S haun White was the favorite to wi n the snowboard halfpipe at this year’s Winter Olympics. He finished fourth. Many were surprised and some disappointed by his apparent “loss” in the event he had previously won twice. Making the Olympic team for the third consecutive time, while also heading up a successful band and designing his own clothing line, just wasn’t enough. He had “let us down.”
At Penn, we celebrate a culture of stress. We value it as part of our normal rite of passage and as a necessary stepping stone to Wall Street, medical school or biochemical engineering. We strive with every fiber of our being not just to be good, or even excellent, but to be perfect. It is part of our learned behavior. Most of us don’t know how to behave differently. If the goal of college is to prepare us for a dog-eat-dog world, it is working.
As we strive for perfection, we are also burdened to com pete for an ever-evolving vision of what constitutes “success.” It isn’t enough to have reached the pinnacle of academic success we have already achieved. The bar continues to rise.
As we seek to address the state of mental health and well-being on this campus, we must re-examine our definition of “success.” As College senior Shana Mansbach explained, “There is a certain idea of what it is like to be a successful Penn student, [but] if every Penn student has the same idea of what it means to be successful, we’re clearly not all going to be happy.”
Our definition of success as Penn students derives from what we see around us. It is inherently competitive. Being “successful” becomes a contest of winners and losers; we’re not attempting to do the best we are capable of as individuals, but rather are engaging in a game-one that not all of us can win.
And success isn’t just defined by grades and GPA. Success at Penn is social, athletic, extracurricular and academic. We all want to be in the “best” sorority or fraternity, achieve straight A’s, be selected for a senior society and serve as the president of a club. As College senior Jodi Miller simply stated, we are “competitive in every aspect of our lives, not just school.”
If you see yourself as one of the “losers” in this success game - if you perceive yourself as inferior to people who appear to be more successful - you are likely to develop a negative self-image, exacerbated by the stress of being a Penn student. Feeling unsuccessful at a place like Penn can generate feelings of inferiority, inadequacy and helplessness.
The outpouring of communal support on campus, on Facebook and here in The Daily Pennsylvanian over the last few weeks has been truly astounding. We have begun to destigmatize visiting CAPS or a mental-health specialist of any kind. We have reached out to each other, reminding ourselves that support can be found within our Penn community. It is a good start, but only a start.
As long as our cultural definition of success requires that we identify “losers” among us, the ingredients for tragedy will be ever-present. When will we accept that we have already achieved success, just by being part of the Penn experience?
We won’t all get the top grade in our classes. We won’t all land that dream summer internship. We won’t all win a gold medal. Sometimes, like Shaun White, we wobble. Sometimes, others will perform at a higher level. Sometimes, we may even wipe out altogether. But that is not and must not become the standard by which we value ourselves.
Shaun White finished fourth at the Olympics. He may not have won the gold, but White, a two-time gold medalist, didn’t “lose.” He’s one of the best halfpipe snowboarders in the world. He accepted this position with grace and gratitude, and that sounds like success to me.
Alexandra Friedman is a College junior from Atlanta studying history. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her @callme_alfrie.
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