For me, as for many, my high school years were spent in preparation for acceptance into a prestigious university. Surrounded by students with similar goals and impressive qualifications, stress became a ritual part of my daily life. The day I received the letter saying that I was accepted into Harvard, however, I felt as if all my stress had suddenly dissipated. Little did I know of the pressures that I would encounter upon walking through those iron gates.
On the day of my freshman convocation, Dean Michael D. Smith stood in front of the Class of 2015 and issued a powerful phrase: “Don’t compare, connect.” While I did not recognize it at the time, his speech undoubtedly held the typical Harvard student in mind—competitive, and obsessed with perfection. With this simple, three-word truth, therefore, Dean Smith addressed a critical cause of Harvard’s problem with stress—the “Type A” personality.
The Type A personality refers to those individuals with a high level of ambition and drive, qualities often branding them with the terms “over-achievers” or “workaholics.” According to studies by the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, Type A personalities are at an increased risk for strokes due to higher propensities for stress. That is to say, stress is an inexorable counterpart for this personality type.
Nowadays, stress among college students has literally become nearly as common as back pain or allergies. Combine this with the fact that Newsweek ranks Harvard as the fourth most stressful university in the country, and you are hard pressed to find a student on campus that is not inundated with some sort of academic or social pressure. In a sea of the best and brightest, competition becomes inevitable amongst students on our campus.
Some students, and even a Crimson staff editorial, have called attention to flaws in the University Health Services’ response to stress and mental health. In addition, in a three-part article in The Crimson on mental health published this past December, students expressed their frustration with the Harvard’s perfectionist culture, maintaining that constant exposure to the exceptional achievements of their peers leads to general “feelings of inadequacy.”
But perhaps the root of this issue also lies with the students themselves and their search for unattainable perfection.
On the surface, there may seem to be a quick fix for the problem at hand—students should avoid hyper-focusing on their intelligence or capability to withstand academic rigor in comparison to that of others. The unfortunate truth, however, is that convincing Type A students in a Type A environment to shed feelings of inadequacy is essentially asking them to reverse an inherent character trait. In fact, it is likely that this very desire to overachieve has allowed Harvard students to succeed thus far.
Because Harvard students are competitive by nature, however, they must in turn develop healthy means of coping with the inevitable stressors they encounter here on campus.
According to Helpguide.org, an online non-profit resource that provides mental health advice, the four critical methods of coping with stress are to avoid, alter, accept, or adapt to the stressor. Since it is virtually implausible to either avoid or alter Harvard’s ultra-competitive environment, we as students are left with two options: to accept the reality of this unhealthy form of competition, or to adapt by changing our perspective altogether.
Instead of convincing ourselves, for instance, of the need to match or outperform our peers, we must recognize that, as Harvard students, we are fortunate enough to have some of the most innovative and intelligent minds at our fingertips. While Type A personalities, therefore, may still view the student next to them as competition, they can also choose to view him or her as a resource to assist their own progress and success.
Lastly, perhaps the best way to adapt to the Harvard environment is to adjust our notion of what it means to be successful and ensure that we are not always falling short of our own impossible standards. In the closing of The Crimson’s series on mental health, for instance, one student, going by the name of Christine, calls for her peers to “embrace the reality that no one is perfect” and “remember that everyone falls short of perfection."
In track and field, even though a runner may not win the race, they can still achieve a “P.B.,” or “personal best.” Whether or not they receive a first place medal, therefore, running a P.B. is still an indication of success. In this same way, we must try to define our personal best and use this as our standard for achievement.
Granted, feelings of incompetence will resurface throughout our time at Harvard, and it is important not only to ask for help, but also to be comfortable doing so whenever we feel overwhelmed. As the new semester approaches, however, we must try to remember that we cannot do better than our best and that our best is more than enough. With this notion in mind, we can emerge from the stress of this university and call ourselves what we are, a success.
Aria N. Bendix, ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Quincy House.