At a school well-known for its high academic rigor and higher-achieving students, the most valuable lesson I learned here was in striving to achieve lower. To understand the gravity and irony of this statement, one needs to understand Lila As A Young Child.
As a kid, I loved being good at things. Of course, this is probably true for all children and maybe all humans in general, but my obsession with excellence took the commercial brand Type A kiddo to the extreme. By the time I turned 10, I’d gone on a quitting spree, culling things from my life the moment I suspected I may be only mediocre at them. Some of these activities include:
– Soccer (my dad claims that I really was rather good, though my defensive tactics general included a very illegal shove or kick.)
– Ultimate Frisbee (shockingly after a whole week of playing frisbee at summer camp, I was not recruited by even one of the local universities in my town that takes frisbee very seriously, so naturally, I had to quit.)
– Tennis (honestly, I can’t remember if I was any good at this, but tennis kinda sucks. No regrets.)
– Swimming (this one I quit at age seven with the proclamation that I didn’t like people “coaching at me.”)
– Piano (it turns out that if you are too stressed to practice because you worry about being bad, you tend not to get less bad.)
– Church candle lighting (my very first time serving as an acolyte at my church, the flame went out when I was about to light the candle and the minister had to come help me! So embarrassing.)
With each additional dropped activity, I came closer to curating a life in which failure was almost never present. Once I was a fully-formed human, I had siphoned down my activities list only to things that came fairly easily to me.
This relationship to success carried me through my childhood, and began carrying me through Northwestern, too. Success-obsession here is at its peak, and there are plenty overachievers against which to compare myself. I saw the students around me balancing five classes, two jobs and at least four extracurriculars and was initially pleased with my decision to take the same approach.
By the end of freshman year, I had two majors and was halfway through a certificate program, belonged to several student groups including a sorority – an institution I had promised myself I would never be a part of – and was working three jobs. The Northwestern dream! The only thing at risk was my mental health.
It turns out that though standards for a third-grade soccer team may for some be reachable; those for an imagined – and fictional – archetypal NU student are not. Taking this same approach to “doing well” therefore all but guarantees failure. “Doing well” here requires a more holistic approach that includes time to participate in naked bike rides in Chicago and weekly therapy sessions and spontaneous dance parties with roommates – activities in which my proficiency can’t be quantified.
More recently, I’ve begun to adopt a new manifesto: one of mediocrity. In the past, I’ve often quit things that I’m not good at but might enjoy; now I try to quit things that, though I may be very good at, I don’t like at all (read: sorority leadership/sororities more generally; lifeguarding at SPAC; economics class).
Next year as I try to maintain this mantra and start my new job in the Loop, maybe you’ll catch me doing something that I am thus far not very good at – but you better believe that unlike in the past, I’ll be doing it with a smile.