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Toward Disentangling

By Hannah M. Borowsky

Conversationalist. Adventurer. Whimsical seriousness. Peanut butter. If you boiled me down to my very core, leaving only the essentials, that is what you would find. At least I think.

I know, though, with complete certainty, some things you would not find. My transcript. My resume. My last orgo exam. My application to Harvard. A summer job offer of any sort. An alarm clock.

But when was the last time that I celebrated my whimsical seriousness? How often do I feel good about the productiveness of my weekend because it included an afternoon adventure to a foreign square of Cambridge? Why can’t my time in college feel worthwhile simply because I converse each day with peers who are insightful and passionate beyond belief? And why doesn’t just eating some peanut butter (while thinking a little bit about life or maybe while thinking about nothing at all) feel like enough?

I answer these questions in ways that disappoint me because, too often, I allow my achievements (or perceived lack thereof) to define my identity and dictate my sense of self-worth. During the times when I am lucky enough to experience successes, such a method of self-evaluation does not feel so dysfunctional. When the achievements run high, so do I, and all is good and well.

Invariably, though, the problems arise when the achievements fall short. If I allow an excellent mark on a paper to be indicative of my creative brilliance, how must I interpret a less stellar mark? If an interview request for a prestigious internship lets me feel like I am gifted, how must I internalize the dreaded “we’re sorry to say we cannot offer you a position this summer” e-mail? If my pride comes from the number of points above the mean that I score, then does a below the mean midterm mark mean I’m flawed as a human being?

Suddenly, this kind of thinking gets us stuck in an awful trap. When we tie our self-esteem to our achievements, we inadvertently allow our failures to be linked, as well. And before we know it, we have lost ourselves.

But what about the crux of me? The whimsically serious, conversationalist, adventuring, peanut butter-loving me? What does a below the mean test score do to that me? The answer, of course, is nothing. Our academic and career pursuits, be they successful or failed, cannot touch the truest, most elemental parts of us. But when we define ourselves by these external measures of achievement, we yield this freedom and we forget ourselves.

Moreover, if we measure ourselves this way, we become subject to unbelievable volatility of self-perception. It’s pretty simple —you just can’t be the best at everything. Inevitably, in our lives, we will experience successes and failures. In fact, success, failure, and something in between can all come to us in the same day. But how exhausting it is to let each shape our own understanding of ourselves. However, when we value ourselves based on different qualities— our essential qualities—we become free from such volatility.

Now, this is all much more easily said than done. And my point here is not to kvetch about an achievement-oriented society, wax philosophical on self-perception, or publically declare my over-the-top affinity for a certain nutty spread.

I write instead with a plea. A plea that we act with intentionality to help each other disentangle our identities and our self-esteems from our achievements. I ask that we do this not only to create a campus culture that is more enjoyable and conducive to mental health but for ourselves and our lives.

The disentangling will require that we make ourselves vulnerable, allowing what lies at the core of us to be known genuinely. The disentangling could involve discovery, surprise, and even disappointment. As we dig down to the core, we may find things that we did not know about ourselves, and we might not like all that we find. And the disentangling itself will involve failure. Despite our best efforts, at times, we will let our achievements define ourselves.

And this is where we need each other. We must invest the time and energy to get to the crux of our peers—to know them truly. We have the power to show our friends that what we love about them has nothing to do with their achievements. We love the way that their voice gets obscenely loud when they are excited about something. Or that they make a point of reaching out to include people, even when they do not have to. Or how when they ask “What’s new?” they look at us in a way that says, “I actually want to hear.”

We think our friends know that these are the things we love them for, how could they not? We don’t care about their grades, their extracurriculars, their job offers. But when these marks of achievement can come to feel so important, we need each other to remember what is at our own core.

We can celebrate achievements, but we cannot allow the achievements themselves to define us. We can help each other to be so much more.

Hannah M. Borowsky ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is an organismic and evolutionary biology concentrator in Leverett House.

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