I recently read this New York Times article on suicide clusters in Ivy League schools, and felt frustrated, angry and helpless all at the same time. The article illustrates how smart, talented, high-achieving young people are feeling too much pressure to live up to the expectations they and others set for them, and failing to cope, they choose to take their own lives. It’s unbelievably tragic, and yet, I wonder, to what extent is it unavoidable?
I remember feeling amazed in law school how some of my classmates came to class not only perfectly attired and made-up, but with a completely different hairstyle every day. I felt woefully inadequate in comparison, barely having made it to my 9 am class, wearing whatever least resembled sweats and wasn’t overly wrinkled. I wondered at the perfect binders with color-coordinated notes, and their poised discussion of the best Magic Circle firm to intern at. Before the ubiquity of Facebook and smartphones, I could choose to tune off, and thus, not confront, my own inadequate grasp of both the topic of the seminar and my future career prospects.
Unsurprisingly, it’s harder to avoid my inadequacies now. I can’t turn on Facebook without being constantly reminded that I’m not yet engaged, don’t have a magazine-cover-ready headshot, and that my culinary capabilities aren’t up to scratch. I don’t have exciting enough adventures, or win incredible honors or set up successful businesses. Compared to everyone I went to school or college, I am apparently distinctly average. And I’m ashamed to admit, this fact keeps me up at night.
I wonder how it is possible to accomplish so little and yet feel so stressed out. How do those other people do it? I wonder whether I wasted my years at school and college, which at the time seemed like a battlefield, but in hindsight resembles an extended spa vacation. Could I have created a successful business while juggling classes? Or learnt a language? Or written half a dozen novels? Why didn’t I do more dammit!
I don’t intend to trivialize the mental pressures and agonies that these students go through — those who are struggling under the weight of keeping up appearances whilst silently questioning themselves why they aren’t able to do more, and do it effortlessly. While Stanford may call it “Duck Syndrome”, I call it “Adam’s curse”, after the W.B. Yeats’ poem of the same name. Yeats put it succinctly when he said:
A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
The need to make something look effortless apparently affects us all, even the greatest among us, and yet it is precisely what can cause our undoing.
One of my new favorite books is Kevin Ashton’s How To Fly A Horse, and in it he debunks the myth that the greatest acts of creativity are born of genius, a persistent myth in today’s culture that hallows the appearance of dashing off with ease that which was born of much labor. As Yeats said, if it doesn’t seem easy, then what’s the point? The point is that we are doing ourselves and society a great disservice. By hiding the real effort and sacrifices behind our achievements, we may temporarily make ourselves look good, but we are permanently crafting a message that says, “Everything is easy for me”, which means that it must continue to be so. And we are putting that pressure on those around us as well.
How do we turn off the relentless mental comparisons? Perhaps by acknowledging as a society that there aren’t a finite number of paths to success just as there isn’t one universal definition of what ‘success’ means. Maybe we can reduce this relentless pressure if more of us were willing to show the prototypes and the mis-steps and the almost-theres. Artist Austin Kleon exhorts us to “show your work”. Let’s take it a step further — show your bad work. If those who look perfect from outside were more willing to show their vulnerability, and if we as a society praised progress instead of perfectionism, maybe our teenagers and young adults would face less of a pressure to put their “Penn face” on, and be more comfortable revealing their more interesting and human faces instead.
This post first appeared on Medium.