Last week the winners of the President’s Engagement Prize were announced. I scrolled past the subject line in my inbox and clicked delete. I did not want to know who won; I did not want to think about the chance that I had forgone.

The President’s Engagement Prize is a competition for seniors at Penn to submit project proposals for nonprofit ventures. Winners are given a monetary prize to implement their idea during the year following their graduation.

To explain why the results of this competition matter to me, I have to rewind. When I was a junior I founded an organization on campus called “The Collctve” based on a need I saw for alternative social spaces and activities at Penn where good music and experiences would be a guarantee. So I brought together my friends and contacts who were DJs and music producers at Penn to form this club. After two years the group has become synonymous with the mission and a known organization on campus and across the country. Midway through the fall of this year, we had recruited a new class of members, held elections and handed over the leadership to a new executive board.

With The Collctve moving forward successfully, I now found myself in an existential dilemma. I asked myself, “What’s next?” What is my next big idea that will change things, that will help people? I spent hours in my room, talking with friends about this. This was inevitably linked with the question: What do I do when I graduate? Putting these two together, it was less of a dilemma and more of a despair to be completely honest.

Illustrator Christoph Niemann sums up this feeling perfectly.

“You measure yourself against a lucky moment and this is, really, really painful. You had this one spark, like three years ago and a client asks you to do it again. And you think, I won the lottery then, how can you ask me to win the lottery again ... under pressure, with a gun to my head? And this is something that, when I consciously thought about it, made me realize ‘oh god I’m miserable.’ ”

I spent so much time ruminating over what I should do next, that I missed the opportunity that was right in front of me. By the time I even considered the President’s Engagement Prize as a viable option, I was out of time to fully construct a winning proposal. The inspiration had arrived, but the opportunity was leaving the station and I was too slow to catch up.

So now, after the winners have been announced I still feel a certain pain in the pit of my stomach and the back of my mind. What is it that leads to this pain? From a psychological point of view, I argue it’s all because of cognitive dissonance.

According to this theory, we create a set of expectations about ourselves in our minds. These expectations, usually based on prior behaviors and other socially imposed ideologies, create attitudes and beliefs about these expectations. When our future behaviors or decisions don’t align with our attitudes about preset expectations, we feel bad. This battle with cognitive dissonance is one we all face as rational beings. It is what makes us feel guilt, shame and regret.

The expectations we create may come to haunt us when we don’t live up to them. But we should not be trapped by cognitive dissonance. In the equation we have behavior and attitudes. We can alter either one. We can change our behavior, and begin to live up to the expectations we set. Or we can change our attitudes and beliefs about these expectations.

This is a dilemma I know I am not alone in facing at Penn. Every decision we make as students stacks up on one side of the cognitive dissonance equation. The internships we get, the classes we take, the clubs we join and the people we form relationships with. College is a journey of discovering one’s self and cognitive dissonance is the compass that leads us along our own paths.

The failure I’ve felt from missing the deadline for the President’s Engagement Prize has made me even more conscious of the other opportunities to be engaged and create impact. Looking ahead, rather than letting my fear trap me in a bubble of rumination and wishful thinking, I use it as motivation to do and keep doing, knowing that the opportunities I’m looking for will arise from proactively pursuing my passions.

Cognitive dissonance is the psychological thermometer that tells us when it’s time to reevaluate our priorities. Whether we end up changing our behaviors or our attitudes about ourselves and our actions, evaluation of our actions and beliefs is crucial towards finding inner peace, growth and success — even if it means getting over our fear of failing by looking at those failures straight in the face.

MICHAEL PALAMOUNTAIN is a College senior from Philadelphia, studying psychology. His email address is mpal@sas.upenn.edu. “Stranger Than Fiction” usually appears every other Tuesday.

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