Alright. Sit down, you ivory-towered, over-privileged, overachieving Ivy Leaguers—we have some business to take care of. It's time we all stop striving for A's.
Now before you turn into my floormate—who is undoubtedly making vaguely bestial noises at this declaration while shuffling through her orgo notes—give me a minute to explain. Homer and glory and traditional views of success are great and all, but they could leave you being dragged around the walls of Troy by your ankles as what's left of your family watches on, sobbing. And maybe that's your shtick, in which case, good for you! But for the rest of us, it might be time to consider a different approach.
The more modern Michel de Montaigne. When he's not debating the merits of a cannibalistic society, he's laying the foundation for the rise of modern skepticism, making you wonder if God really is dead and all we have to rely on is our own isolated minds. But more pertinently, and a little less depressingly, he also makes a good argument for completely eschewing conventional ideas of success and looking to the self, rather than the outside world, for answers.
Or, as he puts it, living perfectly is not the point. The point is living.
I know what you're thinking: “I don't care if he's one of the foremost thinkers of the Western tradition, he sounds like some commune hippie from Vermont.” That's fair, but that basically makes him analogous to the patron saint of millennials—Bernie Sanders, whom you probably voted for, statistically speaking—so Montaigne can't be all bad.
Montaigne warns us that although there will always be successful people, pointing to renowned figures like Roman senators and Alexander the Great, conventional success is not the way to happiness. It took me a long time to realize that I could always be conventionally successful—I'm at Columbia for Chrissake. Obviously there's no guarantee, but Columbia provides the opportunity for success through a plethora of resources. At the very least I can always don a suit and schmooze my way through a soul-sucking career fair. But is there always time for me to, as Montaigne puts it, enjoy my existence, reflect on my life, and control my fate?
Traditional accomplishments can be wonderful, but even “upon the most exalted throne in the world [it is] still our own bottom that we sit on.”
I'm not saying that we shouldn't get A's, or internships, or high-paying jobs. I'm saying that we should stop making that our primary goal. William Deresiewicz, CC '85, wrote a book about our overachieving, throne-sitting asses called “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.” You can tell he went to Columbia because the title is almost as long as the book, but he makes a good point. We're basically sheep—we know how to follow orders, and follow formulas, but we're limited when it comes to understanding ourselves and our passions.
Deresiewicz argues, a lot like Montaigne, that “you won't be able to recognize the things you really care about until you have released your grip on all the things that you've been taught to care about.” If doing well ends up being a consequence of your endeavors, then that's absolutely wonderful, but getting too caught up in quantifiable indicators of success (i.e., your grades) closes you off from the enormous possibility of what you actually care about—of your own version of success.
Montaigne and Deresiewicz are challenging us to redefine our worth. Entertain doubt. Entertain uncertainty. Do not be afraid to entertain a reality in which you do not conventionally succeed. So long as you live, and live by your standards, then in Montaigne's eyes you have already won. And I know this isn't easy—we've been so socialized to treat each A as the next fix that weaning ourselves off of it isn't a switch, but a process. Understanding something intellectually and being able to execute it are two very different things. I still find myself having to pull away from the mindset that my happiness and value are based on my GPA, and the fact that I go to this pretentious, intellectual school.
These past few days I've been reminded of something my dad told me once: You have to decide, moment by moment, if it is better to be kind, or to be right. I think to get to a place like Columbia, we're the kind of people that compulsively grasp onto the “right.” “Right” is an A, “right” is an internship, “right” is a successful argument. We end up so focused on “right” that we forget that kindness, both to others but especially to ourselves, can be more important. But “right” is not a future. “Right” may make the world more efficient, but it doesn't necessarily make the world better. It does not make you better.
So stop placing your personal worth on your academic success, and make yourself better—just take the fucking B. You don't have to be perfect. You can simply be good.
Hannah Barbosa Cesnik is a Columbia College first-year who wrote most of this column at Hungarian Pastry Shop, and does not plan on ending up like Hektor from the Iliad. She can be found on Twitter at @HCesnik. Everything I need to know I learned in Lit Hum runs alternate Tuesdays.
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