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Harvard students believe that they can defy gravity. We’ve convinced ourselves of it. That something special about us prevents natural forces from acting — that rules don’t apply.
I came to realize this in the depths of YouTube at some unreasonable hour one night. I found myself watching a clip of Conan O’Brien sitting in Sanders Theatre, claiming that fame is “removing gravity from people and allowing outrageous behavior.” He was cautioning students about the perils of success. Our obsession with it, he suggested, often compromises the gravity that should tether us so firmly: kindness and openness.
An “anything goes” sentiment is ubiquitous here. As Harvard students, we’re granted a small degree of fame and an excessive sense of entitlement. We strut down our Cambridge streets internalizing that we’re allowed (obligated even) to act any way necessary to further ourselves, whether that means forcing bonds for personal gain or discarding others that offer none.
Our ambition spills into social interactions which often become networking opportunities rather than genuine moments of connection. “How are you?” feels largely rhetorical because we’re so busy with our own pursuits, we care more about completing the transaction of asking than actually listening to the answer. And plus, a reply short of “good” puts us at risk of revealing fallibility.
Sometimes, it can feel as though we are conducting background checks on each other. Questions like “how did you get your internship?” or “what do your parents do?” are ones I have received multiple times when meeting peers for the first time. And after glossing over my interests and essentially my entire identity, their questions felt simultaneously invasive and impersonal. I wanted to believe this was casual conversation, but by the end, it felt like they knew everything about me without really knowing who I am.
Social validation was contingent on the very wording of my replies. I had to sum myself up, appealingly and convincingly, but not necessarily organically or even genuinely at times. I was left wondering why I had to keep proving myself. Even if I was confident about my accomplishments and didn’t feel the need to flaunt them, I had to continuously regurgitate impressive pre-packaged answers to self-advertise — to succinctly communicate “I’m worth being around.”
But as Harvard students, weren’t we all gravity-less by default? Apparently not.
Our network-oriented ecosystem affords transparency and humility little merit, punishing and exposing those whom gravity still grounds. Those who defy gravity don’t want to be weighed down by those who don’t.
But in orchestrating our personal interactions like this, we forsake so much. We miss out on just letting things happen and forging bonds over shared passions or wonderfully strange idiosyncrasies. College is a place where, ideally, we discover what we’re good at, find purpose, and meet different kinds of people. But in an endless pursuit to feel important (gravityless, that is), we readily forget these pursuits are ongoing. We feel obligated to have everything figured out right now, and we look down on those who aren’t projecting this image.
Our time in Cambridge is a unique opportunity to be lost. Wandering, even though it doesn’t sound that impressive, is a privilege. We shouldn’t have to calculate every move and interaction in the frantic scramble for personal gain. We shouldn’t feel the need to wield our skills like weapons and shield ourselves from insecurity or uncertainty. Most of all, we shouldn’t have to reduce ourselves to our ability to market ourselves because of the looming threat of social disqualification.
Watching YouTube videos, for example, sounds like a waste of time. Most of the time, it is. And it’s something that I do more often than I care to admit. But it was this moment of procrastination, of putting off my fancy internship work, that I let myself laugh at Conan’s nonsense and let my mind wander to thoughts that were just as important. With this, I’m not suggesting we abandon our ambitions and all sense of direction, but that we have everything to gain from seeing productivity and success manifest themselves in traditionally unadvertised ways. The kindness that comes with this openness not only grounds us but also displays a sense of self-worth far more authentic than the arrogance for which we so often opt. And while I don’t expect networking to disappear, reducing Harvard to a transaction is wasteful. Our bragging-judging exchange, ironically, only cuts us short; it limits us to what we’ve done rather than what we could be.
We need to stop proving ourselves and trust that we are worthy. Let’s even permit ourselves to meander, quietly if we want. But most importantly, let’s remember that we all deserve to be here, which means we don’t need to defy the force of gravity. So let’s all be just a little more human and allow ourselves to stay grounded instead.
Serena G. Pellegrino ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Lowell House.
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