I was enlightened through a conversation with my peer, *Lucy. She’s incredibly intelligent and valedictorian of our class. I’ve known her for years since we went to school together, but I never really engaged in any conversations with her until now. It started off with small talk about college, but then it became something deeper and more meaningful. She explained to me the pressure she puts on herself and how being number one entails so many sacrifices. She talked in a tired manner—not tired in that she didn’t get enough sleep (which I’m sure was the case as well), but tired in a way where she has exhausted the idea of what her life is idealistically supposed to be; tired in a way where she understands what her life has become, and is not yet ready to change it.
Lucy will be going to the University of Pennsylvania this fall on a full ride scholarship. Her senior year isn’t over yet; with her commitment to UPenn, she is still pressured to keep her grades up for mid and final reports.
“Was it worth it after these four years?”
“It has to be,” she says. “Right?”
Lucy says she is always striving for that end goal. Her first end goal was getting into an ivy league, and she succeeded. Now, the next end goal is to compete against the brightest of our country at the University of Pennsylvania and be top of the class again. The end goal after that is to get the dream job at a major computer software company.
There is a price to pay in being number one. Lucy says how, on the journey to number one, there was more of the bad than the good. “I went through so many highs and lows this year. It always felt like a short high—after one accomplishment I’d be happy for a moment, then go back to the way I was. I think I missed out on a lot, and not getting the full experience of high school made me see how empty life can be if I never truly enjoyed myself or accepted the fact that mistakes and failures are all part of the process.”
It never truly dawned on me all the burdens each valedictorian across the country must face until talking to Lucy. Growing up she was never exceptional at anything—not a sport or painting—but she was always good at school, so she decided that would be her strong suit.
I understood what she felt—the need to be exceptional at something in order to feel special. Each one of us wants to be different, to be set apart from others. We all want our own special superpower; for Lucy it was excelling at school, for me it was writing. When we question our identity as little children, we ask, “Well how am I different?” Because we are not yet mature enough to understand that individuality comes from within, we cling to more prominent and tangible things that set us apart from others. This “something” we try to excel at is how we exhibit uniqueness. As we grow older, we understand that this uniqueness comes from inside us and doesn’t need any validation.
Lucy thought she would have her identity figured out by senior year. However, she is only beginning to understand. The greatest teacher is experience, and because Lucy was busy studying these past four years and focusing on that end goal, she was not able to experience as much as her peers. Her range of experiences is limited because she lost herself in the potent desire of achieving greatness.
This raises the question, then, is it really worth it? Is greatness, or that “end goal” worth the sacrifices that must be made in order to get there? If being top of your class means incessant stress, never getting a break, setting yourself up to unrealistic standards out of your range, and not having a social life—is it really worth it in the end?
Like Lucy answered earlier, “It has to be. Right?”
Perhaps she doesn’t know either. Perhaps it wasn’t worth it after all, because she missed out on a lot of living. She missed out on experiences in high school—and she’ll look back on her high school career as stressful. She’ll look back on college as stressful. She’ll get that dream job—that end goal—and it’ll feel so wonderful at first, until she gets used to it. Then what? What is left?
Through her responses I can clearly see that she is starting to understand her identity—which is a big step. Now the hard part is actually making a change in her lifestyle; to let go of the imperfections, to put in just the right amount of effort instead of excessive and emotionally draining effort, and to realize that her best is, indeed, enough.