I wiped away the tears from my eyes and the snot from my nose with the same sleeve encrusted with bits of marinara sauce that found their way from a beige Styrofoam lunch tray onto my shirt. I plopped onto the fraying brown corduroy couch in my living room and wanted nothing more than to close my eyes, forget about the miserable day I just had and slip into a world of relaxation uninhibited by responsibility. I was in seventh grade and just came home with a 65 percent on a history assignment – a shoddily drawn political cartoon about the Revolutionary War, of which the sloppiness was only overshadowed by the clear lack of effort. With anger, depression and indignity I explained what happened to my father.
“Son,” he said softly, “when I was your age, my father would always tell me, ‘If you’re going to do something – an assignment, a job, anything – do it to the best of your ability.’”
That advice took a couple of years to sink in, but soon enough the bright boy who always fared well on tests but let homework and effort drag him down became a driven young man on his way to Northwestern, all precipitated by the encouraging motto his father gave him.
I took the words meant to focus and inspire me and turned them into canon. Effort had become my God. Success had become my Lord and Savior. Excellence had become my Heaven and underachievement had become my Hell.
As unhealthy as it sounds, it worked fairly well for me in high school. Like many, if not all of my fellow students here, the classes I strove to succeed in came to me somewhat easily, so giving the extra effort needed to excel was a worthy trade-off for the acceptance letter from an elite school I craved so desperately.
My mission was validated on March 24, 2011, at 6:02 p.m. EST, when an email with the subject line “Admissions decisions now available” from my dream school appeared in my inbox.
I was in Heaven.
Soon after I arrived on campus, however, the canon of my father’s words became harder and harder to satisfy for fairly obvious reasons. Classes were harder. The reading was richer. The assignments were more complex. And even though I was in class for substantially fewer hours here than I was in high school, it seemed like I had no time to do anything, let alone everything.
A little encouragement from my parents was what I needed to adjust to the college workload, manage my time more effectively and maintain a solid – if not spectacular – GPA, even with few road bumps to slow me down (thanks again, macroeconomics). But even though my grades were in order, even though my writing was becoming better and better, I still felt like I was failing to do the best I could, not academically per se but socially and intellectually too. My father’s words were meant to inspire me to try as hard as I could. I took them a step further and vowed to achieve at the highest level in every realm.
But freshman year, I felt like a failure.
After two misguided attempts at rushing two different fraternities and feeling unequivocally abandoned by a group of friends, I sank into the deepest depression I'd ever experienced. I was literally and figuratively surrounded by social success while I spent many Friday and Saturday nights in my room studying, not because I didn’t want to go out, but because I had no one to go out with. Lunch was spent with whomever I was friendly with in class; dinner was spent with whomever I could find in the dining hall. Frequently, it was no one.
I looked around me and wondered, “What am I doing wrong?” Doing more and trying harder had been the source of my success in high school, but why wasn’t it working now? Luckily, with a boost from two friends I felt comfortable enough with to confide in, I was able to find my place in a close group. And as the year progressed, things slowly began falling into place.
Sophomore year came and the supposed second year slump seemed impossible. Everything was better in every way and it didn't take me long to remember why I dreamed of attending Northwestern. But soon enough, stress from classes, extracurricular activities and a lackluster love life let loose a barrage of questions and self-inflicted, inadvertent peer pressure.
The questions ranged from substantial (“Why am I not doing as much work as she is?” “Why am I not as good a writer as he is?”) to the self-destructive ("Why doesn't this girl like me? "Why do they want to hang out with him and not me?). The quasi-reasonable standard I set before myself for academics became an unsustainable and unhealthy requirement for my social and cultural experience at Northwestern.
I failed to grasp what the problem was until a friend, to whom I remain forever indebted, helped me realize that it stemmed from self-perception, not inferiority.
Saturday was only a few hours old as we trudged our way through freshly fallen snow. We were leaving a party where the frustrations that had been building up inside of me came to a internal head when he explained to me that the problem wasn’t my inability to meet the standards I set for myself, but rather the unattainable nature of the standards themselves.
His words were half-pep talk, half-jeremiad, liberated from the constraints of sensitivity by a night of drinking, but for someone who was living in a delusion of failure, it was just what I needed. He insisted that, as outright awful about myself as I felt, I was overlooking what made me special, what made me appealing, what made me such a great friend, journalist, student and person. By striving to satisfy an unrealistic and superficial standard, he said, I was overlooking how much I meant to my close friends. It was humbling and empowering, bewildering and enlightening, depressing and soothing all at once. But for the first time since I enrolled here, I could pinpoint exactly what my problem was and how I could go about solving it.
I finally realized that by focusing so idiosyncratically on achieving a false goal, by setting my sights to such lofty heights, I was overlooking everything I had in front of me.
We Northwestern students have the privilege of being surrounded by such incredible people on a daily basis, people with different interests, different strengths and weaknesses, different personalities and different hopes and dreams and desires. Sometimes, it’s really easy to forget that you are one of those people, too. I have all too often and know I will again soon enough. But when I do, I’ll close my eyes, forget about the miserable day I just had and slip into a world of relaxation uninhibited by responsibility.
And I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.