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Success is overrated

This past semester, I was hanging out with a friend who had a midterm coming up. Knowing she had been studying virtually nonstop for the past week, I half-jokingly suggested that she could afford to take it easy for a few hours.

“I can’t do that,” she responded. “I’m pre-med, so my GPA actually has to be perfect if I’m going to be successful.”

I knew that she wasn’t completely serious, but even so, I was surprised. Her concept of success was so different from my own. It seemed that she saw it as a final goal to be attained, and that those mini successes along the way (a good grade on a midterm, a perfect GPA) did not naturally mean that she was a successful person. In other words, a successful person is one who has reached their ultimate goal. In my eyes, she was already extremely successful. She was doing very well at Duke, an elite university with a low acceptance rate.

So what do we as a broader culture value as successful? Successful people do well in their classes, have better internships or have jobs lined up after graduation. They are presidents of clubs or presidents of companies. They are successful academically and professionally. These are the standards outside of Duke too: better colleges or better jobs are reflective of success.

Valuing academic and professional success is by no means a bad thing. However, if we only value academic and professional intelligence, then what are we excluding from our views of success? Some glaring examples include social, creative and emotional intelligence. However much you want to value these things, you somehow always ends up sacrificing a hangout with friends for an extra hour of studying, taking that “useful” stats class over the art class you wanted to take or not having the time to talk with your friend who’s feeling down because you just have to finish this assignment. We can also see this in the way that different majors are valued: humanities classes are generally seen as easier and constantly accompanied with questions like, “So what job do you plan to get with that?”

In William Deresiewicz’s article “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” he notes that elite universities, no matter how much they advertise their “well-rounded” liberal arts education, ultimately focus on developing and reproducing one form: the analytic. Duke is no exception. Developing a moral identity, mental health or creative ability (to name a few things) always takes a backseat to the storm of pre-professionalism. These skills are not prioritized by the University nor most of its students.

The focus on academic and professional success is not without reason. Good academics presumably lead to better grad schools, better jobs, more money—and thus financial stability. The lure of financial stability in the economy that we live in is an easy way to explain why we might focus more on these measures. However, assuming that only better academic or even better professional success will lead to that end goal can be short-sighted. The workplace doesn’t just want someone with a sparkling resume. Even to achieve professional success, we need other skills. 

Ask any recruiter and they’ll tell you that they’re not just looking for someone who has a relevant ex-job title. Anyone can learn on the job with a pretty basic knowledge of the material. Recruiters also want someone who has the creative intelligence to come up with better solutions, has the social intelligence to work with other people or the emotional intelligence to empathize and lead others. They want someone who they’d like to work with. They want someone human.

Perhaps the reason why we prioritize analytic intelligence is the fact that the measures are so quantifiable. In a math problem, for example, your answer is either correct or incorrect. At the very most, your process is done a little differently, but even then, there may be restrictions on the process. Compare that to ethics, where you essentially just debate whether something is wrong or right and either way, you’re not totally correct. Analytic intelligence is easily graded and progress can be quantified, whereas measuring how much more creative you are or how much better you are at writing is much harder.

In the same vein, academic and professional success are more quantifiable than other kinds of success. Your academic success can be measured by your grades, and your professional success can be measured by the amount of money you make. But how can you measure social success? You could see how many friends you have, but the line between acquaintance and friend can be blurry, and the degree of closeness complicates things even further. How do you measure the fulfillment you get from what you do? There’s no metric to decide how personally expressive and fulfilling something is, so maybe that’s why we’re often drawn to the majors or careers that have quantifiable standards of success.

When we consider our notions of academic and professional success, we may realize that we are neglecting how far we have already come. We tend to have a short-sighted view of where we are—Duke students seen by others are generally seen as already academically successful and on the way to being professionally successful. There are plenty of people whose definition of academic success is making it into college at all, or whose professional success is finally getting a job, even if it’s just above minimum wage. If we zoom out beyond our immediate bubble, we can see that we are privileged to even consider success as something beyond survival.

What’s the use of considering our definitions for success? Without well-rounded success, we may not be happy at all. Imagine your life without family or friends. Imagine your life without integrity. Imagine your life with only work. Are you happy with where you are? Do you see yourself as truly successful? And if not, are there other kinds of intelligence or success you want to cultivate moving forward? 

No matter how you define being successful, it’s never too late to take control and move towards that definition. 

My pre-med friend, in her quest for a 4.0, sacrificed countless hours of sleep and likely years off of her life from stress and fatigue. This summer, I hope, will prove to be a success for her (and all Duke students’) relaxation and health.

Ami Wong is a Trinity sophomore. Her column, “the bigger picture,” runs on alternate Fridays.


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