Where Does Success Come From?: A Reflection on Competition in the Academic World

i don’t like people who think they’re better than others.

of course, i am preaching from a soapbox tilted slightly by hypocrisy because i am human and therefore i am flawed and i often think my beliefs and my opinions are the right ones. i know that. i know that i twist my nose at people who don’t stand on the same side of the political line as me. i know a small part of me (which is sometimes larger than it should be) judges people who haven’t had the exposure to cultures and the world in the ways that i believe are the best and right ways to become a well-rounded member of society. but i’m aware of my biases and i try my best to come in on bended knee.

this phrase is more than the opening phrase to one of my favorite songs by a fantastic band [Archers by the Ballroom Thieves, check it out]. these words, they mean something to me. my rant is spurred by having just listened to a professor spend two and a half hours explaining to us all how getting an internship after college really ‘means you aren’t employable’ and how the only logical next step to take is to get a job. Okay, you think, of course. What college graduate doesn’t want a job? And the answer would be me. I don’t want a job. Not a job in a truest sense of the word, not right now, and the wording my professor used expressed that she believes the only reason why anyone would participate in programs like Teach for America and AmeriCorps is that they couldn’t get a job due to lack of qualification. As my professor spoke and directed us on how best to market ourselves to future employers, I found myself become irritated and I begin to wonder, what would this professor say if I told her I just accepted a position with a year long fellowship that focuses on social justice through working in the non-profit sector? Would she laugh? Would she tell me I was making a mistake? Would she give her disapproval covered in words of fake praise?

Do I care?

Yes, I do. I do care. I shouldn’t but I have been condition to care. I want approval. I want to be viewed as being successful. Why? Where does this need I detest come from?

I have been surrounded by people in the world of academia my entire life. I didn’t notice it or understand what that meant until I entered high school and began to discuss more so with my peers what their parents did. These conversations made me realize that the fact the both of my parents have education past a BA isn’t the norm. I realized that while going to college had always been the given next step post high school for me, it hadn’t always been for other people. I hadn’t realized that facts like these-an familial emphasis on education, parent help with homework, history and political discussions at the dinner table–didn’t apply to everyone else simply because they applied to me. Understanding this caused me to reflect on the people around me, myself and my place in the world. I saw how many of my peers’ parents pushed them to apply for schools I couldn’t even dream of paying for. I watched as my best friend at the time’s mom instructed her to cut a deal with two of her teachers so that she could roll over points form one semester to another in order to get an A–because a B+ wouldn’t cut it. I didn’t understand the need to succeed in that way. I hated the talk of ivy leagues. I hated how getting anything less than a 30 on the ACT was frowned upon and how everyone was in SGA, three sports, five clubs and still had time to get nothing but As. Everything was a competition and I begin to drown and for a long time, I didn’t realize why until suddenly I did: i come in on bended knee.

There is nothing wrong with the world of academia. We need people to do research and ask questions and to test theories but we don’t need to climb on the backs’ of others to do that, and that’s why the attitude at my high school left a bitter taste in my mouth I still can’t quite cover up today. I felt that my peers’ only measured the worth of their accomplishments against the failure of others. And maybe that’s not what my professor tonight was saying. Maybe she was just trying to give us positive advice for what she views is the logical next step for all of us, for what she desires for the students she cares about. But that’s the thing: you can’t desire for other people. Your success has to be measured against your own failures, not those of others. I believe that there is so much more value in being happy and proud of yourself because you walked two miles today when yesterday you only watched 1.5 and not because you walked further than your co-worker. We have to live the longest with ourselves so we should work first and foremost to make ourselves proud, but more than that, we live in a community. It doesn’t matter how you define that community–a work place, a college, a classroom, a friend group–whatever it is, we work and play and eat and laugh and grow together and if we don’t encourage each other, if we measure our success against others’ failures, our community will become a negative one, one full of competition and hatred. The world can’t become a better place like that.

And for me? I’ve said it already: I come in on bended knee. I want to serve. I want to give back to my community. I want to grow as a person as I help others reach what they see to be their full potential. These are things that I have known about myself for a long time and this is why I chose my fellowship over a job as my next logical step. This is what I want. And that’s not wrong. It’s just different. It’s just how I measure success.

So please, next time, ask me my desires before you lecture me from behind your podium. And to my high school self–let it go.

 

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