The moral of the story is: Run your own race.
After an incredible last year of high school that surpassed even my own expectations, I was feeling pretty good. With impressive A Level results, the Melbury Cup tennis trophy and an award from the Government of Zimbabwe, I was on top of the world. It felt like nothing could touch me, I was on Cloud Nine, running my own rave, and winning. You can imagine just how much my head inflated after being admitted to one of the most prestigious schools: The University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school and as of 2017, #10 in the world. Another notch added to my winning streak.
In many ways, my first year of school matched my expectations: my workload was heavier, my room was smaller and the food wasn’t exactly Michelin star. In writing this post, I don’t want to embody what every other article tells you about going to a competitive school because no matter where you go you will find kids who are smarter than you, more athletic than you and have more savoir-faire than you. Starting university is a huge transition for anyone, and it took a long time for me to realise that that’s true whether you go to college in the same town you grew up in or if like me, you moved 17,000 km across the globe. You will feel awkward, insecure and unprepared. How on earth do you compete with the kid who has been doing research since he was in diapers, or the kid who started their own successful business at 16? What I’m here to tell you is that you don’t. You compete with previous versions of yourself.
I spent a lot of time in my first year trying to outdo my classmates, teammates and at some point, even my own roommates. If I wasn’t at the top of my own mental leader board then I was letting myself down. This toxic cycle of thinking can easily discourage you as you start to feel as though you’re not as brilliant or capable as you thought you were. This led to a loss of self because it felt like I couldn’t do the things that I enjoyed doing if someone was going to be better than me anyways.
It’s easy to fall into the trap when you spend all your time looking at what other people are doing and weighing it against your own accolades. You panic and start to feel that what you have achieved is insignificant or that you haven’t been working hard enough. You put in hours and hours of hard work trying to follow someone else’s path, chasing something that was never meant for you, pursuing something that you will never attain. Nothing hurts your self-esteem more than putting all your effort into a project and not seeing the results especially when it seems as though other people are more successful than you are. This can apply to studying techniques, sports training or getting a startup off the ground.
We need to remind ourselves that this is not a race. Success doesn’t have a timeline. In comparing yourself to others, you start to believe that everyone is looking at you and judging your actions. You feel as though everyone will be disappointed by the fact that you haven’t managed to produce a spectacular project by age 20 or that you haven’t made Forbes’ 30 under 30 by age 25. The truth is that you don’t need to feel the pressure to be sensational in order to please everyone around you. This pill becomes even harder to swallow when you’ve been a high achiever since preschool.
In the end, it became important to recognise that my own individuality is what makes me unique and is the reason why I shouldn’t strive so hard to compete with someone else. It is your unique brand of characteristics that makes you who you are and makes it impossible for you to compare yourself to someone else. So what if they played lacrosse at a national level and you couldn’t get further than your school team? The fact that they have a superior career shouldn’t invalidate the fact that your school team was the best in the region that year. We should learn to stop being critical of ourselves based on what others are doing and instead start congratulating and appreciating ourselves for our accomplishments, no matter how small. I made it all the way down an expert ski slope without falling! I completed a coding assignment without going to office hours! I didn’t miss my 9 am class today!
As I have discovered, college is extremely forgiving. You have the freedom to join a sports team even if you’ve never played the sport before, and you’re allowed to suck at it, at least you put your pride aside and ventured outside your comfort zone. You’re allowed to change your major every other week, and decide to venture into finance even if you don’t really know how the stock market works, it’s admirable that you are chasing your dreams. You’re allowed to start a business that eventually fails, it’s impressive that you were brave enough to try.
The only person you can truly compete with is yourself. I encourage everyone reading this to go out and be the best versions of themselves today. I believe that true happiness comes from self-fulfilment: you feel overjoyed when you set a new record for your fastest 5k, and that is incomparable to the fleeting tinge of satisfaction you feel when you get a higher grade than the person sitting next to you. You shouldn’t have to ‘be better’ than someone in order to feel accomplished. Run your own race and try to beat yourself each time.