It’s the usual mid-semester day. I’m rushing to make my afternoon class by Harvard time. And from afar we greet each other with a quick wave. As we’re about to cross paths, that question comes. The question that holds so much potential, that could mean so much.
“How are you?”
To you it’s nothing more than a half-hearted handshake. And I treat it as the same.
“I’m fine,” I say.
But you don’t see how my strained smile doesn’t reach my eyes. You don’t because you can’t. You can’t because you’re like me: so caught up with how things look on the outside, we don’t know how to look inward.
I’m not fine. Neither are you. But it’s easier to pretend we are. We convince ourselves that we’re having a meaningful conversation as we lament the all-nighters needed for the two ten-page papers due this week. We think we’re bonding as we flip through notes for answers to tomorrow’s problem set. And we think we know each other as we covertly boast about that research program we have lined up for summer.
But I don’t tell you that the real reason I’m losing sleep is because I worry about how my parents will afford tuition for next semester. I don’t say that the reason I’ll be here this summer is that there’s no place I truly feel at home.
As Harvard students, we feel that we’re supposed to have everything together. Weaving through tourists in Harvard Yard, sometimes it almost feels like we’re on display. So we feel as though we have to put all of our efforts into the upkeep of a façade of perpetual success. But what is a beautiful house that is shambles inside?
We give greater regard to outside recognition than to inward fulfillment. We are devastated when we end up with a B on that midterm we studied so hard for. We feel hopeless when we don’t get accepted into that analyst internship we were vying for. And we’ve come to define our time here as a necessary experience to reach the next rung of the success ladder.
But what are we climbing up to? And when we get there, will we finally be happy?
The problem is that we don’t take the time to truly ask ourselves: Am I really fine? We’ve somehow come to convince ourselves that by being successful, we will be happy. But what do we see as success? Is it an A on that midterm? Is it acceptance into that summer internship? But why then do we still feel like we’re not good enough? Why do we still feel like we’re at the point of our feet slipping, still reaching?
Maybe it’s because happiness isn’t about scores, marks, certificates, or the next prestigious award. Maybe it’s because happiness is about how we feel about ourselves.
And maybe we find it so hard to grasp happiness because self-worth can’t be quantified. Self-worth can’t give a GPA or resume boost, so we don’t give it the time of day. We’re used to quantifying the worth of our lives by our achievements. But in doing so, we often forget that we have the power to define what an achievement means to us.
An accomplishment doesn’t always need to be academic. We can feel accomplished by simply attending classes for the day. We can feel accomplished after coming back from hard tennis practice. We can feel accomplished by finally having dinner with a friend we haven’t seen in a few weeks. In building self-worth, we can’t always wait for other people to congratulate us. We need to learn to do that for ourselves.
When we learn to congratulate ourselves, we learn to truly believe in ourselves. We believe in ourselves not because someone or something else is allowing us to, but because we are allowing ourselves to. We must place our self-fulfillment first and outside accolades second.
In an environment that is so widely recognized as a bastion of high achievement and success, we have to ask ourselves what success means. These classes, internships, and prestigious positions we strive for are simply moments, points along a greater journey. College is a significant path in the greater journey that is our lives. And in our time here, we owe it to ourselves to look beyond academics to how we view ourselves. It is not accolades that determine how much potential we hold. That power comes from within.
We don’t need to be near perfect to have potential. We can admit that sometimes we’re having a bad week. We can admit that we have personal struggles—with family, friends, or even ourselves. We can admit that we need help.
We can admit that we’re not fine because we don’t always have to be. When we do, we can begin to find true happiness.
Nzuekoh N. Nchinda ’14, a Crimson arts writer, is a chemistry concentrator in Kirkland House.