Widgets Magazine


Superfish in a Pond: A Freshman Perspective

It’s no secret that students here at Stanford have insecurities about their competence. From Admit Weekend to Orientation, they’ve told us at every turn: “You deserve to be here. You’re good enough. You weren’t admitted by mistake.”

Yet I continue to hear classmates, friends and people in my dorm say (often in these exact words): “I don’t deserve to be here. I’m not good enough. I feel like I was admitted by mistake.” It reminds me of the way models are said to feel insecure about their bodies.

One would think that we of all people, students at Stanford University, would realize our value. Why don’t we? It boils down to one thing: what Stanford’s own Carol Dweck, professor of psychology, calls “fixed mindset”; in simple terms, the idea that our abilities are set, especially in relation to those around us. Before Stanford, we were all big fish relative to our peers. Now, here, we’re smaller fish, too small — or so many of us feel — to swim in the Stanford pond.

Fixed mindset sneaks into our lives and nearly incapacitates us. It doesn’t completely preclude us from hard work — no one would dispute that Stanford students are among the hardest workers of all.

But it keeps us succeeding only in those areas we feel safe in (why do I pretend to be a ditz at math in front of my uber-achieving friends when I shone at it before?), and it turns every midterm into doomsday. If we’re working our butts off and still not achieving to the level of our peers, what does that say about us?

The thing is, hard work doesn’t cut it when we don’t believe in ourselves in the first place. If we’re undermining ourselves at every turn, consciously or subconsciously, no amount of effort will be enough.

No, what a mind really needs to succeed at something is that spark, that click, that “I get it!” That feeling you get when you’ve realized how to become good at something. You know what I’m talking about. We’ve all felt it — that spark of understanding, excitement, fascination with the beauty of a subject or the art of excelling at it. It’s that thing we lost about two weeks after we got here.

What we need to realize is that we can still feel that spark without being the best. It’s there, lurking just beneath the surface of our fears and self doubts and self impairments. Each and every one of us has the ability to reach for it. And what’s more, it’s not a matter of simply choosing what is easiest or most natural. We can each find our spark in whatever area we choose.

To regain our spark, we need only regain our confidence. Sound hard? Did you shy away as things got more difficult in high school? If so, you wouldn’t be here!

College is when fixed mindset really hits hard. It’s this sense that we’re “stuck” here, wherever we are, at B’s in science, “bad at writing,” “techie,” “fuzzy,” cut out for one thing, not cut out for another. Many of us felt we were “stuck” at the top in high school, and now we feel like we’re stuck at subpar…as smaller fish in a pond of giants.

But in reality, we’re no normal fish. We’re superfish, with infinite growing capacity. Who cares if there’s a bigger fish right now? That other fish is irrelevant. What matters is our own personal amount of growth, and the beauty and excitement of the process of growing.

What’s more: as the fish in the pond grow, the super pond, grows as well. That’s right. Our pond, Stanford, gets bigger — the school itself improves and achieves more as it expands to accommodate us. And as our growth leads us to extend our reach, achievement and impact, the world itself gets bigger.

Improvement, forward progress — this is the result of what happens when we truly dedicate ourselves to the art of developing ourselves and pushing ourselves to the — wait — limits? There aren’t any! Isn’t that exciting?

We’re at Stanford. Not only do we have a responsibility to ourselves to explore our potential, we have a responsibility to the world. Get out there. Get your growth mindset on. Start changing yourself, start changing the world. We’re in the place with possibly the most opportunities on Earth. Wouldn’t it be sad if we passed them by simply because we couldn’t get past our own insecurities?

Stanford recognized your potential; will you?


Contact Eleanor Collier at ecollier@stanford.edu

  • Candid One

    Nice insights, Eleanor. Perhaps, another increment of your scenario for self-image deflation is that Stanford is currently a graduate school as well. The ratio of grad student to undergrad is about 3:2. So, not only is a freshman immersed in a pond of undergrad other high-achievers but also they’re outnumbered by grad students who are beyond the undergrad gamut. This is a common syndrome among elite national universities. The pond is part of a larger pool.

    Each person will find a individual way to cope, to adjust, and find their new Superfish self-concept, or not. It may take a lifetime for some of us to “get it”. However, a timeline standard is a masochistic burden that only serves school administrators. Whether we configure our Superfish persona in four years or four decades, the self-growth process should be recognized and respected. Maybe, for some of us, with our individual variables, “getting it” is a different algorithm? For some of us, that road less traveled isn’t as well paved as it is for our peers but it’s destination is hopefully the same…a full, self-defined, productive life. May the road rise to meet your feet…