Achievement is Relative
As my teacher called out names of students to share a sport that they play, an icebreaker activity of sorts but in the middle of the year, I wanted to crawl into myself or pretend I lost my voice. I didn’t play a sport, I did art. I studied. I walked dogs and babysat and worked in an ice-cream shop. None of that fit the question. Tuning out the others’ elaborate creations of soccercrewfootballwrestlingtrack that seemed to flow like honey from their lips, easy and well-practiced, I rehearsed my own answer, “I don’t do any sports currently.” In relation to this event, I was scared twice. Once while sitting at that desk agonizing over my seemingly “lazy” and “unathletic” life. Once when I realized that the truly scary part was society’s single-minded, obsessive approach to athletic participation and the merely man-made correlation between a busy schedule and achievement.
My friends were all at robotics tournaments and sports practices and various clubs that they felt proud to be affiliated with. I was happy for them, but internally challenged. Why would I need to fill up my schedule to show my worth? Why would I need to sort my life into the nominal baskets of “school,” “clubs,” “sports,” and “leadership activities” to achieve satisfaction? In truth, I was completely happy with my focused approach to studying, my love of going to the gym, my art school hobby, and most importantly, the time I had to spend with family. That was on the good days. On bad days, I aimlessly Googled activities that I only half-heartedly wanted to join: a sailing team, horseback riding, Irish dance. Was I really interested in these, or did I simply manifest the most niche-like, individualistic activity in my mind and attempt it? This had to stop. I needed to quit researching on Quora just how important extracurriculars were to Ivy League schools and whether Stanford accepted straight-A students who weren’t team captains. And so I came to a firm belief that achievement is relative, being busy does not equal being accomplished, and that what I chose to do mattered, but not in a traditional sense.
Let me present to you Person Q. I’m friends with Person Q, hence I get to hear all about their life when I talk to them in school. Q is a busy individual, involved in sports, music, language lessons, and more. Q most definitely has a lot to share during icebreaker activities similar to “what sport do you play?”, but Q doesn’t have a lot going for them when it comes to academics. On weekends, Q rarely if ever has time to meet, and in class, Q is seen doing homework due that very day, mentioning how they are gonna “just wing that test.” While Q may thrive in the life they live, it surprises me. Staying in school until 9 PM for extracurricular activities, eating dinner at 10, pulling an all-nighter due to mounds of homework, only to then wake up at 6 AM and start all over may be very appealing to some. To me, it sounds like a vicious cycle that’s cause for concern. Yet, it’s how most teenagers live. In his critical essay highlighting experiences as a college admissions officer at Yale, William Deresiewicz writes that students who had “six or seven extracurriculars were already in big trouble,” because it was the ones who had “10 or 12 that got into [Ivies].” I’m appalled. Raised to succeed in school, settle at nothing but top-notch grades, and chastise myself for a “blemished” report card, I blame society for producing opinions like this one. For reasoning that Wunderkinds who overwork themselves and walk around with bloodshot eyes, surviving on caffeine (if only that) to stay awake, are the only ones worthy of the societal pedestal that we all inevitably yearn for in our formulative years as high-schoolers. What about us? I wonder, speaking for myself and many others in my shoes, what about the ones who actually have time to talk to their parents, walk their dog, look at the sky, and take family vacations? Another article surfaces, titled “Want to Get into Harvard? Spend More Time Looking at the Clouds”. In it, Cal Newport, a tech professor, emphasizes that “genuine interestingness” of candidates beats the “quality of their activities,” and reiterates on the idea that a student should strive to pursue his or her true passions, keeping obligations at a minimum. I nod in silent agreement. When asked to describe your life, if the only thing that comes of it is a monotonal reading of roles, positions, and activities, a sort of role-call that can’t physically be attributed to one person, then that type of life should be reconsidered.
Mark Zuckerberg alienated himself from girlfriends, loyal friends, and family for the far less comforting rewards and promises of Facebook. Roy Raymond, founder of Victoria’s Secret, sold his company for $4 million dollars, shortly after filed for Chapter 11, and shortly after that jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. In Japan, there’s literally a term that means “overwork death,” or “karoshi.” These are warning signs, and they’ve been there for ages. Though the dangers of working endless hours and living life waiting for the weekends is a topic better saved for another article, as part of the young generation, we need to open our eyes to these dangers as related to our lives and our high school careers. Though the “depth versus breadth” principle in high school extracurriculars is calming in some regards, it is not enough for us to sit back and let the rigidity of the school system in America run its course. Elite colleges are not the topic of my discussion, however. The topic of my discussion is why perfectly happy, fulfilled, well-rounded students are made to feel less so by trying to come to par with insurmountable, inhuman standards.
As I sit writing this article, surrounded by stacks of worksheets, AP study books, and assignment-filled agenda pages that I still have to read, complete, and check off, I suddenly remember what one of my friends once told me. I remember I was frantically talking about a test I just took, scrutinizing my every mistake and worrying over whether it will lower my grade. She said that, “it is okay to be average.” In truth, I don’t want to be average. Years of hard work and achievement would go to waste if I suddenly decided I wanted to be average. No one should simply settle for average. But if there’s one thing that it’s okay to be, it is being yourself. It’s okay to take more joy in spending time outside than surrounded by the four walls of your office, cramming for a test. It’s okay to simply spend a day reading rather than being carpooled to sporting events and clubs. It’s okay to want to talk about silly, unimportant things with your family at the dinner table rather than about current events, scientific discoveries, and political happenings. It’s okay to sometimes not succeed in something. And it’s most definitely okay to say “I don’t do any sports,” proudly and defiantly, while all the sleep-deprived, stressed, caffeine-powered individuals stare at your artistic, very much awake self.