- Brendan Stec
"No one can live happily who has regard to himself alone and transforms everything into a question of his own utility; you must live for your neighbour, if you would live for yourself."
I graduated from college this week.
And I can’t help but reflect on my last 18 years of formal education. Countless essays, hundreds of broken mechanical pencils, too many standardized tests, and fortunately, not a single all-nighter. This time period was a consistent preparation for what was to come: learning algebra for the SAT, taking the SAT to get to college, getting to college to get the job, getting the job to, presumably, achieve success!, the almighty, all-important goal for so many young Americans today.
The pursuit of success! starts early in America. If you don’t get into the STEM-oriented, accelerated kindergarten with a waitlist, you better hire a tutor to catch up or get ahead. If you don’t become the founder of a non-profit or captain of the Muay Thai club in high school, because, leadership!, you better get your parents to pay off the admissions counselors at Yale. Because if you don’t go to Yale, or any other overly-expensive but unfortunately-still-worth-it university, you can’t get the job, or graduate program, or VC funding for your startup. You can’t get success!.
Many young people - including myself at one point - believe in an unrealistically linear definition of a fulfilling career, a meme-ified belief I call success! It says X amount of AP classes and a Y GPA gets you Z acceptances to college followed by an internship at ABC Corp., which leads to networking with K amount of people and a full-time job where they place well into QRS University for an MBA and so on and so forth...
Success! grows to be a checklist of acceptable careers, companies, colleges, and cities. And like completing a checklist, finding success! is methodical, consistent, and seemingly effortless. Extra style points for an exquisite LinkedIn profile that really proves your worth. Failure, in today's competitive global economy, is simply not an option.
Most students in high school and college suffer anxiety and other mental health issues at high rates never seen before. Perhaps it's because getting into a good college, which is now more important than ever, is increasingly more difficult. Maybe it's because they feel choked by social media's unrealistic expectations for succeeding socially, academically, financially, and beyond. The pressure is on from helicopter parents, admission counselors, and employers, so increasing numbers of students turn to stimulants like Adderall and Vyvanse to stay afloat, let alone dream of success!, whatever that could possibly mean in today's unpredictable economy of sudden disruption and chaotic emerging technologies.
I propose us young people stop thinking about success! so narrowly.
Checking boxes on the way to success! is unrealistic. What if there is a recession and your job offer is rescinded? What if you oversleep your final exam and fail a class? What if, when you have a plan, you get punched in the face? The world is indifferent to the ways in which you hope to bend it, both today when you have your dream interview and five years from now, when you hope to be successful! While sometimes we work hard and things work out, mostly we get thrown a lot of challenges on the path to a goal. Often, we fail.
Checking boxes on the way to success! means you are what Nassim Taleb calls a fragilista, someone who is dramatically exposed to any possible downside. Someone who can be broken by any small failure or setback during the unflagging march toward success!
I also propose us young people stop emphasizing so heavily any definition of success.
Today, as I finish school and reflect on the past, I feel happy I was able to finish the Philadelphia Marathon, graduate from college, and find an exciting full-time job. I'm proud of my personal definitions of success that transcend mere success! But I feel even more happy about the long-term relationships I've started and preserved over these years.
I couldn't buy friends like the ones I have today, who love to discuss psychology, sports, and beer with me. We all can make fun of each other and share unforgettable memories. We can meet up to have a few drinks, talk music, or go for a hike. We can do what our massive human brains have evolved specifically to do: socialize, in order to connect with someone or something beyond ourselves, to suspend, if only briefly, the internal monologue that tortures us when we're alone.
When it comes down to it, the people in my life, not successes, have made the biggest contribution to my well-being during my years in college. My parents supported me through difficult times and kept me grounded during good times. My friends kept me sane through the bored Philadelphia summers and stressful Drexel University 10-week academic terms. Along the way, strangers provided career advice and frequently held out a much-needed helping hand.
I'm here today because of who I know, not what I know. And I'm not the exception, I'm the rule.
At Harvard, there is a study (1) that has tracked the lives of thousands of individuals, their children, and grandchildren for over 80 years. What has differentiated the happy and unhappy individuals in this study over the years? Has it been their level of success!? No. It's been the strength of their relationships with others.
As the study suggests, "close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives." In other words, strong relationships, with our parents, friends, or spouses, not only protect us against the inevitable ups and downs of life, but they also keep us healthier, both physically and mentally, as well. Or, as the study's director Robert Waldinger puts it more directly:
"Loneliness kills. It's as powerful as smoking or alcoholism."
On our tireless pursuit of success!, it's tempting to let relationships fall by the wayside. In fact, some successful people and organizations fetishize this workaholic goal-meeting. They tell us to ignore dinner plans to work through the night. They say staying-in every weekend is the only way to keep a start-up afloat. They encourage us to learn this must-need skill or spend this amount of time networking. Meanwhile, we have missed calls from our parents or siblings. We forget a friend's birthday. We cancel date plans to work remotely. And we wonder why we feel anxious, overworked, or lonely.
I'm no saint. I have my fair share of workaholic tendencies. I'm guilty of pursuing success! to some degree, maintaining a too-rigid plan of the future while letting current relationships or experiences atrophy. However, as I start my career, I realize now that people, good and bad, will play a larger role in my well-being than I previously believed.
I hope - as challenging as it may be - to value a better balance between my relationships and my career going forward. It's what I hope for all of my friends and family members, too, so we can all stay connected and uniquely human.
"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main."
- John Donne, "Meditation XVII"
(1) Mineo, Liz. “Over Nearly 80 Years, Harvard Study Has Been Showing How to Live a Healthy and Happy Life.” Harvard Gazette, Harvard Gazette, 26 Nov. 2018, news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/04/over-nearly-80-years-harvard-study-has-been-showing-how-to-live-a-healthy-and-happy-life/.