Being a senior in high school is like being the tallest building in Daly City. So a wise high school teacher told me. You’re a pretty big deal at 18 years old with an acceptance letter to Stanford. Then you show up here and you are unequivocally, irrevocably average. What once seemed like worldly, unique accomplishments take on a more provincial nature. You scored 2200 on your SATs? That’s acceptable. You were class president? That’s cute. The bottom line is that you got into Stanford… and so did everyone else here.
I notice a common strategy for dealing with feeling average. Students do not try, as you might expect, to stand out. If everyone here is successful, success is not enough. You realize quickly that on this campus, there will always be someone smarter, funnier or prettier than you. Instead, students cope with their average standing by trying to give off the impression that they aren’t trying.
There is a high premium on casual. Casual greetings, casual responses, casual sex. Implicit in formality is a level of effort that students avoid like the plague. If you reveal how many hours you studied for an exam, you expose your ordinariness. And God forbid you get caught pursuing someone romantically. You wouldn’t want to concede that it is in fact difficult for you to get somebody’s attention. School is easy, hookups “just happen” and success falls from the sky.
There are two primary dangers when everything is casual. For one, the pressure to keep calm and carry on can ironically make students crack. It is maddening to put on a circus show of apathy and ease when there is a very frustrated person backstage who cares so much and tries so hard. Secondly, the premium on keeping your cool breeds disrespect. When you preemptively ignore someone so that they have to make the effort to say hello, you are being disrespectful. When you exclusively communicate via text message, you are copping out. I see (and experience) plenty of compassionate interactions at Stanford, but I also notice plenty that are disrespectful or plain indecent. What results is a culture whose dogma is to keep it casual and whose motto is “chill out, man.”
Besides engendering disrespect and unnecessary stress, keeping your cool limits you to a narrow range of emotions. When you admit that you care about someone or something, the stakes are higher. High stakes make failure more devastating and success more honest. When you deny that you care about anything, you mute your feelings towards everything. You feel less disappointment and also less excitement. You end up with a positive feedback loop that transforms feigned apathy into real apathy.
Breaking the loop is no easy task. It starts with compassion towards yourself and others – something I’m still working on. Check yourself when you start to feel cynical or jaded. Try to replace judgment with curiosity. Treat your peers with respect and decency, even if people mock you for being overly polite. Most of all, don’t be afraid to commit to something that you care about, and to show that you care. You may not be the tallest building, but you made it out of Daly City.
Keep it casual – or don’t – by emailing Renée at email@example.com