We’re two weeks into the semester, which means you’ve probably had the “how was your summer?” conversation dozens of times now. But this question is more than seasonal small talk. It’s an appraisal.
At Duke, we’re taught to make every summer meaningful. Not necessarily meaningful for ourselves—meaningful for our careers. Our anxieties about being “successful enough” underlie part of this pressure. But the part that feels the most stifling is the judgment from others.
Yesterday, my boyfriend remarked that we tend to evaluate the impressiveness of our peers’ summers on a scale. At the top, with ten out of tenpoints, are high-paying internships with powerful companies in cities like New York or San Francisco. If you know someone who worked at Google this summer—or if you are that someone—you’re familiar with the unending praise these jobs elicit. We recognize that these summer jobs may lead to future prominence in that person’s field. Thus, they deserve our pride, jealousy, and insecurity all at once.
Then there are the unpaid internships. Again, better if with a well-known company—but throwing around terms like “think tank” and “start-up” may distract your listener just enough to impress them, bumping you up a point or two. Did you work in STEM or policy? Were you in a big city? If not, and especially if the internship was in your hometown, you’re unlikely to be perceived as a threat. But if you can show off just enough to induce mild feelings of fear and inferiority, you’re golden.
Jobs in the service industry lie towards the bottom of the scale. We don’t recognize the time spent as a waitress or working the counter at Macy’s to be meaningful because they seem unlikely to affect an individual’s chances at their ideal job or grad school. When he wasn’t on a ship shadowing Naval officers, my boyfriend was a lifeguard at the pool five minutes from his house. If he kept his NROTC activities out of the conversation, he estimates his summer would be ranked a two out of ten.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all size each other up based on our achievements. Not because we want to judge others—but because we want to know where we stand. We want, as always, to feel that we are good enough. Success is relative, so we define our worth by comparison.
I didn’t realize just how pointless this all was until a few days ago in conversation with a friend. Her summer plans fell through, so she spent three months at home—a choice virtually unheard of at Duke. She didn’t scramble to find a new addition to her resume, but instead focused on relaxing and spending time with her family. What really struck me was her justification: “When will I ever have the opportunity again to simply be with the people I care about?”
The answer: probably never. We are all so anxious to get ahead that we never stop to think about what we might be leaving behind. If we never give ourselves a day off to just enjoy our lives, why should we be surprised when, one day, we can’t enjoy anything?
Several of my friends spent a sizable portion of their summers stressing about return offers and future internships. I’ll admit I fell into this trap myself—a consequence of the pressure to “set myself up for success.” Yet when we constantly worry about what might come next instead of enjoying the opportunities we have been given, we inhibit our ability to learn, grow, and connect with those around us. Not only will those factors be some of the primary contributors to our future career success, they also determine whether or not, at the end of the day, we feel fulfilled. And we’ll never truly be able to make the most of our experiences if we dedicate all our time to chasing Duke’s absurd standards of success.
As talks about summer escapades finally come to a close, I encourage you to reflect on what your summer meant to you. Not to your friends, your family, or to Duke—but to you. And if I ever ask you about your summer, know this: I’ll take that story over your elevator pitch any day.
Rebecca Torrence is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays.
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