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Recently, I looked in the mirror after playing Mario Kart Wii for three hours, and thought to myself: Surely, if I can waste time playing a video game that hasn’t been relevant for more than 10 years and still look into the bloodshot eyes of my scruffy, beard-faced reflection — fully aware of the academic betrayal and personal disappointment that’s just befallen me — I must have finally accepted my addiction to Nintendo-related nostalgia as part of who I am. Hooray?
This rare moment of self-acceptance, however, got me thinking about what little of it students typically have, as a direct result of being a student. And, strangely, not for the first time, Mario Kart prompted an introspective journey.
As students, we often sacrifice benefits in the present for benefits in the future. We go to college to prepare ourselves for life post-graduation, gaining the qualifications and education necessary to achieve our idea of success. As students, we are intent on improving ourselves and becoming what people in the future will expect of us as university graduates. Yet, as great as improving yourself can be, our efforts to improve are often at odds with self-acceptance.
When you strive to improve yourself, it can either be from a place of genuine satisfaction and acceptance of who you are at present, or from a place of rejecting who you are at present. This far into my first year at Harvard, in my academic pursuits, I’ve noticed the temptation to fixate on the wrong reasons when seeking to learn. We’re surrounded by so many extraordinary people who appear to have the faculty and drive to succeed at any cost. Our environment normalizes believing that currently, you’re not enough and that until you’re as smart a student as x or as qualified as professor y, you’re not valuable.
As far from our career goals as we may be, it is crucial for us not to let these goals be what dictates our value as people. This is a tall order when you come from a background of immense self-improvement; you don’t get accepted into universities without stepping up hugely from middle-school-you.
Being accepted into Harvard only reinforces, if not further incentivizes, allowing a feeling of inadequacy to be our motive for improvement. For many of us, it’s what got us here.
I notice myself wanting to rely on feelings of inadequacy to motivate me because I’m not used to motivating myself from a position of security with where I currently am. It’s foreign to me to try improving without feeling as though this improvement will be a necessary step towards acquiring value as a person. And I don’t believe I’m alone in these feelings: What has influenced me to possess this mindset has likely influenced you, too.
This is due in part to the ubiquity of the narratives that cultivate this mindset: products designed to “make us better” reside rent-free in our minds due to marketing that pervades all aspects of our lives, intended to exploit and manipulate the fragile psyche of a media-obsessed world — media that takes self-improvement for granted as something everyone wants, assuming that no one could possibly be happy with the way they are at present. That a product can make us better, or that we believe we have the capacity to self-improve, seems to suggest we are not enough as is. Examples range from beauty-enhancing products to even luxury cars that are advertised as social indicators of personal worth.
And, of course, university itself can be seen as one of these products, something that we feel we need in order to be adequate. Through this product and others, standards that are neither realistic nor legitimate measures of a person’s value insert themselves in our minds, showing us where we fall in comparison, and reinforcing the belief we can and must improve ourselves.
Self-acceptance. Something so elusive, so abstract, that it almost makes this argument redundant. As difficult as it is to define what self-acceptance is, or what it looks like, we can’t ignore it. Unless we totally reject who we are, we must possess it to some extent. I know it sounds paradoxical, but I don’t believe self-acceptance necessitates complacency — such comfort with your flaws and weaknesses that you resist change. Otherwise, self-acceptance would involve never ironing-out those sixth-grade temper issues. And would involve me guiltlessly dedicating all of my time to Ubering a mustached plumber around a race track.
A distinction I want to make, but don’t want to suggest is necessarily right, is that self-acceptance is the belief that as you are, you’re alright. Could you be better? Probably. Should you be? Up to you. But importantly, whether or not you change or stay the same, regardless of how many times you pick up that busted Wii remote steering wheel, your value as a person will remain the same. Self-acceptance is not just thinking, but believing that nothing you can do or change about yourself alters your value as a person. It is this principle that I think we must keep in mind when we seek to improve.
James M. Heffernan ’24’s column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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