I remember having to answer that question four years ago when I was a wide-eyed high-school senior applying to Stanford University — and having no idea how to answer it. Four years later, on the eve of my graduation from this incredible institution, I’m not afraid to say that I still have no idea how to answer that question.
In a lot of ways, I envy the me of four years ago. Life was a lot simpler back then. What mattered was getting good grades, doing lots of extracurriculars and acing my standardized tests so that I could go to an elite college and make my parents proud.
But at the same time, I now look back at 15-year-old Do with a wistful sadness. I think about how much pressure I was under — both internal and external — to fulfill everybody’s expectations and to be, in a word, absolutely perfect. I think about how much I internalized it until that pressure and I were one and the same — my life wasn’t anything more than a constant, me-against-the-world struggle to be the best.
I told myself that was what I wanted in life, because that’s all anyone ever told me I should be (skipping three grades tends to inflate people’s expectations of you a little bit). I was taught that failure is unacceptable, that it would be a waste of my “incredible talent” not to use it to “change the world” or “make a difference” or some other clichéd collection of buzzwords that still make me cringe to hear.
I know that at Stanford, I’m surrounded by lots of people who have owned that exact mindset — because, like it or not, that’s what it takes to get into this university today. And on a seemingly perfect campus surrounded by seemingly perfect people, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of locking even more into the idea that you, too, need to be perfect — to “live up to” Stanford or to take full advantage of it.
But what does it mean to be perfect?
I think I learned too late that perfection, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. You can’t let anyone else define the standards that you should hold yourself to, because what’s really to be gained from forever chasing others’ standards and letting others determine your path?
Too often, I look around at Stanford and find somebody doing cool research, somebody coding an app, somebody creating thoughtful works of art, somebody trying to bring about societal change — and wonder, “Why am I not doing that?”
Especially over the past year, with my time at Stanford dwindling, I’ve wondered to myself if I almost “wasted” Stanford and the crazy amount of material and human resources that it has to offer. There are so many more classes I could have taken, so many more professors I could have talked to, so many more groups I could have joined. It’s a scary feeling, knowing that you’ve spent four years at a place that people all over the world literally dream about and thinking that you might have wasted that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
But the important thing that I’ve come to realize is that unlike what high school me was led to believe, there’s more to life than doing things and achieving things just for the sake of doing things and achieving things. For too long, I simply went through the motions — and for the first time, I allowed myself to stop, smell the (cardinal red) roses and really just be happy.
I let myself mess around and take naps when I felt overworked, made a bigger emphasis on taking time to be with my friends and most importantly, found a community and a job that I loved at The Stanford Daily. I let myself stop pushing the pedal to the metal on an engineering career that I’m still not sure about, and as a result, I woke up every day with a smile on my face, knowing that I was trading stress and unhappiness for something that I genuinely loved.
The most important thing that Stanford taught me is that it’s okay to not be perfect — whatever “perfect” is supposed to mean, anyway. I realized that it’s only because of the things that I didn’t do — not the things that I did do — that I had the time to truly slow life down and appreciate the things that really do matter to me: my incredible friends and family, this amazing campus, the collection of forged moments that combine to make the Stanford experience so special.
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.