle pick nervously at his nails, and others holding their breath, or looking down at their shoes. People were focused on the outcome, even though they didn’t want to show it. For things like internships, maybe I could make the argument to myself that people were really interested and passionate about what they were doing. But these awards didn’t matter. Everyone already had their next job or grad school lined up. As the department chair did a fake drum roll, I could see how much people still wanted these awards, and even though I knew that it was fucked up, I wanted to win too.
People at Princeton care so much about prestige, that even your social life is a ladder-climbing competition. Princeton has “eating clubs,” which are these frat-like houses that have meals for upperclassmen and parties on the weekend — parties that you can only get into with special passes from club members. To become a club member, you have to go through “bicker”, a process where existing members judge your personality and decide if you’re good enough for that club.
All of the stress — academic, parental, social — came to a head in the middle of my sophomore year. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t enough, and that no matter what I did, I would never be enough. Not cool enough, not smart enough, not well-spoken enough. Not even a good enough friend. Impulsively, searching for something — anything — that would even come remotely close to fixing my problems, I ran to Fine Hall, the tallest building on campus, and I took the elevator to the top floor. Fine Hall has these giant glass windows in the corner of the building, and I stood next to one, thinking about what would happen if I broke the glass, and jumped. I watched people walking on the sidewalk below me. It was dusk, but I could still make out the outlines of winter hats. There was a couple holding hands, and I thought about how lonely I was. I wondered if the windows were alarmed, because I knew that the roof was. I thought about whether I would write a note, and what I should say. I thought about my family, and what they would think, and I cried and hoped that nobody would see me cry. I imagined myself falling down and down and down, the same way that I had felt emotionally the whole time I had been at Princeton.
Obviously, I didn’t end up doing it. I sat there until the sun set, waffling, and then, feeling tired, my resolve weakened, and I went back to my room to take a nap.
I wish I could say that this was the turning point, but, things don’t work like that in real life. I’m still so self-critical. I still don’t feel like I’m good enough. It doesn’t matter if it’s my job or a hobby — if it’s not perfect, it sucked. I have to get things right on the first try, because if I fail, it means that I’m a failure.
It’s been more than five years since the day I got “YES!” in the mail. But even now, I still can’t do anything for fun. I’m always asking myself, what’s the next step? How can I be even better at this? What’s a prestigious competition that I can win? How can I gain the approval of my professor/teacher/boss/mentor? How can I be *successful*?
If I think deeply about that question, I know that success doesn’t come from prestige or the approval of others. I get to decide what success means. And maybe, success means relaxing or doing something because I feel like it, doing something just for me. But even as I type that right now, I realize I don’t really know what “just for me” means.
Here’s what I do know, though: I couldn’t get A’s in my classes, but I did learn the material (most of it, anyway, to the best of my ability). I get angry with myself when something I’m doing doesn’t turn out the way I want, but occasionally, I’ll remember to take a deep breath and forgive myself. I can’t solve a complicated problem right away, but on a good day I can break it down into steps, and tackle step 1. I don’t feel like I can write well, but I’m still typing on my keyboard, hitting publish on this article.
I’m still picking up the pieces.