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Redefining Success and Finding Happiness at Harvard

By Megan M. Ross
By Matthew E. Cappucci
Matthew E. Cappucci ’19 is an Atmospheric Sciences concentrator in Currier House.

Harvard — the pinnacle of academic success. If you’re here, you’ve made it; if you’re not, you yearn to be. It’s a place where doors fly open and dreams come true. Companies are born, startups take off, and just the emblazoned crimson-colored “H” alone can land a job at any top law, financial, or consulting firm. It’s easy to become lost in it all — at a place made up of only the best, the pressure to succeed is immense.

The extracurriculars, the 4.0 GPA, the fancy summer internship at J.P. Morgan Chase or our local senator’s office — it’s what we all aim for. Throw in trying to have a social life in a social hierarchy dominated by final clubs, and it quickly becomes a sprint to check off the boxes of being the “perfect” Harvard student.

Now put 7,000 undergraduates together all competing for the same thing, and the picture becomes a bit less glamorous: trying to outlast peers at 3:18 AM in Lamont, furiously handing out business cards with plastered-on rehearsed smiles and freshly dry-cleaned suits at a networking event, or kicking ourselves because our roommate — who seems to be better than us at everything — managed to snag four points higher on the last midterm. It’s not a sustainable — nor healthy — lifestyle.

At Harvard, we’re taught that we must be “on” all the time, always at our best, always projecting confidence, and always know the answer. There is somehow shame if we don’t. We’re trained not to let our guard down. Much of this we do to ourselves. Every lunchtime conversation is a discussion about careers, courses, and theses. We count how many times we can drop the word “apropos” in a conversation, or use “an historic” to sound like an academic. It’s a place where we can always find someone better than us at virtually anything, and resultantly, we all try to live “Facebook lifestyles” — sharing only the good and concealing our shortcomings, trying to project a hollow image of confidence, perfection, and unwavering ability.

As I’ve come to learn as of late, perfection doesn’t exist. We’re all only human. In constantly comparing ourselves to other high-achievers in a cutthroat academic and social culture, we create an environment in which our sense of self-worth is chalked up to a GPA and the length of our resume. We all feel it day in and day out; but nobody ever talks about it.

In this type of atmosphere, we’re force-fed a completely ludicrous definition of what “success” is, which we have proliferated ourselves through this culture. To be successful, we have to graduate and land “the job” — making six figures within the first couple years. We want the Cape house, the fancy car, and to fly only first-class while sipping whisky with our pinky outstretched in the air like Spongebob. We base our happiness on this ill-rooted metric of what we collectively agree “success” is, and any failure to reach this cookie-cutter aspiration diminishes our self worth even more.

It’s the reason we question, “Why am I here? Did Harvard make a mistake?” It’s why we all feel like we’re never good enough, and envy our friends/peers who outwardly appear to have it all together. It eats away at our sense of value like an angry sea eroding cliffs until they topple. And it’s why we sit miserably for months or years debating whether or not we should talk with anyone about this. Trust me — you’re not alone. A quick stop by HUHS and realizing you recognize everyone in the waiting room shows there are more people in this boat than you think.

Success is not measurable in dollars. It’s not proportional to the number of square feet of our house, nor the height at which our office sits in a shiny city skyscraper. Success is not a number printed on our transcript, and it certainly isn’t the how many LinkedIn connections we’ve made.

The only “success” worth pursuing is being happy. It’s about the people you meet, the memories you make, and the laughs you share with those you care about the most. It’s not sitting in the basement of the Science Center on a Thursday night cramming to score three points percent on a midterm. It’s sneaking to the Science Center roof at midnight with someone you’re close to, uncorking a bottle of wine, and watching a meteor shower together.

We can’t all be the CEO of Goldman Sachs or a Supreme Court Justice, and that’s perfectly alright. We can’t all fight for the same thing just because that’s what we believe success is. Not everyone can be the “best” at that.

Rather, we each have our own unique combination of gifts; no two people have quite the same combination. It’s how we carve out our own niche and do what we love with said combination that we can become the best at. We’re all the best at different things. Embrace it.

Being away from Harvard this fall has allowed me to escape “the bubble” and see clearly. I want my peers to all know that we are good enough; we are successful, and what we’re taught “success” is doesn’t matter at all.

Sometimes, put the problem set on hold. Give the essay only 100 percent effort instead of 500 percent. Take a moment to look up at the sky. Share dinner and drinks with close friends. Go and watch the sunrise bathe Harvard Yard in an amber-colored light. Do something that makes you smile. At the end of the day, these are the moments that matter.

Matthew E. Cappucci ’19 is an Atmospheric Sciences concentrator in Currier House.

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