Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be “successful.”
Kindergarten teachers told my parents I was one of the quicker learners in the class, and they in turn enrolled me in “gifted” student programs for math and science. My tennis coach was convinced that if I just put my mind to the backhand stroke, I could easily make my way to the big leagues. My grandpa always told me that I was the “special one in the family.” It seemed like all roads to the future led to glory.
Over time, I internalized this as my sole purpose. Life was about success. And success was, more or less, about financial security, recognition in my field, and lastly, some philanthropy, if affordable. I looked to “less successful” people in society and wondered why they didn’t get it. Why didn’t they just work harder? After all, if you believed in success like I did, you’d eventually make it big. That’s where I was heading. This ignorance was a result of years of positive reinforcement and pressures from friends and family — side effects of my incredible privilege. I had the privilege of having the right resources around me, of having faith in a secure future. I knew that my family and I would be all right even if I wasn’t a millionaire by 25. Most importantly, I knew that the path to the stars cut right through America, the “Land of Opportunity.”
When I arrived in Berkeley, I found that this opportunity was disproportionately distributed. I had expected this race to success to get less competitive as I hit successive milestones, but I couldn’t have been further from the truth. Even this far into the success marathon, people around me seemed to be running harder than I’d ever seen them run before. Despite our unique dreams and backgrounds, my peers and I all seemed to be chasing a virtually similar future state grounded in monetary success.
But why were we bound to these impersonal, generic dreams?
As friends and family cheered on from thousands of miles away, for the first time I wondered what race I was even running. I told myself I was on my way to “making an impact” on this world, and that was only possible with a larger net worth or a better job. But was it? I looked around me to realize that those already on top weren’t exactly making much of an impact at all. I was in the United States, the most successful country in the world, by many metrics. You’d think age-old struggles of food insecurity and homelessness would be antiquated here.
Yet, I saw friends on campus struggle to budget their next meals. I saw a housing crisis in the Bay Area that marginalized the worst-positioned groups in what was the most productive land in human history. And instead of working on these larger issues, the successful elite seemed to be running the same race that we all were running. Surely, this race had to lead somewhere. If not, what was even the point?
As I came to question this idea of unending success, for the first time I realized the strife it had brought me. In the race for acquiring “more,” I had forgotten to ask myself what “more” I even wanted. And I wasn’t alone — memes about poor mental health, unhealthy competition and feelings of emptiness flood UC Berkeley’s meme page, as students sacrifice sleep and social lives in the race toward success.
Thousands of years ago, Aristotle argued that the human individual’s ultimate goal is happiness. Across the world and throughout history, nations have sought to maximize this happiness for their people. Yet, whenever I find this happiness to be within reach and I’m closer to a more successful future self, happiness only seems to escape into the distance. Sometimes, it seems as if my happiness takes away from somebody else seeking the same reward — that my contentment is a direct consequence of somebody else’s strife. This unjust competition breeds growing feelings of envy, mistrust and helplessness within me and the world around me.
My seeming edge for recognizing and striving toward success brought me to America, the most competitive playing field there is. But even here, in the big leagues, there is so much unhappiness. I continue running toward the next milestone — the next grade, the next job — and while some of these milestones may be tied to my actual interests and passions, they are ultimately also tied to my relative position in society. I wonder what life would be like if these pressures didn’t exist. If everyone in this world had the opportunity and freedom to pursue their work, their art, without these beacons of financial success or fame that capitalism creates. Maybe that world would have its own unending race — and I would love to participate.