I often find myself conflicted by what I call “carpe diem” articles, pieces that criticize the mundaneness of everyday life or some other aspect of collective society and instead urge the reader to find happiness in small things. This seems to be a recurring theme especially at Penn, where various columnists, including myself, have come to write about the idea from different perspectives. More specifically, these pieces tend to focus on — and usually criticize — Penn’s overly pre-professional culture or hyper-competitiveness. They usually call for us to step back and enjoy life more. Don’t care so much about that internship, it’s ok to get a B-plus, and so on.
Even when I am the one saying something along this line, it has always struck me as an ultimately unfulfilling piece of advice. Because here’s the thing: We care, and we are extremely, almost manically competitive. Most of us are here because of this collective common characteristic.
Whether in the classroom, the athletic fields, or other arenas, we were the kids that cared about winning. And make no mistake — winning is only meaningful as long as there is a loser. We are not here because we were exceptionally nice, or the most generous, or even the most morally commendable people. As diverse as Penn is, I feel safe in saying that the drive to succeed is one of the few qualities that unite us as a community.
This point, while universally accepted and assumed, is generally missing in our debate about how and what Penn ought to be. The culture of competition results in a setting in which students push themselves and others to their full potential. So it has always seemed somewhat self-denying, somehow not true to ourselves when people talk about how we are too competitive, or too career-oriented, and so on. The same mindset that has gotten us here can’t suddenly be declared a negative trait now that we’ve identified problems in the culture it creates.
It is also troubling because it suggests that there can be no complete solution to the issues we face concerning mental health and stress without compromising Penn’s defining identity. For Penn to keep commanding so much respect from the world, it must continue to admit people based on their qualifications, which most times are a direct result of just how much people care and try.
So how do we then go about trying to address the issues of competition within Penn culture? I don’t believe that the fact that this is a fundamental part of who we are means that there is nothing that can be done to reconcile our view of what Penn should be with what it actually is. For me, the key lies in how we self-identify. How we choose to think of ourselves directly influences how we react to failure and how we deal with the stressful environment that is Penn.
For example, many people consider their first career path out of college to be a defining characteristic of themselves — some argue that we are even more of a LinkedIn generation than one of Facebook. And it is of course obvious that we would care about what we do professionally. But it is when we only think of ourselves in this way, when we think of ourselves just as everyone else does, that things become more difficult for us.
My fellow columnist Lucy Hu wrote that “happiness doesn’t come from your resume.” This is a claim that for reasons aforementioned, I feel uneasy about. I would say that happiness does and should come from your resume, but that it does and should not come only from your resume. The distinction, while seemingly minor, is crucial. It allows us an honest yet hopeful premise on which to facilitate our continuing conversation about Penn’s culture. Our professional and academic achievements are something that we naturally take pride in. But it is important to realize that we are more than that, even though others may not have the opportunity to find that out.
We are complex human beings, each having taken different paths that converged onto Locust Walk. We are indeed our majors, our GPAs, our SAT scores, our professional experiences, our leadership positions, and LinkedIn connections. But we are also our human relationships, our challenges overcome, our moments of courage and resilience, our dreams dreamt, and our values discovered. It is perhaps a miracle that the beauty of that doesn’t make it any less true, and we ought to remember that more often than we do.
JAMES LEE is a College senior from Seoul, South Korea, studying English and philosophy, politics and economics. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “The Conversation” usually appears every other Monday.
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