“You’re the best or you f—— suck.”
This classical musician’s saying has been the most influential advice ever given to me, for better or for worse. It holds true at least in the sphere of music; the world really doesn’t need any more unspectacular performers, each struggling to cobble together a sustainable salary.
Even after deciding against music school, this proverb has remained relevant to my life at Yale. As summer plans are finalized and the internship recruiting season for next summer begins, masses of job offers and rejections have been swarming many of us. Sometimes, shiny dream jobs slip through our fingers, particularly if coveted employers only offer a few positions to college students at large. In these circumstances, we must compete to be the best or else we fail — and it might suddenly feel as if we f—— suck.
Achieving success hasn’t always been a zero-sum game. In the K-12 system, extracurricular competitions with second place, third place, honorable mention and consolation prizes abound. Even selective colleges like Yale have to accept thousands of high schoolers, which doesn’t seem too competitive when you think about the sheer number of acceptances.
I mean, it shouldn’t be impossible to slip in as the 2,229th best applicant in a given year, right?
All students should remember that the nature of competition fundamentally changes after high school, bringing with it some subtle but significant consequences. For example, in order to gain admission to Yale Law School last year, one must have been at least the 240th best applicant. Not only that, but the other candidates are 20-somethings who are probably more mature and ambitious than the average 17-year-old who half-heartedly applies to Yale because his mother tells him to.
Moreover, as a fresh graduate, ideal job opportunities from employers that aren’t huge campus recruiters are typically hard to come by without special connections. A Yale degree in and of itself is far from infallible, especially when intangibles like cultural fit or nepotism can complicate the equation. The once-holy grail of getting into college doesn’t seem so difficult in comparison — I didn’t even have to attend any networking sessions or leverage LinkedIn connections.
Of course, the binary mindset of “succeed” or “fail” required by job hunting is a necessary welcome to the real world. And even though this intensity may bring to mind certain fields (read: finance), Wall Street’s recruiting process in particular actually works really, really well: There are sexy elite banks, marginally less elite banks, feeder schools, thousands of available positions, inclusive college major qualifications, even diversity pipeline programs. It’s essentially applying to college all over again, but this time, they pay us the big bucks!
It’s no wonder prestigious firms consistently manage to attract the most promising students, who coasted through school with wide-ranging passions, like flies to a honey jar. Hell, I’m a vocal environmentalist in love with finance. None of this can or should be changed by decrying big bad Wall Street as per usual.
The real problem is that many of us secretly enjoy the smug satisfaction of feeling like we are the best — yet when we take risks, we can’t always live up to expectations, so we most often stick to the safer and more sensible paths trodden by those before us. This isn’t inherently bad, though it partly explains why Yale College isn’t quite renowned for being a startup mecca, which is a central reason why the tech crowd frequently overlooks Yale.
Thus in order to continue being the best, we’re going to have to improve at sucking, too. Other colleges have already caught on; for instance, the inter-university “Resilience Consortium” shares resources to help overachievers cope with setbacks (every single Ivy League school besides Yale is a member). With nearly 40 percent of American students reporting symptoms of depression and 61 percent reporting anxiety last year, per an American College Health Association survey, it is crucial that we examine our perceptions of failure before universities soon must double as mental health wards.
After a last month packed especially full of successes and failures, I’ve been learning that resilience requires a personal resignification of failure, not a myopic exertion of willpower or whatever people complain that millennials lack. Instead, perhaps we should be the ones thanking ourselves for applying — for trying new things, creating new things, believing in new things — when we click on those ominous thank-you emails.
And as I open that next letter, I also remind myself: “You’re the best or you’re still a teenager figuring everything out, which is perfectly fine, because you have a lifetime of exciting possibilities ahead of you before you grow old and jaded and smelly.”
Kenneth Xu is a first year in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .