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Humbled by Harvard

How to deal with the “grief” of being one-upped

By Meredith C. Baker

Pre-Harvard, many of us were big fish in a small pond. However, once on campus, we are quick to realize that we are really just guppies. The passing of time effaces our past successes, and we have to adjust to not always being ‘the best’. While any college experience causes students to reassess and ‘find’ themselves, I’ve discovered that this school can be a pressure cooker if students don’t know how to find success after failure.

How can you adjust and adapt? Similar to Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief, the adaptive process one goes through when faced with overwhelming loss (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance),Harvard students may pass through five stages in order to be humbled – in a good way – by the Harvard experience.

Stage One: Denial­—This stage starts with the acceptance letter to Harvard and the thought of being one of the few who gets a coveted spot here. Upon arrival on campus, I was overwhelmed with the caliber of my fellow classmates. I had never been surrounded by so many kids my age that were already so accomplished. Did Harvard make a mistake by including me in this group of people?

Stage Two: Anger—Feelings of excitement insidiously slide into disappointment and intimidation. The esteemed faculty and incredible classmates can make you feel out of your element. Attempts to get involved, find leadership positions and continue with pre-college passions may result in disappointment when your ideas and efforts are not selected or rewarded. (Case study: Reporting for four years for the CBS affiliate in Houston, then being rejected by a student-run news show at Harvard). While getting used to the higher volume and sophistication of work, you may find test grades don’t quite make the grades you are accustomed to. (Case Study: Economics midterm, meet Meredith Baker. Meredith Baker, meet your Bureau of Study Council tutor.)

Stage Three: Bargaining—Intimidation may have taken root, and you find that you are constantly comparing yourself to others. Someone else is always smarter, better, more capable, more creative. You can’t brag to the person sitting next to you at dinner about vaccinating orphans in a war-torn country, because chances are that person discovered the vaccine. I had to accept the fact that I didn’t invent anything, found an NGO, or produce a documentary – but maybe I could fundraise for a charity or write for a newsletter. I tried to stop measuring my success and comparing myself to other students. It was a never-ending and exhausting feat.

Stage Four: Depression—While Harvard students in the humbling process may not feel ‘depressed,’ there are certain lows we hit when we do have to accept the fact that we can’t ‘do it all,’ and we are forced to compromise between saving the world or managing four classes and a handful of extracurriculars. Feeling like a nameless face in the collegiate crowd may lead to questions of self-worth and killed desires to get involved in things already so competitive and established.

Stage Five: Acceptance—When you are humbled by Harvard  you could say, “The more I see, the less I know.” And you now know that this means only that you are fortunate to have unique opportunities and access to incredible resources. While pursuing passions and planning for the future, you are humbled at every turn; by your classmates, the prestigious faculty, your first-semester crush, the local kids you tutor, or the person that tutors you. Humility also presents itself where you never expected—perhaps the homeless man pursuing his passion by playing music in the Square every evening, or the lunch lady who personally wishes everyone a great day as she swipes their card.

Winding my way through my first semester, I found strength through managing disappointments as well as successes. If you don’t make it to stage five, you are missing out on the incredible opportunities and experiences Harvard has to offer. While learning true humility—not just paying lip service to it—is not always easy, if we can maintain the proper perspective, we might just find real success outside the Harvard bubble.

Meredith C. Baker ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Canaday Hall.

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