Tuesday, February 7

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The Princeton pressure

No one expects college to be easy; we should all expect a certain level of stress during our four years here. But for some people, the pressure can be too much.

Last year, I wrote a column attempting to raise awareness about the multitude of Princeton students who are so unhappy that they simply “check out.” They plow through their undergraduate education without ever getting engaged or involved. Most people I talked with could relate to the feelings I described, but none of us could pinpoint one issue we’d like to change.


An obvious source of the unhappiness is the intense pressure that comes from working in a high-achieving environment — or, at least, what appears to be a high-achieving environment. I have so often heard my classmates and friends wonder at how everyone here is just short of a rock star and think that they themselves simply can’t keep up. Yes, there are people on Princeton’s campus doing extraordinary things, and they should be celebrated. But even those students sometimes mess up on a test or pull an all-nighter. We assume that everyone else is doing better and working harder, when in reality, pretty much all of us are struggling to meet the bar. I ask: By making these assumptions about our peers, are we setting the bar higher than it actually is? Are we, ourselves, creating — or imagining — the Princeton pressure?

That perception is subtle but universal, and it begins before students even officially matriculate. If President Tilghman’s commencement and admitted students’ weekend speeches this year were at all similar to what I heard two years ago, she would have reminded this year’s freshmen that they were “hand-selected” as the most promising candidates from an extremely large and competitive pool. The subtext is clear: We Princetonians are great and we are destined for greatness. From the very first days on campus, the Princeton experience is characterized by a sense of superiority; just by being here we are supposed to be the best and the brightest.

The attitude continues after the freshmen leave the chapel. It is best seen in our sense of humor — someone mispronounces a word or makes a simple mathematical error, and in comes the sarcastic rejoinder: “After all, we only go to Princeton.” Freud said that humor comes from two principal sources: aggression and exposure. Are we laughing because we are “exposing” that Princeton students are maybe, just maybe, not actually that special?

It shouldn’t be such a subversive idea. The majority of my classmates would never be caught dead calling themselves “special” in any way (though there are, of course, exceptions). Most of the people I know are fairly modest as individuals, yet they subscribe to the belief, often subconsciously, that Princeton students as a whole are somehow “better.” The reputation follows us outside the FitzRandolph Gate as well, where “Princeton” is sometimes a synonym for “snobbishness.”

Getting “picked up” by such a select group of people is validating, but self-doubt quickly sets in. Any initial euphoria about joining a supposedly elite institution is replaced by a nagging voice that questions whether one truly belongs among superstars. “I’m supposed to be one of the smartest,” you say. “Do I really deserve to go here?”

While some assume that we are supposed to come to campus with spectacular resumes, we must remember that truly extraordinary accomplishments almost always come well after college is over. The point is not to have accomplished great things before coming in, but to use Princeton’s resources to maximize our own potential after we graduate. As David Brooks wrote in a 2009 column in The New York Times, “The key factor separating geniuses from the merely accomplished is ... deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours rigorously perfecting their craft.” The beauty of Princeton is that it allows its students to “rigorously perfect their craft,” not that its students come here with their “crafts” already perfected. We should not be expected to all be genius, but we can hope to reach our own potential by taking advantage of what Princeton has to offer.


At the start of a new school year, let’s choose to forget the foolish notion that we are all supposed to be gifted. Varsity athletes and prize-winning pianists, first-generation college students and double legacy students — no matter how we ended up here, everyone is blessed to have been given this chance, and it doesn’t really matter whether we “deserve” it or not. The opportunities are here; we can sulk in self-doubt, or we can make the most of our education. “Genius” takes a lot of work; stop worrying, and get cracking.



Brandon Davis is a Near Eastern studies major from Westport, Conn. He can be reached at bsdavis@princeton.edu.

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