“Stop comparing yourself to your brother.” — Tushar and Sveta Shah (my parents)
Growing up, the idea of academic success was instilled into my mindset each and every day. My immigrant parents did not come to a new country for us, my younger brother, Amar, and I, to squander the opportunity to succeed. For my parents, success was derived through education. This is a fairly race agnostic idea. Most other immigrant children can relate to this same principle that my brother and I were taught. Honestly, it’s as if they all read the same “How to Succeed in America” book on their respective journeys. In this hypothetical book, the path would be relatively simple and straightforward. Get straight A’s throughout elementary, middle, and high school. Get into college. Get a “good” (re: financially stable) job.
That’s it. Three simple steps to success. I’m interested in the process of attaining the “success” that is depicted in this three-step flowchart. The fundamental question being — does pursuing this unattainable success produce happiness?
Success, especially for high-achieving students and young professionals, is typically determined through competition. Their line of thinking lies in a relatively linear pattern. The higher my grade point average (GPA), the more I’m worth. The higher ranked college I attend, the more I’m worth. The more competitive my job offers, the more I’m worth. This is Social Darwinism for the 21st century high-achieving young adult.
So, let’s start at the first step. In most American high schools, there are class rankings. We celebrate the idea of a valedictorian, but rarely the students who come after. A relatively small percentage of AP exam takers score a five, limiting who can earn college credit based on the success of others. National standardized exam scores are based solely on percentiles, creating vast differences in outcomes based on how other students perform. In a world where success depends upon percentiles, the students at the top of the pyramid begin to create self-worth based upon accomplishments relative to their peers.
This concept extends outside of the classroom as well. The pressure is intense to make the varsity sports team or to make state finals in an academic club. An egregious extreme of this is best exemplified with college applications. Students join extracurricular leadership positions that involve minimal work in order to pad their resume. Quantity becomes more valued than quality. The idea of competition is embedded deep within the American education system as students try to accumulate more and more lines on their resume. Only the top students or athletes (or both) were considered true successes. I found myself asking: why can’t we all succeed?
This competitive mentality continues at most elite undergraduate institutions. From my personal experience at Northwestern, I know that only a certain percentage of students (especially in the 100 or 200 level courses) are allowed to get an A. Instead of creating a collaborative atmosphere that most undergraduate institutions tout, they actively pit student vs. student. To be fair, this survival of the fittest ideology may bring out the best in some students. Anecdotally, I can tell you that this was not the case for the vast majority of my peers.
This cut-throat culture grading via percentiles is best shown through pre-medicine classes. These students, who are already conditioned to believe that their GPA must be high in order to get into medical school, are then operating under the assumption that there are a finite number of students who will get an A. In fact, I had one class where the average student would receive a B-. This is further illustrated by when the professor would release the test scores, most students would jump straight to the average and standard deviation. They would then reverse calculate to obtain their approximate letter grade. Just imagine; students who are used to excelling their entire academic life are now told that only a few would earn an A. This survival focused game drove many to have increased anxiety and depression due to the fear of failure. By shifting the mindsets, colleges have accomplished the exact opposite of the goal for which they were created: to create a collaborative environment for academic endeavors.
After undergraduate studies, most high-achieving students vie for the most lucrative careers and anyone who deviates from that path is typically looked down upon. Why? Because competition is all they know. Some examples of those careers included medicine, management consulting, investment banking, a prospering technology startup, and private equity. Why are these the most sought out careers? I’ve thought about this question for the past five years. The answer is multifactorial. These are some of the most lucrative careers in terms of financial compensation and related perks. However, the strongest reason appears to be a matter of simple supply and demand. There are simply not many positions, especially at the top firms, for everyone. Thus, by obtaining these elite job offers or admissions into the upper echelon schools, students can continue to derive self-worth from their existing definition of success.
To make this next jump, students are forced to accumulate more and more. Medical school admissions value the number of publications/abstracts rather than the quality of the research performed. Lucrative consulting and banking jobs require students to amass the most number of connections. Law students are awarded clerkships based on their percentiles relative to their fellow students. All of these points prove that students have to do more and score higher relative to each other. They are being compared against each other, just to advance in their chosen careers at each stage of the process. By forcing students to value quantity vs. quality, society shows that it’s true superficial values. Therefore, Social Darwinism of the 21st century only allows a select minority at the top of the food chain.
