Sooner or later, every Yalie experiences a similar moment and a similar epiphany. Sometimes it happens at the end of a brutal final, sometimes at the start of a popular class with limited spots, and sometimes during a club’s elections or in the middle of a drama audition. But the realization is always the same: “I’m not quite as invincible as I thought,” we all say to ourselves, as we dejectedly process our losses.
Yale’s greatest strength and most striking weakness has always been the consuming ambition of so many of its students. It is cliche to claim that most of us got into this University because we were “driven,” but it’s true; with few exceptions, people get into Yale because they work extremely hard or are extremely good at manipulating the system, and both feats require a strong desire to excel. But with 5,000 ambitious, driven people packed together into one campus, intense competition in an array of areas is inevitable, and losing is unavoidable.
Sometimes it’s a bit amazing, though certainly not surprising, how frequently Yale pits its students against each other. Want to get into a stellar academic program? Then fill out a lengthy application and fight for your spot. Want to get into a distinguished professor’s seminar? Then cozy up to the professor, and make that professor like you more than anyone else. To ace a class, study harder than the guy sitting next to you. To be a starter on a varsity team, practice and play harder than your buddies on the sidelines. To be elected president of your frat, chair of your party, editor of your newspaper or grand poobah of your baking club, work harder, party harder and schmooze better than your other friends in the group.
I’m not necessarily criticizing all this competition. And even if I were, it would be a moot point; at Yale, fierce struggles to get ahead will always be a part of most activities. But I do worry about the extent to which this competition defines our daily interactions. Although competition can be healthy, allowing failure to poison our friendships and pollute our own happiness is decidedly not. There can only be one top dog of every organization, and professors can only admit so many students into their classes and their programs. Most of us may be used to success in high school, but at Yale most of us are bound to lose more often than we win.
Moreover, we would not want to constantly win. We envy those students who always know the answer to that impossibly hard question on the test. We are jealous of those golden boys who are always on a first-name basis with the professor charged with admitting students into his or her class. But in the final analysis, would we want to be like them? Would we want to go through life constantly networking, relentlessly laboring to be smarter and better at all times than everyone around us? To see every professor as another potential gateway, every student as another vote, and every class another mountain to climb?
Everyone at Yale wants to be the next president of the United States, but I submit that most of us are not willing to make anywhere close to the necessary sacrifices to get there — and that is good news. It is a sad reality that most presidents have to claw their way to the top by constantly treading on those below. Ambition on that scale turns friends into stepping-stones. We Yalies may be fiercely competitive folk, but that’s not why I really like this school; I like this school because I believe that most of us are not willing to throw our friends under the bus to get what we want. We may try to excel, but we also badly want our best friends to excel with us. Most of us can celebrate the victory of a friendly rival even as we mourn our own defeat.
It is worth reflecting upon all this now, at the end of the semester, with classes ending, finals fast approaching, and many organizations electing their new leadership. Most of us probably feel let down about the appointment we didn’t get, the application that didn’t go through or the election we lost, and many of us probably feel equally anxious about the exams for which we have yet to study. Disappointment and anxiety are natural, but bitterness and isolation are not healthy responses. When we find our happiness severely compromised by our own failure, that is when we know we have become too invested in winning.
Of course, that does not mean we shouldn’t vigorously pursue success wherever we can find it. The very fact that failure is so common at Yale makes winning all the sweeter — those rare victorious moments when we make the winning play, ace the hellish midterm or win an election against a popular opponent are to be savored and remembered. But I think the greatest memories we will have upon leaving this school will not be the rare victories. We will remember them, of course. But more than that, we will remember the passionate discussions, the meaningful relationships and the quiet moments we shared with friends.
Roger Low is a sophomore in Branford College.