“Let’s face it: At the end of the day, most of us are going to go on and lead very mediocre lives.” I stared at my Harvard friend’s face with a look of incredulity, exasperation and fear. Here was a person who went to the second most prestigious school in the country eating lunch in a dining hall of the most prestigious one — how, by any stretch of the imagination, could we, and others like us, be destined for mediocrity? And yet, part of me knew that she was probably right.
Sure, Yalies go on to do incredible things in every walk of life, including in those that don’t culminate in the presidency, a judgeship or an appointment as CEO of a major company. That isn’t, nor should it be, my standard of success. But for many of us, a leading role at a firm, in a hospital or even in the White House has always been close to what we thought was possible. After all, we’re reminded day-in and day-out of just how special and lucky we are, if not explicitly then implicitly.
What are we to think that it’s often not enough to attend a movie screening, but to speak with the directors and producers immediately after viewing? What are we to think when after serving as Secretary of State for four years and in the Senate for nearly thirty, John Kerry ’66 decided to make Yale his next life venture, bringing people like Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Gore in the name of our education? What are we to think when we have access to one of the largest and greatest library systems in the world, when we’re surrounded by imposing and inspiring architecture, when every club and class takes itself so seriously and when we have an acceptance rate of 6.3 percent that people deride as being too high? Almost everything about this campus is designed to remind us of how great we are — or rather, how great we are supposed to be.
While browsing old columns last year, I noticed some have argued that the caricature of the sophomore slump is worse than the second year itself. Regardless of whether it exists or not, I resolved to resist the sophomore slump. But the slump is like climate change — it’ll hit you even if you don’t believe in it.
That said, I won’t make this column into a litany of complaints regarding my sophomore year — read my other columns if you want something like that. Instead, I’d like to offer a new way of looking at sophomore year, and more generally, at growth. Up until now, I’d venture to say that for much of our lives, we’ve been devoted to a single purpose: achieving a glittering gold star, whether that be in the form of a seat in the state orchestra, the opportunity to give a valedictory address at graduation or getting into a school like Yale. We’ve done that. We’ve gotten the gold star. We’ve entered a realm of greatness, with the world ahead of us. But what now?
Our first year here obscures that question, or it is placed on the back burner while we deal with seemingly more pressing issues. It comes back into focus when we finally feel settled; worse, it probably comes at a time when our abilities are being called into question. It’s no longer as easy to write a sufficient paper in one night; it’s harder to balance all the things you’ve invested in and, as I’ve argued before, it’s often harder to feel purpose.
This is my last column of the semester. I write about these issues and ideas because I’ve realized that sometimes all we can do is accept our inability, our limitations, our infinitesimally small role in the grand scheme of things. I don’t mean to advocate for acquiescence in the face of adversity or for the embrace of mediocrity. Rather, I write to ask people — myself included — to stop being so goddamned hard on themselves. It’s okay to not be able to do it all, it’s okay to not get an A on every assignment, it’s okay to not know how to feel about love, about the future, about yourself. It’s okay to not be the best at everything.
Again, I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t be ambitious or that we shouldn’t work at things. But just remember that there’s more to life than going to a school with a big name, than being at the top of your class, than knowing everything. Bask in life’s mystery, and know that there’s a life outside of all of this. Accept the sophomore slump and its implications — it’s not as bad as you think.
Adrian Rivera is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .