Our generation is facing a daunting host of great expectations, which have the potential to make or break us. Harness them, suggests Fausto Hernandez.
I think back to all the teachers who made a prediction on parent teacher day, all of the strangers that, as a pleasantry or not, prophesied a certain future, all of my friends who made a remark about my tomorrow: they all sprinkled their contribution onto my tidal wave of great expectations.
As college acceptance rates contract and fees swell, the need to excel becomes increasingly evident, and permeates our daily lives. Suddenly, faced with our great expectations and the hope of those around us, we nostalgically long for the old days, when the stakes were as high as the wood-block tower we could build. Although today, even kindergarten admissions are competitive, and such seemingly trivial play may be interpreted as a marker to strengthen an application.
We idolize effort and success, and are expected to mirror the high-achieving profile if we wish to attain the latter. Household names like Elon Musk, the late Nelson Mandela or Steve Jobs represent the ultimate end-goal: to leave a legacy, succeed and make the world a better place. Our great expectations, formed through years of experiences, observations and desire, transcend “I wanted an A in that test”: they encompass an entire career and life.
Great Expecations: Real Meritocracy Offers No Excuses
Seductive as this may be, the cruel reality is, a real meritocracy offers no excuses. With opportunity comes the expectation of fully exploiting every tool at our disposal. Moreover, It often seems as if several factors have conspired to, theoretically, permit an aspiring person to achieve more than ever before. The Internet and technological revolution have eased the practical aspects of schoolwork considerably and democratized knowledge. “You lot have it easy! In my day, we had to go to the library to research!” exclaims a reminiscing physics teacher.
My parents always strove to provide me with the best education they could afford, because they believed in its transformative power. How could I possibly not take advantage of the opportunity? I had to: there simply was no alternative. Yet in middle school, one answer eluded me, and began to gnaw at my motivation, insidiously. I had always kept working, completing tasks to my standard, but now I wondered on my purpose. Where was I doing this? What was if all for?
One enlightening afternoon before testing season, the answer dawned on me, eclipsed by the extent of my immaturity. It was all for me! For myself! I had to succeed not to keep all the other stakeholders of my life content, or to win their approval, but for my own future and personal satisfaction. There was also an element of responsibility: life had imparted me with a fortunate situation where I could worry about homework as opposed to tomorrow’s food.
Great Expectations: Be Careful What You Wish For
Then, the second doubt shook me. Hypothetically, I am accepted at my dream college. Then what?
When I faced the college admission process for the first time, my father told me something vital: “the college is a means to an end, it is not an end in itself. Life is only just beginning when you graduate from university!” But I wondered: what would life be like?
Did I really believe that I could realize my vision of the philanthropic, entrepreneurial technocrat, the Nobel-laureate physicist or the successful banking CEO? Different people saw me in very different places. Where to go? Two experiences shaped my current standpoint.
The first occurred an ordinary Thursday morning, when a memento of my past summer exams mailed its way back into my life in the form of an award. I had received the Best in the World Award in Spanish Literature, a test I had taken and not given a second thought to since I left the exam hall. Out of the blue, this certificate had materialized in the most startling of ways. I experienced the impostor syndrome – self-doubt relating to the validity of one’s success – but along with it, I felt a newfound reassurance. It truly was possible to succeed!
The second came in the form of a speech by Jake Sullivan during Summer 2015, at the Yale Young Global Scholars Program. In it, he described an anecdote where he was literally brokering the terms of the Israel-Palestine ceasefire: just people, in a room, taking decision that affect millions. The takeaway? Change, and progress, is driven by people like you and me.
Now, I didn’t just have to succeed. I really, really wanted to. This begged the question: how? If a single answer existed, the world would be a much simpler place. But my personal solution to the riddle is living with passion. Embrace your great expectation for your future. Which college will empower you the most to reach your life goal? That should be your target. And you won’t get to it with a formula for success or by emulating a high-achieving profile, but by being yourself, for this is the only way to live passionately.
It’s no coincidence that passion, along with initiative and originality, are all stressed as key attributes by college admissions offices – they are what is truly valuable; passion and originality should not look the same on thousands of homogenous admissions. Passion must be authentic – it is shaped by context and individual experience. Passion should manifest itself in our lives as more than a college buzzword, as a real, organic phenomenon that is inseparable from our identities, albeit not a static thing. It should be dynamic and lead us to improvement. Pursue genuine interests, and, despite the banal cliché of the repeatedly recited and reprinted phrase: be yourself. True passion needs conviction. This is why, although we may internalize predictions for our future, the most important expectations are our own. Do not value yourself compared to others.
The only great expectations that matter, in the end, are our own
Comparison is perhaps as old as humans themselves, an intrinsic urge to best the competition: how do I size up against X, Y or Z? More than the primal height comparison of twenty millennia ago, today this pertains to SAT scores and other such standardized mechanisms that quantify the individual. The more you research, the more “should” activities accumulate, a list that has the terrible potential of reducing your current lifestyle to utter triviality. Competitively minded parents saturate their children’s agenda with a menagerie of extracurricular activities as they vie for an edge; the kids feel the pressure.
In lieu of attempting to mold yourself into an everyman for college apps, the answer lies in pursuing and developing your personal interests. Enjoy a sport? Find a school team. Like an instrument? Give it a try. Like Japanese anime, singing, debating or planting trees? Go do! Nurture your interests into blossoming hobbies that aren’t just a cheap, thin paint job for your profile, but yield personal satisfaction. Do not attempt to project an artificially appealing facade or to be a jack-of-all-trades (lest this be your true passion). Sincerely, be yourself.
The only expectations that matter, in the end, are our own. Instead of sources of disappointment and stress, our self-formed expectations can be empowering and motivation wellsprings. In fact, expectations and goals should be encouraged instead of repressed. From personal observation, I can verify that a hope can flourish into an enriching experience if it is fertilized with sufficient effort, vision and resilience. Few things are ever achieved by repressing hopes in fear of failure.
I have come to realize that whether I asphyxiate in the wave’s murky depths or ride it to new heights is my decision. We must not dare to dream to tentatively wish that perhaps, maybe… No. We must strive, and achieve, or try again, knowing that we are living life as we desire, no shore being too distant in our horizon.
What is your shore? Do you have a story to tell about an obstacle in your path, self-discovery or a life-changing achievement? Tell us about it!