Personally, this is revolting, which may seem hypocritical since I chose medicine as my career. However, by being a part of the system and going through the process, I can now appreciate how deeply systemic the idea of competition truly is. It appears that we do things because we think it may elevate others’ perception of ourselves, instead of making our choices based on our happiness and what we can contribute to pushing our society forward. Some truly want to be physicians, consultants, bankers, etc. and that is their life’s calling, but I can almost certainly guarantee that those careers are not for everyone. Even within those fields, they feel the need to go to the best institutions, companies, firms, etc. It’s this mentality that I need to continue being the best at what I do that I want to highlight. It’s not our fault that we have this framework; rather, it’s the system that has been indoctrinated via our education. We were conditioned into thinking that success is equated to the relative prestige of our career(s). If teaching were to become competitive, then I’m sure we would see an influx of applicants. A real shame, because people forgo true happiness for the facade of “success”.
The next logical question then becomes — what happens to those individuals who eventually fail? As we continue to move up the pyramid, some percentage of students must be cut. To me, these individuals finally learn how to define success on their own terms. They stop using the indoctrinated path and begin to forge their own journey to happiness and self-worth. The pyramid is never-ending. We must all eventually fail. It is an inevitable tenet of Social Darwinism. I propose that the sooner we fail out of the system, the sooner we can be happy.
Can you imagine a world where we graded ourselves only against ourselves? What if we normalized the process of failing to the process of growing? Would the world be more collaborative? Would we stop comparing our success to others? Would we be happier?
The purpose of this essay is first and foremost a plea to the entering college class and their parents. The next generation of talent. Please don’t derive happiness by defining success as materialistic as achieving a perfect GPA or the most competitive career. Don’t determine how well you knew the material based on the average. We don’t need to put each other down to feel a strong sense of self-worth. I can tell you that it’ll never be enough. This doesn’t mean you don’t try your best. Failure is nothing to be afraid of. By practicing the idea of iterative growth, we can learn from our failures to prepare for our future.
To the professors who went into teaching/research in order to add to the collective knowledge of humankind: why can’t we teach the next generation that collaboration is how we will attain new heights? Together as one. Climate change is not a problem one human will solve. Treating cancer is not a singular problem. Eliminating America’s debt is not a singular problem. All of these will require teamwork, a value that must be instilled in the next generation via how we grade. We should practice what we preach. If we switch how we grade to being based on an individual’s success (as most 300/elective courses are run), I would venture to believe that mental health would dramatically increase as the idea of failure can be transformed into new learning opportunities. Admissions committees at the undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate levels can begin to value quality over quality, signifying to students to truly find meaning in the work they do. For standardized exams, we can choose to value the raw score, rather than the percentile itself. By establishing a baseline level of competence, committees can choose to place increased importance on qualitative characteristics.
Lastly, a special message to my colleagues in medicine. When will it be time to stop basing our success off of each other? Even during residency, we are forced to take exams and instead of caring about the raw score, our programs highlight how we did compared to the national average. Fellowship admission committees look for the number of abstracts/publications, rather than the thought process behind the research. After twenty years of formal education, the competitive mindset remains. I want all physicians to score well in order to take care of the best patients. I refuse to continue to partake in obtaining happiness by doing well compared to others. Rather, I strive to derive happiness in trying to do the best that I can and hope my colleagues do the same.
The idea of comparing ourselves against only ourselves seems so simple, yet so difficult in the real world. In a society that values materialism and the accumulation of wealth above all else, I have realized that human capital is completely replaceable. What other option do we have other than to practice Social Darwinism and climb the “ladder of success”? High-achieving humans will never be satisfied because that is how the system is designed. We are conditioned to be the best by doing more, having more, and taking more. More, more, MORE. Only by accepting the current system, can we begin the healing process to accept that by being the best that I can be, the better I can serve the team.
I believe that humans are innately social creatures. We feed off of each other. We bounce ideas off of one another. There is strength in numbers. We feel safe in herds. Have you ever noticed how when there is a crowd singing, it usually sounds quite melodious? We are hardwired through evolution (actual Darwinism) to collaborate. Economists would call it specialization. Biologists would call it a symbiotic relationship. When we work together for a common goal, anything is possible. This is the attitude that got us to space. This is the attitude that created Wikipedia. This is one millennial’s attitude for the rest of the 21st century.
By redefining our grading system, prioritizing quality over quantity, and measuring our success against ourselves, I think we will be happier as a society. These changes must happen at multiple levels within the system of education and the job market. Competition can be healthy, but the materialistic system has taken it to an extreme. We need to reinforce collaboration, starting with our youngest minds; the future of America. By minimizing rewards for ultra-competitive behavior, we can return to mutualism where we value team achievements over individual accolades. We can redefine what success really means.