I often find it strange how children’s movies are able to share the deepest wisdom, cutting through layers of adult over-complication to simply state things as they are. Syndrome, the villain in the movie “The Incredibles,” reveals his diabolical plan to his entrapped foes and says, “If everyone is super, no one will be.” Is this thought the dilemma of the Yale student? After all, when you’re surrounded by thousands of incredible people each day, it can be easy to feel lost and unexceptional — like a Syndrome among Incredibles.
After I was accepted to Yale, my brother, who was entering his senior year of college, asked me a pointed question. “How are you going to handle being around five thousand other Gabriels?” he asked. I laughed off the comment at the time and didn’t think about it for months.
It wasn’t until August that I understood what he meant. My professor opened up my first Directed Studies seminar with a simple question: “Who can tell me a bit about the author of this piece?” Fifteen hands shot up into the air. Welcome to Yale, I thought.
Passion, drive, brilliance, hard work — everyone is here for a reason. As a first-year, you are bound to experience some version of imposter syndrome because of the intensity of the students around you. But with time, the reality sets in — you contribute to that intensity just as much as the student sitting next to you. You, too, were raising your hand in that first seminar. In so many ways, Yale is a hall of mirrors — each student mirrors back to you a part of yourself, a model of who you could theoretically become or perhaps already are.
During the college application process, I couldn’t stop hearing the maxim: “Make sure you stand out.” And while many Yale students “stand out” in their various interests, talents and abilities, there’s something so shared and common in this community: even though we all worked tirelessly in high school to “stand out” in one form or another, really we’re all the same. The irony is hard to swallow.
The question is, then, what do you do with that information? What do you make of the endless sea of Type-As and math geniuses, virtuoso musicians and future Nobel Prize winners? One way to respond to it is to push yourself ever harder, to strive incessantly and twist yourself into knots so that you can be just like everyone else. Whether it’s trying out for an organization more for the prestige than your personal happiness, or taking a course load that sounds impressive but can’t get you out of bed in the morning, try something else. Use this hall of mirrors as an opportunity to reflect on what is actually important to you. Use it as a way to examine the parts of yourself that you love and those you might want to change. Living in such close proximity to so many Incredibles gives you the chance to determine your own path.
I’m not saying that any one way of life at Yale is better or worse than another. Some students choose to spend all of their time in the library, while others choose to spend it out with friends. Most of us are somewhere in between. My hope is that these decisions come from a place of personal reflection, rather than of external pressure. It’s easy at a place like Yale to hold tightly to all the potential versions of yourself, striving to become all of them. Often, it isn’t too late for us to realize that the pursuit of everything has left us with nothing. Let the hall of mirrors serve more as a place of reflection than a dizzying maze of horrors. Don’t let Yale consume you.
It can be hard to detach yourself from the environment around you. At the very least, I encourage you to try. Try to use the hectic, intimidating, exciting and beautiful world of Yale as a way to make sense of your path, rather than reflecting the fifteen other students raising their hands.
Sometimes, all you need is a quick look in the mirror.
Gabriel Klapholz is a first year in Branford College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .