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The Toll Of Ambition

By David H. Goldbrenner

A friend recently received his LSAT scores; they weren't much to his liking and I spent a good deal of time consoling him. He felt stupid, to put it quite plainly. He told me he thought his GPA was mediocre and that he was destined for a life unadorned by the kind of accomplishment we see glittering in the ubiquitous haze of brilliance that surrounds us.

Granted, Harvard mediocrity is nothing to sneeze at, but in this stifling context of ambition and overachievement it is easy to lose perspective.

I myself cancelled my LSAT because I was sick the day I took the test, but I can't help wondering if I would have suffered the same doubts as my friend had I received a bad score. It's entirely conceivable; those feelings aren't unknown to me. In fact, I would be surprised if more than a small minority of Harvard students were entirely comfortable in their intellectual skin. I like to call it the "I'm the mistake" syndrome--that anxious, ephemeral pang we all entertain for a moment and then dismiss, only to feel guilty that we seriously entertained it at all.

Of course the admissions committee knew what they were doing when they let us in...but then again, they're fallible too.

What I am certain of, however, is that if our positions had been reversed, had my friend tried to cheer me up using the same arguments I had, the words would have struck me as too hollow to be of real comfort. I told him that low LSAT scores didn't mean he wasn't intelligent, didn't mean he couldn't be a success in whatever field he chose. Intellectually, I fundamentally believe these thoughts. But it was almost painful for me to say them because there's a less rational part of me that finds them utterly useless platitudes. There is a part of me--and I believe a part of all of us--that is essentially inconsolable when we try as hard as we can and still fail to achieve our goals.

Why are we so damned driven? This is a fundamental question that so many Harvard students fail to adequately address, even as they tackle the most difficult intellectual and social issues of our times. It's easy to assume the answer lies entirely with the merits of success. It's wonderful to achieve, to be recognized and to earn the respect of our peers and our mentors. Additionally, there are those of us whose goals, chosen entirely for reasons of self-satisfaction, are spectacular enough that they can't help but garner recognition when achieved.

But there is another aspect to this answer that we frequently miss. Even more powerful than the emotional draw of future accomplishments is the fear of doubting the importance of those we have already achieved. While the former is a tasty treat just out of our reach, the latter is food already chewed, swallowed and digested.

Our accomplishments become a part of us; they define how we perceive ourselves. If we score high on our SATs, we think of ourselves as intelligent. If we win writing contests and get As on essays, we slowly grow a healthy pride in our writing abilities. During difficult times, these confidences boost our spirits, and in good times they inspire us to new heights. They ground our ego and are foundational to our development.

And so when we attempt to use these skills to gain new ground and fail, we are worse off than we were, because our faith in ourselves is shaken. We fear mediocrity not because it is inherently a bad thing, but rather because if we ever come to believe ourselves mediocre, then by definition we will have lost whatever we once believed made us great.

This is not to say that we can only find true joy in the simple, unambitious life. To do so would be trite and false. There are those among us who genuinely thrive on success, are only truly happy when reaching a new goal, and can take it in stride when they fail.

These people, in fact, have a lesson for the rest of us. Their thick-skinned self confidence is a skill we all need to master, for those who don't will go through life besieged by a fundamental unhappiness reinforced by each failure and only temporarily alleviated by success. And finally, those of us who simply can't develop this skill should probably sit back, relax and realize that for them, happiness and ambition are inherently antithetical.

David H. Goldbrenner's column appears on alternate Fridays.

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