Almost once a week for four years, I took the stage. I knew just where to stand to avoid the gale-force winds coming from the air vent right above, I knew how to shake the mic just right when it malfunctioned and I knew how to set up AirPlay like no one else. In high school, I was an assembly facilitator. Facing my classmates and flashing a wide smile, I yelled “Good morning!” and “Happy Friday,” basking in the warmth of being known. I thought I was unique.
The spotlight followed me after assembly, to my classes and clubs. In a graduating class of 52 and a school whose high school population is concentrated on three floors of a 10-story building, it’s hard to be invisible. You couldn’t sneeze in the 10th-floor gym without a classmate in the lobby yelling, “Bless you!”
My business was everyone’s business, my achievements were everyone’s achievements and my failures were everyone’s failures. Due to this inevitable intimacy, for much of high school I was unreasonably cautious about my reputation; I felt compelled to maintain a streak of high achievements and behave in a specific way to honor an image I had fabricated myself. To be clear, I genuinely cherished each extracurricular activity I pursued and each moment I spent in front of the school during assembly. But I would be lying if I denied that some of my efforts were driven, at least in part, by a pressure I felt from the people in my life, even if it mostly originated within me.
As soon as I arrived in college, things changed. For once, I didn’t know the names of everyone around me, and they didn’t know mine. I was, for the first time in a long time, anonymous. This is less true today, a quarter and a half into my freshman year. Now, I rarely enter a dining hall or campus event or big lecture without recognizing a few faces. But still, because of the sheer size of the student body, I am automatically less important, less conspicuous. The magnifying lens that used to hover over me is gone.
This shift can threaten one’s sense of self-worth as a freshman; it certainly did for me, at first. Many of us were probably “high-achieving” students in high school, busy and adored and married to high standards. Along with this pressure came comfort; in my small high school, I received validation in the form of grades and compliments from teachers and cheerful parent-teacher conferences. In contrast, last quarter at Stanford I withdrew from calculus, some of my professors didn’t know my name and my parents lived too far away to meet with my instructors. At times, the disappearance of my ego-boosting, fragile and imagined “fame” has troubled me. Some days I miss the sense of control and importance I obtained from knowing everyone around me, and from knowing that everyone also knew me, even if only superficially.
But slowly, my feelings have changed. Being “insignificant” has liberated me from the pressure to overcommit and to excel universally, a pressure that I felt in high school. I’m enrolled in a reasonable number of units, exercising, taking naps and biking to Whole Foods to buy baguettes. I jettisoned my aversion to the white space on my Google Calendar and made free time for myself instead, leaving behind an unrealistic anxiety to do a bit of everything, and to do it well. That is not to say that I am not being challenged; most of my days are full, and I’m participating in events and activities that push me in exciting ways. I look forward to seeking even more of these opportunities in the coming years, but my mindset has already changed indelibly.
Instead of succumbing to impostor syndrome and its accompanying insecurities, I have found ways to frame my new reality – to turn to the cliché of being a small fish in a big pond – into something productive. With this mindset, I have dissociated myself from unhealthy definitions of perfection and a search for external validation.
Some days, when I’m parking my bike outside my dorm after a long day, I admit that I feel nostalgic for my assembly days. I remind myself, then, that the spotlight has faded to make way for something better: the freedom to choose, and to take the time to fashion myself. Though occasionally upsetting, my early recognition that standing out in college is difficult has transformed my outlook and opened doors to a more sustainable and fulfilling life.
Contact Lucas Hornsby at lhornsby ‘at’ stanford.edu.