Too great expectations

Critical Musings

Lately I’ve been feeling guilty about not living up to the expectations I have of myself.

Hearing me complain, a friend suggested I think about what 10th-grade me might think of present-day me. Tenth-grade me would be pretty happy with where I am. Tenth-grade me would feel proud of getting into Berkeley, proud of what I’ve done with the Daily Cal, happy with what I’ve learned, thankful for the friends I’ve made and kept. But why aren’t I?

Let me give you an anecdote. Recently, whenever I complain to my roommate Jen about not being able to come up with anything to write this column about — I’ve been doing a lot of complaining, it turns out — she always suggests the same thing.

“Ambition,” she says. “Write about ambition.”

She might be right.

In 10th grade, I found out I was fourth in my school’s class-ranking system. Knowing I was close to — but not quite at — the top drove me crazy. I decided I had to be first, that I had to become the kind of person who accomplished a lot.

Accomplishments are all I hear about these days. So-and-so has a six-figure job lined up post-grad? Great. So-and-so is moving to Neverland to save the entire world from the effects of climate change? Cool.

“I swear everyone on this campus is about two inches away from a finals induced panic attack,” a friend recently posted to Facebook.

Forget a finals-induced panic attack. I feel like everyone is on the verge of a life-induced panic attack. “Am I good enough?” we’re all chanting. “How can I be better? Where does my professional-slash-artistic-slash-social-slash-humanitarian-slash-intellectual path lead me next? What’s the next step?”

“What now?” our hearts beat in unison. What now? What now? What now?

It’s exhausting. And worse, it’s disheartening because it reduces us to our accomplishments, frames life as a trajectory toward something, delegitimizes the significance of everything that doesn’t lead anywhere.

When I began this final column, I wanted to write about how most of the musings recorded here throughout the semester ended up being about the ways people connect. I wanted to talk about how I was interested in the way social media demands a constant, expansive and insincere sharing of experience, the way we might be a generation united under one theme, the way stacked-up knowledge connects humans over time and the way being miserable with other people is always better than being miserable alone.

I wanted to show that I’m obsessed with this one overarching idea, funneled off in different directions — this underdog defense against pessimism, this small but profound protest that we are not alone.

But there’s a notion underneath supporting it that isn’t so sweet. For us not to be alone, there has to be something connecting us, we have to be working within the same general system. And because of that, among my columns appreciating human connectedness, there were also the ones founded on a core of anxiety about what that connectedness means for us individually. I wrote about the way group expectations can be terrifying, I wrote condemningly about the way we’re all try-hards, how the constant noise of other people in my head makes it impossible for me to focus.

That’s indicative of something else underpinning all of my ideas, something about the downside of being connected, about the terror of comparison and competition.

And that’s where we get back to 10th-grade me. Tenth-grade me only needed to be the best in my 400-person graduating class to feel OK. Junior-year-in-college me goes to a much bigger school with much bigger expectations. Not only is it much harder to be comparatively impressive — it’s impossible to be the best, because the metric is far more complex than it was back when I was 14 (when it was also impossible, but I couldn’t see that then).

Because there is no clear metric, we (I) have to keep going forever, to keep working as hard as we can because it’s hard to see any end goal.  There is no real moment at which to say, “I did it! It’s over.” There are tiny moments like that, but by the time they happen, they’re already gone, and in their stead is an open door to new possibilities, new goals, new things to compete for.

What that means is that in every way that I’m aware of the links between people, I’m equally aware of the competition between them. And in that sense, my column has also been a lot about ambition, as my roommate suggested. And not to conclude too neatly, but I guess what I’ve learned is that some weeks I’ll feel one way (connected), and other weeks I’ll feel the other (competitive). And as long as I feel the first more often, I’m doing OK.

Contact Sarah Burns at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @_SBurns.