On the eve of my 20th birthday, a very special person gifted me a wall-framed recreation of “Desiderata,” an inspirational poem written by Max Ehrmann. It hangs on my dorm room wall and has constantly served as a source of strength, fortitude, and inspiration. Reading after reading, the words within it have also allowed for a thorough re-examination of how I perceive desire for success and how I define success itself.
If we let it, college can play a much greater role than providing us with a prestigious network and a stamp of approval that leapfrogs us to career success. At its very core, it throws us into the midst of experiences with peers and exposes us to the thoughts of wise men and women far separated from our times yet subject to many of our own apprehensions. The purpose of such exposure and experience is not necessarily to inspire emulation, but rather introspection and if we’re lucky—revelation. While some of us begin college with definitive goals, the path to success for others is just beginning to take shape. The ability to refine, change, and even discover our perception of success—motivating us with an unwavering drive to achieve it—is what makes college a platform for success. Moreover, this process of refinement and discovery is a product of how we choose to go about college.
To begin with, we are often quick to dismiss the importance of experimentation and failure. While commitment and focus have several merits, history has shown time and time again that repeatedly testing the waters has empowered many to either discover or cement their true passions over time, bringing exemplary success. At a dynamic and multifaceted institution like Columbia, there is simply too much available not to indulge ourselves without a fear of failure. If you think you’ve always had two left feet, audition for a dance team, and you might be surprised. If stage fright has been your nemesis, give debate or Model UN a shot. Regardless of the outcome, unfamiliar experiences allow for growth by getting out of our comfort zones and familiarizing ourselves with foreign perspectives that inform our own. Not to diminish the value of our peers who have focused exclusively on certain pursuits, but experimenting in many fields and activities can be just as meaningful.
Our perceptions of success have also been adulterated by our focus on recognition and acclaim. This is particularly unfortunate at Columbia where many of us are simply beginning to scratch the surface of what we are capable of—often in fields and endeavors we may not have expected. A lack of acclamation in such cases can often discourage us and limit our potential. Transitioning from being celebrated rock stars at our respective high schools to being faces among a crowd of 10,000 overachievers can be downright frightening. Over time, watching our peers rack up accolades, big name jobs, graduate school admissions, and Facebook likes can also be unsettling. Ehrmann cautions against the futility of comparing ourselves with those around us, for there will always be “greater” or “lesser,” and I couldn’t agree more. Learning to “compete with only oneself” is admittedly hard to do but brings about a security and peace that inspire us to celebrate our achievements with humility and emulate our peers without bitterness. We may even come to learn that those whom we often cautiously admired from a distance have admired us in equal measure for unique talents and passions that we had begun to undervalue owing to a lack of recognition. The irony only serves to highlight the potentially deceptive nature of fame in finite social circles.
Learning to “compete with oneself” and leveraging diverse experiences to discover our passions are crucial to finding success. It is also imperative, however, to gradually grasp what success means along the way. Success for many is simply a means to happiness. Perhaps more disturbing is that for a significant number of such people, it is not the product of hard work or creativity, but the consequent adulation and applause that begin to define success and, in turn, happiness. Were it not for “Desiderata” and the person who presented it to me, I might still consider myself part of this unfortunate group even today. There remains a diminished but innate tendency to value my academic work by the grade alone, to measure performance by acclamation and success by approval. The more we define our successes by such yardsticks, however, the more elusive it becomes. If we can learn to instead cherish our work independent of praise and our experiences independent of their tangible outcomes, we may not find success as we had earlier perceived it—but we would be successful in finding happiness.
Ehrmann writes, “Go placidly amidst the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence ... Speak your truth quietly and clearly.”
Columbia, and life itself, can be chaotic and overwhelming. Even though it may not seem so at times, it is eventually up to us to decide how we embrace this noise and haste. If we can empower ourselves to learn and absorb from it, but avoid getting swept away, we may find our true passions and our very own success.
Anirban Poddar is a Columbia College senior majoring in economics-philosophy. He contributes regularly to The Canon.
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