At the start of fall semester, I remember scheduling meals with classmates whom I hadn’t seen since my first year. Naturally, the conversation drifted to our summer internships and study abroad programs, never delving beyond the tidy list of majors or extracurriculars we were considering. I struggled to find the courage to pose riskier questions that would force us to evaluate the real reasons we’re here. When a friend asked “What are your goals for sophomore year?” I was taken aback, reluctant to diverge from my familiar script. At the same time, I realized how refreshing it was to discuss personal growth rather than my resume. So I decided to reveal what my actual goals were: devoting more time to friendships, taking classes I was passionate about rather than more complex-sounding ones and crossing more things off my Yale bucket list. I wondered why I was so hesitant, embarrassed even, to admit that I wanted to have more 2 a.m. conversations with my friends, write unapologetic op-eds and spend more time exploring New Haven. I recognized that I felt pressured into constantly needing to market myself; I usually refrained from reflecting on the passions that motivate my interests.
Most of us evaluate success by how many “prestigious” organizations we can attach ourselves to. Just by virtue of attending Yale, to some extent we buy into the belief that brand name schools make us more successful individuals. Otherwise we wouldn’t have worked as hard to attend Yale. Growing up, there is a clearer path to success — we are told to get good grades, be involved in our schools and write convincing admissions essays. When we get to college, that path becomes hazier. So we look to our peers.
We easily classify our classmates by their major or extracurriculars. Thus, we attribute stereotypes to people that are not necessarily true. For example, we tend to believe that people in competitive majors are “more intelligent.” In first year I remember a conversation with one of my peers. His demeanor changed after learning what organizations I was involved in, and I was labeled as very intense, intimidating even. Regardless of what I said going forward, his perception of me was already formed. This categorization drives the friendships we make, and we unconsciously measure other students’ success against ours. We lose the depth of people’s characters to make ourselves feel better, rather than take the time to explore potential relationships and mutual ideas.
But the privilege of having a Yale degree means that we can afford to contemplate deep introspective questions and explore the positive impact that we can have around us. I cannot assign material worth to the extra hour I will spend chatting with my friends in the dining hall or volunteering at a local organization or attending a candlelight vigil for refugees. However, there is no doubt that there is value in devoting time towards personal growth and contributing to the community around you. The impact of these actions is more intangible, but they are ultimately more worthwhile.
We often judge others for their different notions of success, and we rate some successes as objectively “better” than others. We tend to automatically assume someone who worked at a large company deserves more attention than someone who spent the summer working in their favorite coffee shop. But we don’t need to be national politicians or top investment bankers or cutting-edge doctors to be successful. We attribute grandiose notions of success to ourselves that are unrealistic and even narcissistic, rather than focusing on what will make us grow as individuals. I would argue that someone who is motivated to pursue local change in their hometown is more successful than someone who sits in a high-rise office, only sure of their salary and golden nametag but not about their legacy or personal progress. We should seek validation from ourselves rather than from others.
Admittedly, we don’t do enough of the right kind of self-evaluation. We are critical of our performance rather than our motives and intentions. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t dream big or set lofty goals. I’m just asking you to evaluate the reasons behind those goals — are you pursuing them because you feel trapped by society’s notions of success or because you are improving yourself and the world around you? This introspection isn’t easy, but it’s necessary if we want to leave Yale feeling fulfilled in some way. Nothing we do will make us perfectly happy, but success is about growth and how we, not others, choose to define that. Ultimately, the “whys” behind our actions matter much more than where we end up. So next time you’re cranking out a problem set or organizing a club event, ask yourself why. And this time, consider looking beyond the answer of wanting financial stability or social prominence.
Hala El Solh is a sophomore in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .