When I was in elementary school, my class always had these timed multiplication tests — Mad Minutes. They consisted of 100 multiplication problems, and each person had exactly one minute to complete them. Every week, my class had a competition based on these Mad Minutes, and the winner would get a little prize, usually a colorful eraser or something else that third graders find rewarding. I was always mediocre at Mad Minutes, usually finishing in the middle tier of the class, or, on rare occasions, second or third. Either way, I thought I was pretty good at Mad Minutes. When I went home to tell my mom, I would spin the story to aggrandize my performance. I finished Mad Minutes faster than half of the whole class — I was just that good at multiplication.
What my mom told me was something that changed the way I viewed myself. She told me to look up. Look up at the other half of the class that was beating me; look up at the heights I could reach if I aspired to achieve what my classmates had achieved. This was a principle I carried in my back pocket, especially throughout high school. There was really no measure of how well I was doing in school or extracurricular activities outside of the context of my peers. As much as we try to evaluate ourselves objectively, it’s impossible to remove ourselves from our circumstances. So most Princeton students, including me, strove to be the best in their schools — whether that meant taking more AP classes than others, winning more sports championships than others or some other measure of success. Even though it wasn’t the most objective method of self-evaluation, it was a pragmatic gauge of how well we were doing.
That sort of mindset doesn’t work here at Princeton. Upward comparison doesn’t motivate us anymore; it just hurts. There’s no all-encompassing way to be the best at everything anymore, even if we got close to it in high school. Here, there will always be someone better than you in Latin class, someone else better than you in debate club, someone else who is in the eating club you bickered but didn’t get into. There is no feasible way to “win” the comparison on all fronts because everyone has a leg up over someone else on one front or another. No one at Princeton gets the undisputed title of “best person on campus.”
I hear a lot of worry among students that, in comparison to others, they’re not doing enough, well enough or fast enough. I hear a lot of students ask each other what internships they’ve applied to and received offers from in order to make these sorts of comparisons, even though hearing other people’s internship successes doesn’t at all change their own. I hear students ask each other what level classes they’re taking, as if other people’s course decisions should impact their own. This competitive comparison doesn’t benefit anyone. Everybody’s path through college is unique — there is no need to keep up with people who are taking harder classes or getting internships earlier.
Upward comparison is prevalent outside of the academic context as well. There’s definitely the sentiment around campus that students should not only be brilliant, but also “well-adjusted” — have tons of friends, go out to all the parties or be active in the eating club and Greek scenes. This is where “fear of missing out” comes in — students see each other’s glamorized pictures on Facebook and feel inadequate about their own social lives. It’s hard to remember that social media is content-edited: People won’t post pictures of themselves doing laundry or homework, but everyone will put up isolated snapshots of the most interesting parts of their lives. The truth is, everyone has days when they just want to stay inside and watch entire seasons of TV shows consecutively on Netflix. That’s normal. It’s just that few people will show that side of themselves on social media, so it just seems like everyone else is hyper-social.
I used to think Princeton was asking more of me than I could supply, but, in truth, I was asking the impossible of myself by taking the best bits and pieces of everyone else and holding myself to those standards. Just because comparison was a way to measure progress in high school doesn’t mean it’s a viable or accurate gauge at Princeton. Some of our classmates are physics geniuses, some are world-class chess champions and some just seem to know every single person on campus. We can’t be all of them, all at once, and there’s no reason we have to be. Our only gauge should be ourselves — as long as we’re content with the trajectory we’re taking, we’re doing just fine.
Barbara Zhan is a sophomore from Plainsboro, N.J. She can be reached at email@example.com.