Champagne problems: the hamster race

Off the Beat

If you have begun to read this column expecting to hear the tragic tale of a student’s addiction to Dom Perignon, read no further. I won’t be discussing anything near as serious a problem. I’m actually going to talk about hamsters. In this university environment of privilege and opportunity, we all have “champagne problems.” Also known as “first-world problems.” If you’ve ever been very thirsty but too lazy to go and get yourself a glass of juice, dropped your iPhone on your face or moaned about not being able to afford tickets to Coachella, you’ve got champagne problems too.The severity of our problems can be measured by degrees of comparison. By virtually all measures of comparison, I have a wonderful, problem-free life. But out of this bliss comes the ultimate middle-class problem in all its glory. I have a deathly fear of being average.When I graduate, I’d like to do something extraordinary with my life. Sure, I want to check off all the usual societal markers of success — good grades, a fruitful career, your own home and a partner and family to share it all with. But I also want to excel in my chosen field and distinguish myself; to be somebody, to use a cliché.Sometimes when I think about how I can get to this mythical extraordinary place of my distinguished and successful future, my path seems clear, illuminated like the lights along the aisles in an airplane bound for take-off. But other times, the plunging fear that I will fall short of my own expectations of myself, that the life I lead will be “inadequate,” looms large in my mind.I think that this is a fear that many people share, especially among the high-achieving students of Cal. I adore university in general, and Berkeley especially. But sometimes being in the university system makes me feel like a hamster.

To get here, we all distinguished ourselves in high school in one way or another. We ran a bit faster than some of the other hamsters in the bubble of our small hamster ball. Now suddenly we’ve been thrust unceremoniously into a much larger ball in which there are way more hamsters all trying to outrun each other, and the sides of the ball are so much steeper and really quite slippery, and our four tiny feet suddenly seem much too small to ever climb to the top.

Suddenly, we need to battle harder to stand out, to grow longer legs or bigger feet, and the fear of failure, or what we perceive to equate to failure, becomes more real. Because just by being here, we’ve all already succeeded. But as the stakes get higher, so do our expectations. And so does the fear of failing our families, our society and above all, ourselves.

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all.” So said J.K. Rowling in her commencement speech to the Harvard Class of 2008. Standing before hundreds of new graduates from the most highly ranked university in the world, she spoke not of the importance of the success of your hopes and dreams, but of their failure. She explained that there is a sense of freedom in failing, in knowing that your worst fear has been realised and yet you are still alive. The strength of your rise back to the top comes from knowing you’ve survived the fall.

J.K. Rowling wanted one thing all her life — to write novels. Her parents wanted her to have a stable career and never to have to live in poverty. Seven years after she graduated from university with honors, she was an unemployed single mother. Both her own and her parents’ worst fears for her life had been realised. And so from the bedrock of abject failure, she began to write Harry Potter and gradually rebuilt her life into the success story it has become today.

I doubt any of the Harvard graduates who sat before her in awed silence walked away from their commencement with a strong desire to fail in life so they could grow stronger through adversity. Most people want to make something of themselves. The race for success is timeless — “I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody,” said the character Franny in J.D. Salinger’s 1961 novella “Franny and Zooey.”

We fear falling out of the hamster ball and into the landscape of our own definition of failure. But the hamster race is ultimately a champagne problem, a symptom of a charmed life that falls away like confetti in comparison to the experience of real hardship that forces the inessential into the background.

“Life is not a checklist of acquisition or achievement,” said Rowling in her speech.

Someone once told me that all we really need to lead happy, full lives is to have something to do, someone to love and someone to love us in return.

When I stop and let the ball roll around me for a moment, I remember that and remind myself that I already have everything in my life that I need to be happy.

I’ll end with the words of the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett — “Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

It’s in the trying and failing — the falling down and standing back up — that your life unfolds.