Nobody wants life advice from an 18-year-old. Instead of subjecting my audience to this unnecessary and fruitless endeavor, I will act as a mouthpiece for someone who is much wiser and more experienced than I am. Sarah is my best friend’s mom, who would tag along on our movie dates and make us questionable “green smoothies.” One day, she was giving my friend and me a talk about how we should approach success. It was the season of college applications, of heightened anxiety and inevitable rejections.
She was telling me to be confident, of course, but her advice did not stop there. She said that along with being confident, I also needed to be, paradoxically enough, insecure; I should be simultaneously confident in my abilities to succeed and insecure that I have not succeeded yet. I was not supposed to alternate between the two extremes; they had to coexist within me at all times. And each was not to take away from the other.
Insecurity is a term which we shy away from because of the negative connotations it carries. It is important to recognize that the way she defined the word implied that there was nothing about ourselves that we had to be insecure over. To the contrary, we should be sure that we are so good that this elusive success could be and, in fact, should be ours. The only reason we should feel insecure is because the success that could be ours isn’t yet.
Sarah had given me a lot of advice throughout the course of my high school career, but this particular piece of advice somehow did not resonate until after I started my time at Princeton. Academic success had never been too elusive before, but at this point in my freshman year at Princeton, I can say I have experienced a few humble successes and many, many more failures. Needless to say, this adjustment was difficult and sometimes made me feel unhappy. The first month was a true struggle and during this time period, I reevaluated the way I viewed my competence. On several sleepless nights, I would twitch in my bed worrying about my grades and torturing myself over comments from my professor that I felt revealed my academic shortcomings.
Her advice helped me when I was the most insecure about myself. Perhaps it was a cop-out, but the slight shift in blame made me feel not only better about myself but also more motivated. Of course I could do well at Princeton. Didn’t Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye tell us that she doesn’t make mistakes? I was not a mistake. This in turn pushed me to work harder, because if I could do well but wasn’t, the only logical explanation was that I was not working hard enough. The way I approached work was also different, because instead of thinking of it as something that I could not possibly do, I viewed it as something that should come to me.
But as everything in life always is, balance is the key. There are situations where her advice would not apply. At times, I’ve started reading a book at 1 a.m. after being thrown from classes to work to club meetings, and then stayed exasperated, upset and stressed until 5 a.m., knowing that I had a 9 a.m. class because I wanted to finish my HUM reading. This made me unhappy in a different way, because not completing a task would’ve indicated laziness on my part, as I was capable of finishing. I couldn’t be satiated, because part of the problem with success is that it’s always elusive. There’s always more that could be accomplished. For my sanity and happiness, I sometimes needed to realize that I was not as successful as I could be or maybe even that I could not be as successful as I wanted even if I tried my best — but that it was okay. Some things are not worth attaining because the opportunity costs are too high.
I am certainly less stressed about Princeton now than I used to be, even though my course load increased this semester. This place is challenging, but not impossible. It was always doable — I just had to find my balance somewhere between confidence and insecurity.
Erica Choi is a freshman from Bronxville, N.Y. She can be reached at email@example.com.