Writer’s note: The writer suggests listening to “On My Own” from the “Les Misérables” soundtrack while reading.
As a child, I hated my name. It wasn’t just because “s”s were difficult to write in fancy font on projects or they didn’t look particularly cool when I learned cursive in third grade; it was also because I wanted nothing more than to be like everyone else with more common names like Tiffany.
I have long since started to appreciate my name, but I still feel plain in many other areas. Whether it be in appearance or ambitions, I have long felt average, always ending up with a place in the middle of the pack. As a result, I looked for ways to distinguish myself from others. I toyed with the idea of dying my entire head blonde during middle school, wondering if changing my look would also change my perception of myself. (Thank goodness I didn’t follow through with that idea though; my middle school ego would have been shattered by the negative feedback.)
As I matured, there have been many traditions that I have clung onto that would probably surprise my younger self. In kindergarten, when all my classmates stated that they all wanted to be teachers, I proudly declared that I wanted to be the president of the United States. A few years later, I decided that I wanted to become a doctor, and have since stuck to that. After coming to college, I have continued to pursue my dream of becoming a doctor. Coming from a primarily Asian community, this easily seemed like a standard career plan, and I have genuinely enjoyed the courses I have taken to chase after this goal. However, I felt flattered when my friend called me different from all the pre-meds because I did not obsess about grades as much. Although the pre-med community is one with which I identify in many ways, I still took her comment as a compliment. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I still sought to be different.
On the other hand, I still choose not to follow the cultural stereotype of distancing myself from my parents. Instead of ignoring their advice, I listen carefully to what they had to say before making my own decisions. My mom and I became best friends towards the end of high school as I forgot about how parents were supposed to be perceived as uncool or distant. To this day, my relationship with my mom continues to be one of my largest priorities and I am immensely grateful for it. This made me realize that both conforming and straying from the norm have offered me great joy in different places. To determine which path to take can be accomplished by recognizing your own priorities and following that instead of being overly conscious of what everyone else seems to be doing.
On such a liberal and encouraging campus like Stanford, I have often felt pressured to always be doing something different from everyone else, whether it be revealing a secret, unexpected talent or developing a novel startup idea. We’re always encouraged to build our own path (or major), and simply figure things out along the way. That always seems like a better alternative than being “basic.” Naturally, no one seems to be interested in the pre-med student who did not drop out of college to publish a best-selling novel.
I have learned, however, that being different does not equate to being better, despite what people around me say. I am grateful for the accepting nature that society continues to move in with incorporating new ideas, but I feel this often breeds resentment towards more traditional practices. Being traditional also does not mean that I am boring or lack my own direction. As a matter of fact, every decision I make on whether or not to conform is my own, and therefore sets me apart.
Before you throw tradition to the wind, give it another thought. Counter the norm when necessary, but don’t feel guilty for following the pack for something you believe in. It’s nice to feel you’re paving your own road, but it can also be as dramatic as Éponine from “Les Misérables.” I can’t help but use “On My Own” to set the tone for my column, but it’s hard to live your entire life in her state.
Contact Serena Lin at serenal ‘at’ stanford.edu.