Winston Churchill once said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In terms of one’s academic future, that statement could be amended to include the fear of success. As students, I believe most of us are conditioned to reach only so high; to be just good enough to pass a given class. When we get that B or the ever-elusive A, we stare slack-jawed at the instructors as if they had some kind of temporary insanity. Not because they gave us the grade–it was probably hard-earned, and we thank them for noticing–but now they have put us in the unenviable position of having to justify their judgment by getting another B or A. Yes, the bar has been raised: can we now raise ourselves to match it? More importantly, do we want to?
As I write this, I am sitting in the Grace Dodge Dining Room at Teachers College, Columbia University. Even on an early November evening, the place is packed with students cramming for this paper or that presentation. Here, amid the smell of Asian BBQ ribs and beef fajita paninis, I feel a bit confused. On the one hand, conversations have a casual, almost happy hour type of feel about them. On the other hand, those having the dialogue are pouring over documents on their laptops or tablets while putting what they can in their mouths between sentences. Anyone sitting alone is only here long enough to eat, skim and run…maybe to his or her next class.
The most amazing thing—to me, anyway—is the smiles on everyone’s faces. This is an Ivy League institution, where most of these students are expected to be at the top of their game. Rather than cower in the 125-year-old corners of most of the buildings from the pressure of such high academic standards, they smile and laugh and eat and work and run off to the next class. No fear, no pressure, no mental breakdowns to be seen in this bunch.
How did they go from “C is cool for me” to “A or Nothing!”? One explanation could be that this is simply not the average “C” crowd—this could be what happens when you bring a bunch of academic overachievers together. They’re confident in their ability to get the work done, on time and in a scholarly fashion, because they’re used to doing so. They may have come from prep schools and other high-end facilities where excellence was nurtured and appreciated, thus giving them the room to aim higher without a lack of self-confidence. This is their pool, and they’re doing the backstroke.
While I considered myself a pretty good student, I come here and hear the conversations, and feel like I’ve missed a few semesters. There is someone playing a fairly loose medley of classical tunes, and I look at my hands as if they’re broken. I am easily older, if not twice as old, as most of the people in this dining hall; yet, I hear them discussing topics that seem to be years ahead of me.
Can I succeed here? Can I raise my skills to this level? I was considered an overachiever at MCNY, but that was because many of the students were at “C”-level. No disrespect meant to my current alma mater, but picking out the top students in each class was almost as easy as spotting Siamese cats at a dog show. When I became part of the Mentor and Leadership Development Program there, I was surrounded by talented, like-minded people who came to me for help, even though some of them could run rings around me in their given specialties. Now I am the one looking for help. I am new to a school where the bar is raised so high, only the best academic high-jumpers can clear it.
The Ivy League is to education what the Major Leagues is to baseball. I have been drafted by one of the top teams, and soon it will be my turn to take the field. Just having the skills will not cut it here; as with any top level, one has to have the desire and the confidence to match those skills. I have the desire, but the confidence wanes with every passing day. Opening Day jitters? Of course. More to the point, it’s fear of success. If I throw a strike on the first pitch, I might feel like I have to keep throwing strikes until the game ends. If I win the first, I will have to win the second, and the third, and the fourth…and the rest.
I know this isn’t really the case, but that is the mind of the overachiever. Win or fail. “Good enough” is never good enough. In order for me to get through this, I’m going to have to learn whatever it is that these good people in the dining room have learned to have such a cool amount of self-efficacy. It may just be that I have to quiet the voices of doubt and pay attention to what I have achieved. I AM here, after all. I wouldn’t be if it someone thought I were incapable. I once did a speech in one of my classes about how a lack of self-efficacy can be your biggest weakness. “CAN’T minus ‘T equals CAN! You’ve done it before, so you can do it again. The only one stopping you…is you!” Maybe it’s time for me to listen to my own words.
My Ivy League season starts January 22nd, 2014. Until then, I’ll be warming up in the bullpen.