I walked into my organic chemistry course freshman year. To the right I saw kids who were already on chapter three of the textbook, and to the left I saw the kids who were still wondering where they should buy said textbook. And I thought to myself, why do shows like “Lost” take place on deserted islands? They should just come to Duke.
“Survival of the fittest” adopts a unique meaning here. From fighting to determine who can stay longest at a study table in Perkins to who can stay longest in 30-degree weather in a tent, our school culture seems to thrive on competition. The competitive spirit can push us to achieve goals we thought were beyond our means and help us stay on track when the impulse to simply coast by in school and extracurricular activities arises. But when that competitive spirit leaves us questioning our own identities, wishing ill for our friends and viewing life as a zero-sum game, then something has gone horribly wrong.
I write at a time when this competitive spirit is about to reach its climax. As a senior, I find myself in a perennial period of instability where my future and my friends’ futures are constantly on the line. From med school to law school to consulting jobs, we all strive for the top. No matter how good our fortunes, there will always be the small part of our conscience that compares our accomplishments with those of our classmates. And though this tendency is somewhat inevitable and sometimes healthy, if it grows beyond the point of our control, it ultimately leaves us feeling constantly inadequate.
So the next item on my bucket list for graduation is this: Stop viewing college as a Darwinian struggle for survival. This means ceasing to measure our accomplishments using the bar that others set for us.
It’s a trying task, one that’s personally taken me three-and-a-half years to fully understand. But at some point in the flood of acceptances, rejections, offers and waitlists the year brings, I realized that the most contented people I knew were those who set very unique, individual goals for themselves and derived a sense of self-worth that could withstand whatever rejections or disappointments life threw at them.
The least contented people? The ones who, when they held up a mirror, could never see their own reflection but only the reflections of the friends, siblings and idols that they could only hope to become. I personally fell into this category many times. It’s hard not to. Most of us come from ultra-competitive high schools and enter into this big pond of talented people with small fish, or however that analogy goes.
And then one day, after I found out that I didn’t get into my top choice for grad school, my very bright, future-doctor brother took me to a bar with amazing vegetarian buffalo wings and even more amazing White Russians (the beverage). He told me that if I could look back at my life and find a way to be happy with the person it has made me today, then I would never have to worry about the person I would become.
Nietzsche has a version of this concept in his philosophy called “the eternal recurrence,” a no-regrets state of mind that requires willing everything in your past, the good and the bad. Of course, this is also the man who believed that all codes of morality were no longer relevant, so believe him if you will.
But after my brother explained to me that I could be content with wherever I ended up and whatever I accomplished, I finally felt like I could be happy even if I lost the Darwinian struggle for survival, or its college equivalent. And when I came back to campus this spring, I learned what it meant to feel genuine pride for my friends’ accomplishments and genuine contentment for my own, big or small. It’s a pretty good feeling, and it’s a feeling that you will miss if you are so caught up in the competition that you don’t enjoy playing the game.
In the end, the fittest may survive, but only the happiest truly thrive.
Sony Rao is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Wednesday. You can follow Sony on Twitter @sony_rao.