A handsome, successful middle-aged real estate mogul comes sauntering into the office. The demeanor of every employee shifts. Everyone is suddenly smiling, laughing with a little more gusto than usual, uncharacteristically attentive to the goings-on of the tailored suit with a Hollywood smile. Conversation begins to rise and fill the room, occupying every nook where your 10:30am silence lives every day, hanging above your cube like smog in the air. The bursts of laughter are choppy, startling, and ill-fitting among the gray walls that you've become well-acquainted with over the past year. Coworkers begin asking the stranger about his wife and son, and this is where our scene opens:
"He's doing well! [Wife's name] has been so busy (bless her heart) taking him back and forth to [sport name] practice. He's [enter height and weight here] now and [number] years old. Doesn't the time fly? ["Holy crap!" and "Wow, already?" from everyone in the room] He goes into the 11th grade in the fall, and is playing [list of sports]. He's got a [obnoxiously high number] GPA, and is actually an academic scholar! We practically have to tear the girls in his class off of him! We've got a lot of D1 schools with their eyes on him, so we've just gotta keep it up until graduation! [Ivy League University name here] or bust, am I right? [Que obnoxious laughter from all] No, but in all seriousness, he's doing great and we're just so proud of him…"
At first, this reads as a normal conversation between parents, catching up on the years worth of life events and happenings, wrapped up in a perfect bow of proud parenting. But what do you see that's wrong here? Where is the fault in the all-american success story of our future Ivy League, D1 Athletic Cum Laude Graduate?
It's this: The pressure being put on a teenager. What anxiety he must be feeling right now under the crippling weight of these expectations. Does dad mean to pile on these pressures and standards? Chances are, the answer is no. He's just naively meandering through what seems to be an exciting journey for his strapping young man, the baby he's brought up with loving wife for years; and he's jumping at the chance to talk of this baby with high regard when the opportunity presents itself. He's proud of you buddy, so proud….
But where is our main character in this impending greek tragedy? Shooting hoops in the driveway? A seemingly innocent hour of shooting around to the naked eye of the passing car, turns into 4 hours of intense anxiety to hit every 3-pointer that could present itself. Behind the scenes? Hours of monotonous memorization, terms and definitions that will fade after exams, a 2am back ache from hunching over the desk lamp and textbook that lull him into an involuntary power nap. All for that damn number. That tiny number that gets you a piece of paper that gets you a job that gets you a house and a family and a dog.
Where is your dream, protagonist? Did you want to be a painter? Or an actor? Did you want to go into linguistics, or teaching? Did you dream of traveling to India, or Spain to study sociology and culture? Moscow, Rio, or Guatemala to take in the big-ness of the rest of the world and the small-ness of yourself? Did you yearn to find God and yourself in the humid rainforest in Thailand? What did you want for you?
Everytime dad talks about you to his coworkers, colleagues, clients, and friends, it's another person you feel the need to impress. Another name on the roster of people looking at you under a microscope, staring and waiting to see shaky cellphone photos on Facebook of your graduation day from UC- Berkley, Stanford, Harvard Law. It's another vague face awaiting the day they can shake your dad's hand and say they knew this was where "we were headed all along"...
"We." Who is this "we"? Wasn't it you who pulled the all nighters? Wasn't it you perfecting your lay-up for hours on end? Where were they in the wee hours of the morning when you were at your wit's end, sobbing into a dirty hoodie because trigonometry had you by the throat?
What about the kids on the other side of the coin?
Those who had it all come down on them at once: Graduating high school and, academically, did fine. No study habits were necessary, you didn't need to try super hard to pass, and it was a breeze. But then, all of a sudden, you go from having to ask to use the bathroom to choosing the degree that will determine where you will spend a majority of your days after graduation. You have no idea how to study or manage your time, and start to feel your academics decline, You don't know what you want to do, so you put yourself in a major that you like the idea of, but you don't actually want for your life. Something that sounds right, something that our friends are doing, something that will impress your extended family at the next holiday party. You get halfway into that degree, and realize that you hate it. That you're subconsciously miserable, and pushing off graduation by failing classes and watching your GPA, financial aid, and time run out. The people you graduated high school with are graduating, and you're still in school in the middle of this rut and trying to dig yourself out. Mom and dad are disappointed, when all you want is to make them proud, but all you're doing is procrastinating, and digging, and worrying, and digging, and failing, and digging, and getting more into debt, and eventually the hole is so deep that you can't see a way back out. You've officially let your parents, professors, and yourself down. How do I know all of this? Because that was me.
