I read The Silicon Valley Suicides today and identified so strongly with the students that it was difficult to read.
“Luthar constructed a profile of elite American adolescents whose self-worth is tied to their achievements and who see themselves as catastrophically flawed if they don’t meet the highest standards of success. Because a certain kind of success seems well within reach, they feel they have to attain it at all costs—a phenomenon she refers to as “I can, therefore I must.””
I used to think of life as a marathon – a marathon with a starting line stretching from horizon to horizon, an endless sea of runners that looked exactly like me. Each runner was a different version of myself, a more successful, capable version that didn’t need water at mile 21, or didn’t trip at mile 17, or didn’t get a B+ in his first quarter of AP Chemistry. My eyes fixed on the front-runner, I believed I was at the end of the pack. The lowest branch of a decision tree.
The more people told that me I had great potential, the higher the praise, the faster everyone else ran, and the further I fell behind. I thought about giving up altogether. All my choices were oriented around preserving my place in this marathon, around not falling further behind. I was deathly afraid of going backward – it would feel like all of my previous hard work would be erased, that I had failed.
When I was thirteen, I was upset that taking AP classes as a freshman required lobbying administration, and more so that I didn’t think to – I felt as though I had been held back, artificially limited, Harrison Bergeron’ed by bureaucrats into mediocrity. I was endowed with the terrible burden of my parents’ gift – they fought and scraped their way across 30.5% of the earth’s surface area so that I could have a successful, achievement-filled life, and I felt this gift was ruined if I took a semester of non-AP physics.
My parents are actually quite good, as Asian parents come – although they seem to think that pointing out my pimples is constructive and like my sister’s Dartmouth gear a lot more than my Berkeley gear, they do tell me that all they want is for me to be a happy, contributing member of society.
In some ways, this is scarier. Chasing achievements is not by any means easy, but it is defined. Take these classes, say these things during the interviews, improve process by this much. Lately my quarter-life crisis has come from defining my own path; separate from what I interpret from my parents or my peers. I don’t know if I’m getting it right. I’m not always happy and only contribute a little. To continue the metaphor, the marathon is already over. I just have to decide where to eat after.
The good news is that we get a lot of tries. Malcolm Gladwell argues that it takes 10,000 hours to master a subject – the next fifty years have 438,000 hours in them. Even with three hours a day (1/8 of my time) to learn new, that’s almost six tries. We don’t have to get it right the first time.