Last week I read this article about how today’s college students think more highly of themselves than ever, but don’t actually perform as well as they think they do. Aside from confirming the doom-and-gloom comments about “students today” that I hear from fellow teachers (and, I’ll admit, pronounce myself when I’ve had a bad day), it made me reflect on my own college experience, which was the exact opposite of what’s cited in this latest study.
As the youngest child in my family, I grew up with three older siblings who were (and still are, for the most part) highly intelligent and highly accomplished. As in, they won pretty much every academic award/recognition/prize in every subject at every grade level it was possible to win. My two oldest siblings also are gifted pianists, which my middle brother could have also been had he not quit piano to excel at sports instead. Oh, and win a few writing contests on the side when he wasn’t creating short stop-action animation films. Needless to say, I knew early on that I was way behind, and struggling mightily in subjects like math and physics and scoring significantly lower than my siblings on the SAT (even with the help of that prep class my mother sent me to), not to mention AP tests, only confirmed this early conclusion. I saw myself as just an ok student with ok abilities. I won some awards too, but they didn’t really count stacked up against the family legacy. To be clear, my family was always supportive of me and I can’t remember a single time my parents ever said I should be more like someone else in the family. But somehow I still became convinced that I did not measure up.
This only became magnified when I went to college. At Wellesley, I was suddenly surrounded by hundreds of students who were just like my siblings: impressively intelligent, accomplished, and talented in all sorts of ways. On the one hand, this was a wonderful and extremely positive experience. In addition to learning from my professors, I got to be around all kinds of amazing people my own age, including the friends I made at MIT, where my middle brother was studying. I got to experience and be enriched by their thinking and creativity and talents. I loved being in college, but at the same time, I was haunted by the feeling that I was constantly on the verge of failure and/or of being revealed as a fraud who did not belong in this company and/or being asked by the college authorities to pack up my things and go. And this made me work harder than I ever had before in my life. It also made me very quiet in class. I had more than a couple professors ask me why I never spoke in class. I usually responded with an ambiguous shrug, but the answer is quite simple–I thought I would sound dumb compared to everyone else.
About five days before graduation, we received a printout of our final transcripts. I remember seeing my grades all listed in a row and thinking, “Hey, these aren’t bad!” Then I saw the words “magna cum laude” at the top right. I didn’t know what that meant, so I asked a friend down the hall. I was utterly shocked when she told me. I was also utterly disoriented. It was the first time it had ever occurred to me that I was actually a good student.
In the years following graduation, I found myself deeply regretting the level of fear and anxiety I had throughout my college years. Not only had it caused me a tremendous amount of stress, but because I had felt so inferior, I missed out on the opportunity to really engage in class discussions, talk to professors, and explore certain options (like internships and graduate school) I had automatically dismissed because I didn’t think I would qualify. Boo, fear!!
At the same time, I’ve come to realize that this fear and insecurity is also a big part of why I excelled, and it’s a pattern that has repeated, to a certain extent, in many other areas of my life. I think on some level, I am always looking at people who do something better than I do and feeling an urge to try to improve. I know I’m not alone in this either. Since my own revelatory moment that last week of college, I’ve made a point of asking friends who are highly accomplished how they perceive themselves, and the large majority of them share a similar story. These friends have mostly been women, so this also makes me wonder if this is particular to women or if accomplished men have a similar disjunct between their perceived and actual abilities. I’ll have to conduct a study on that in some other life.
In the meantime, it makes me wonder about this connection between fear and accomplishment. On the surface of things, fear seems to work very effectively at making at least some people very successful. But what is the point of excelling if you never get to enjoy or actually feel that you are doing well? Oddly enough, I don’t want to lose all of my fear–I think I need a little edge of unease to keep me sharp, to keep me questioning. But I wouldn’t mind meeting some of today’s over-confident college youth somewhere in the middle.