Here are my words to you: I see you, all of you, and you can beat this. I see you. Not the degree, not the trophy and jersey, not the Instagram post of you and your friends on a boat over spring break, all smiles and sunshine. I see past that, into you. I see the interests, the desires, the struggles that make up who you are. And you are so much more than these things, not to say that your hard work means nothing. You honestly did such a good job, and are still doing such a good job so far. You hold up this huge tapestry of any combination of perfectly captioned social media posts, a happy-go-lucky mask, an amazing social life, all held up with a smile. Behind it, you're hiding any combination of the hours of studying, practicing, anxiety, depression, tears, sweat, soreness, and exhaustion. Maybe you struggle with mental illness, like me. With depression and anxiety, bills to keep up on, dogs to walk, friends to be there for, meetings to attend, practices, and commitments, it creeps up. Depression and anxiety know exactly where and when to get you, and they know exactly how to hit you so that you're a crumpled mess on the bedroom floor with no hope, and no happiness left in you. That. Was. Me. Too.
You may not want me to able to, but I see you. You are significantly more than the number on an adviser's computer screen. You're more than the nights you got drunk with your friends, trying to numb the anxiety of impending exam days and the thought of letting your parents down with another bad grade. but listen to me when I say: Your hard work is not in vain, because good things will come out of it; this is not your end-all be-all. A GPA will never truly define your intelligence, statistically and logically, it can't because it's way too standardized. A degree does not determine whether or not you'll be able to get a job, or have a family, if that's what you're shooting for. Don't lock yourself into something because Mom and Dad say it's what's best. Whether mom and dad agree with your passion or not, you have to remember: This is not your mom and/ or dad's life. You've heard it so many times, but find something that you like, and that you're good at. Both. There's no point in doing something that you don't like but you're good at or something that you like but are no good at. Find both, you will find something. Then work like hell to bring it to fruition. Forget about your past mistakes. Put yourself in a new mindset, create that for yourself. You can do that, contrary to popular belief. Then put the hard work into it. Do it for you.
Work hard, but balance. My parents always preached to me for years, balance, balance, balance. It hasn't been until lately that I've learned how to say "No." Learn how to say "No" to things that won't help you, or edify you, and "Yes" to the things that will. Go out for drinks with your friends, but study an hour before you leave. Have a Friday night free of homework, but make sure that you do an hour or two on Saturday. Balance. Don't be all or nothing. It's okay to have a gray area at this point in your life.
And stop glorifying a culture of busy. I fell victim to this and still sometimes get swept up in the false "glamour" of messy buns at 3am, slaving over color coded notecards for a course I wouldn't end up needing. Stop glorifying living on coffee every day, it becomes a real addiction, and it's not cute when you have a migraine after only one cup not being enough for caffeine intake. Stop glorifying mental illness. Depression is not beautiful. Suicide is not beautiful. Anxiety is not beautiful. It is laying in your bed feeling too heavy to move because you depression won't allow you, but freaking out in your brain because your anxiety says you have a million things to do and never enough time to do it. Chaos isn't beautiful, it steals your joy by distracting you and taking away what really ever made you happy in the first place.
Instead, start glorifying balance. Start glorifying inner peace. Start glorifying reading books for fun. Start glorifying spending time outdoors, even if it's just on the back porch. Start glorifying getting to know yourself. I make lists about myself. My top 3 favorite colors, my top 10 favorite movies, 10 things that calm me down when I'm stressed. I delight in your existence, and whether you succeed at Harvard or struggle at the local community college, there will always be someone out there who is proud of you for being who you are and praying for you every day. I'm rooting for you, from one stressed-out college student to another. I hope that by destigmatizing failure, and mistakes, we can see college for what it is: An opportunity for personal growth, a networking opportunity to find yourself and the people that are going to help shape your life.
Yes, you need to look back once to acknowledge the mistakes you've made, and what lesson you learned from it. But revisiting that mistake isn't an option, because dwelling holds you back.
Are you going to be able to gain the time and money you lost by dwelling on your failures? Absolutely not. Acknowledge your mistakes. Look at your GPA. Cry really hard one time. Get it all out one time; then never revisit that again. Move forward and do not look back. Don't let your parents push you into looking back and dwelling. Remind yourself of where you are now, and where you're going: Not where you were. You don't live in the "where you were" anymore. Create a new college experience, and force the system to work with and for you, not against you. It may not be a physical reality, but your new perspective will change that for you personally. : You have intrinsic value because you're a living, breathing person, even more so because you're you. The fact that you are you in your innermost "youness" makes you irreplaceable. If you weren't here, there would be a hole in the cosmos that nothing could ever replace.
I'm rooting for you, and I am so proud of you, failures and all.
An Ex-stressed College Kid