Rubik's Cube Screenshot
Screenshot // YouTube

I learned to solve a Rubik’s Cube this winter break. My first try took 37 minutes, as I thoroughly inspected the beginner’s guide on YouTube and timidly swapped blues for greens and reds for whites. The feeling is addictive; when solving and racing the clock, I had no time to worry about problems in my life. All that existed was the cube. I’ve since brought my time down to a mere minute and nine seconds.

My first semester at Penn left me insecure and worried about the seven more to come. There is nothing wrong with a Rubik’s Cube, but there is when you solve it to temporarily escape from reality. My short time at Penn has left me with a feeling of something to be desired. Something has felt missing, a part of me that existed back in California but was glaringly absent here.

I have always based a significant amount of my self-worth on personal achievement. I am not alone — Penn attracts individuals who exist to be the best. Many of us need excellence to be fulfilled, and we are not content with being “middle of the road” in our social, professional, or private lives. It is why finishing the Rubik’s Cube feels so damn good each time. I am not denying that this is valuable, as it is in large part what has driven us to accomplish so much. This makes for some insane breakthroughs, not just for us as individuals, but oftentimes for entire fields or disciplines. 

However, this continual desire to constantly achieve more can decimate our self-worth. By constantly holding ourselves to the highest standards in every single endeavor we attempt, we are often crushed when our actions do not meet the expectations we have set. In high school, this is less of a problem, but at Penn, it is near impossible to be the best at everything. We are not used to seeing all our peers get more prestigious internships and better grades than we do. This achievement-oriented mindset inevitably leads to feeling unfulfilled.

Some of us become quite lost during our time at this school. In high school, we were the future doctor or criminal lawyer. At Penn, 25 percent of the Class of 2016 ended up in finance. Too many of us made high achievement an identifying factor of who we are as people. After that part of us dissipated, we also lost some of our goals and were lured in by money and prestige.

I am currently trapped in this phase, feeling like an outsider looking in, not exactly sure what my next move should be and whether I should continue my biology major.

Some people are truly exceptional and have not faced this struggle despite having an achievement-oriented mindset. I am not one of these people, but I wish them the best of luck. Maybe they will experience this phenomenon sometime in their futures.

The desire for achievement has two components. One is a genuine passion for a goal, as the accomplishment itself (Rubik’s Cube) brings its own pleasure. The other is an obsession with prestige, a desire to be the best because that is what we are used to and how we have existed thus far. The first part is much needed, but the second is unhealthy. It is an insecurity that is never sated, even if the achievements are met, and it focuses on what we do not have rather than on what we do. We may move mountains, but we will never be satisfied.

Desiring high achievement is perfectly fine, but it needs to be on one’s own terms. Pick battles wisely, as there is no need to be the best in every single thing. It may take time, but find the things that truly matter, not because everyone else likes them, but because you actually do yourself. Remove the desire for high achievement from your life; if you truly love the things you do, you will accomplish more than ever possible from being driven by prestige and a desire for excellence alone.


ALEX KUANG is a College freshman from Pleasanton, Calif. studying biology. His email address is akuang@sas.upenn.edu. Trapped West Coaster usually appears every other Monday.

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