On Pedestals

In the spring of 2015, I had the opportunity to speak at Tufts University’s first TEDx event. With the release of the event videos, I’m also excited to present the full text of my talk. Would love to hear feedback, comments, and reactions to the piece, either here on Medium or in a private note.

Think of the type of person who we see on pedestals. It’s the old war heroes and emperors. Benjamin Franklin, Venus de Milo, people who have excelled, who we look up to for their great deeds, or who are created with such beauty and artistry, that we continue to admire them years later. People on pedestals aren’t real. They are immaculate carved statues, raised above us because they are better than us, no longer fallible humans but perfect, static statues.

This is only expected with figures from the past, but I think we also do this to each other. Think of someone you know who is unbelievably impressive. It’s the student who has had an incredible internship, or can squat twice their body weight, the guy who ran away to China, the woman who’s climbed more mountains than you can name or the man who hosts beautiful dinner parties. I claim that when we come across these people with worldly accomplishments, or awesome hobbies, or who are generally fantastic, we label them, as “those who have achieved.” We take complex, relatable, flawed humans, who have struggled, had lucky breaks, and made mistakes, and flatten them into a list of achievements. In doing so, we inadequately reflect how their accomplishments were made, and lose sight of the uncertainty and hard decisions that led to a person’s situation.

Although I can’t speak for everyone, I know how this has manifested itself in my life. About a year and a half ago, I had just come off of a software development internship at Google. Back on campus, I was invited to coffee by a sophomore in the department, named Aaron, to talk about internships and career paths in computer science. During our conversation, a few things stood out. He was nervous. He had brought a typed list of questions. He was convinced that an internship at that company was the absolute pinnacle of achievement — the goal that every student in his position should aspire to.

I had never interacted with someone who held the things that I had done in such high esteem, and it was unnerving. I am aware of my own humanity. When I was applying, I actually got one of the interview questions wrong. How could this internship be the peak of success, if I had barely stumbled my way there? Why was Aaron so intimidated by me? Why didn’t he see me the way I saw myself?

As I tried to parse his reaction, I realized that I’ve done exactly the same thing. When I was a sophomore, Marshall was a senior — the coolest senior in the computer science department. He was a hacker and had a part-time job. He understood computer security, rode a motorcycle and mixed electronic music in his spare time. I was crazy about him; I had a leadership crush, and a friend crush — and a crush crush. When he asked me to take over the hackathon he had started, I was thrilled — and totally unconvinced that I could ever pull off an event as good as his. My friends asked if we were dating, since he treated when we went out for dinner. I laughed, because there’s no way someone as fantastic as him could think of lowly little me as anything other than an underclassman, or as his subordinate.

You can hear how I’m talking about Marshall — but he’s a real person. So am I, and so is Aaron. But Aaron and I shared an instinctive reaction: on meeting an interesting, admirable person, we ignored any common ground we might have shared, and treated that person as an idol. I think that this type of reaction can be incredibly damaging on an individual level. If the only thing you perceive about the people you admire is their accomplishments, you don’t internalize the struggles they experienced to get to that point. And when you begin to make mistakes, or miss opportunities, or worry about important decisions, you already feel as though you’re failing — because when you look at your mentors, you don’t see their process, only the end results.

When I ran the hackathon that Marshall had started, it was a disaster. The event succeeded in all of its main objectives, but the things that went on behind the scenes… for a long time, I was disappointed in what I had produced.

As soon as I put Marshall up on that pedestal, I enabled myself to set wildly unrealistic standards; because my idols never failed, I should never fail. You start to live in a permanent state of not living up to those high expectations. But this entire state of mind is based on the false premise that your mentors have never made mistakes.

I led the undergraduate computer science group at Tufts for two years, and one of our major goals was to build a stronger community within the department. After a couple of months of emails, posters, emails, class visits, events, and emails, I became a figurehead — the name at the bottom of the weekly digest — which entirely defeated the point! When students were intimidated by me, they were less likely to approach me with ideas, start casual conversations, or generally using the group as the community-building resource that we hoped it would be.

When new members are intimidated by the older, established members, it becomes more difficult to form meaningful connections. We built in opportunities for students to ask questions like, “How do I pass a tech interview?” and “What do I put on my resume?” But more importantly, we wanted them to feel comfortable asking harder questions: “How do I deal with the overwhelming amount of work in this class?” “How do I handle being rejected from half a dozen internships?” and “Is anyone else having as hard a time as I am?” Asking vulnerable questions is only made more difficult when you’re saying it to someone who seems to have it all together.

My sophomore year, I was working on a programming project with my friend Amadou. We were talking about how interesting all the seniors were, and we resolved that someday, we were going to be the awesome ones in the department — the ones who make things happen. But in making that statement, we had already drawn a line between “us” and “them”: the new kids and the accomplished ones. We defined the seniors by a single facet: the things that they had done.

Last spring, I traveled alone through the UK with a sketchbook and some watercolors — and no camera. I stayed in tiny hostel beds, walking in a new direction every morning to draw the people and the sights. I paused at the National Gallery to study da Vinci and took the train up past Glasgow to paint Loch Lomond from a broken dock over the lake.

I’d like you to pause for a moment and evaluate your reaction to that story. Was it idyllic? Did you think you could never do something like that? Did you use it as a reason to separate me from you — the artist from the viewer, the traveller from the one who stayed behind? Did you put me on a pedestal?

I could go on, and tell you that we misplaced the family camera a few days before I left, but the point is that there’s a backstory to every interesting thing you’ve ever heard of, and recognizing that it’s there, whether or not you know what it is, can make that act a little more human.

Doing this automatic categorization — even to the most interesting, accomplished people you know — takes away some of their humanity; it defines them by a single facet. In order to form meaningful relationships with the people you admire, and to keep realistic standards for yourself, you need to see the pedestal for what it is: not flawless, but cracked. It’s built up of bricks and bits of sand and glue and maybe a couple of coats of paint. It’s a conglomeration of successes and mistakes, anxiety, gratitude, awesome mentors, embarrassing coffee dates and unexpected opportunities. So pay attention to the people you’ve been looking up to. Remember, Newton would have said that they’re standing on the shoulders of giants, but those giants are part of a far-reaching line of past hackathon organizers and student leaders, of travelers, makers, athletes, artists, and that you’re next in a long series of fascinating, accomplished, talented, but fundamentally real, people.

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