There’s a decent chance that many of us at Barnard and Columbia enjoy being number one, whether we’re conscious of it or not. We’ve been taught to strive to be the best and to succeed ostensibly, and we do so unquestioningly, dreaming of glory in our respective fields, quantifying that success by an ideal of personal self-actualization. We want to earn a certain salary or to become CEOs or award winners or famous artists. We want to make our mark on the world, preferably one that earns us a golden plaque or star on a boulevard.
That ideology is how Columbia students go on to run companies and win Pulitzer Prizes; it’s also how America has built its worldwide empire. But one look at the number of mental health issues and student deaths that rocked campus last year, or at politics as they are today, reveals that there are cracks in this tenaciously competitive society we’ve built.
America likes being number one, too. The Sunday that I moved back into college, North Korea claimed to have successfully tested an H-bomb. As I drove down the West Side Highway, that beautiful city skyline unwinding before me, it felt like radioactive clouds were burning across the ocean, killing everything they touched. According to the CNN report I was watching, North Korea did this in part because it wanted to convince America to let it have a seat at the world’s table. The United States has tremendous influence, but is this the kind of power we really want?
It seems like progress is often valued for its own sake, allowed to exist unchecked. On this subject, I often think of the time I asked someone who works at Google why we don’t just stop inventing robots if we know that they are going to take away jobs in the future, and he responded that “we can’t stop progress.” Since when were job-consuming automatons progress? Since when were weapons of mass destruction progress? And when did we start worshiping progress like a god?
Progress can certainly be positive when it results in things like better health care and housing for the poor, but too often it seems that we equate progress with anything that gets us something bigger or more impressive than what we have. This can lead us down a spiral of obsessive competitiveness—owning the next gadget, obtaining the best grade, taking the next step in our careers, or even somehow finding that elusive personal “happiness” (self-help industry, I’m looking at you)—a progression that has clearly sent our school and our world spiraling in dark directions.
One thing is clear: The stress-based, success-focused, hierarchical system in place here is not working, and it’s easy to make the connection between our fixation on competition and the mental health crisis that is going on at Columbia. Even the National Institute of Mental Health agrees that levels of stress and mental illness are concurrently higher.
Because progress is so pervasively idealized here, even my friends who understand the harmful nature of stress culture are still deeply affected by it. I am, too. And we’re not alone: Many studies have shown that stress among college students has risen exponentially over the years, a fact which correlates to the future-obsessed mindset shared by many of today’s college students.
I’m not saying that we should all drop out of school and defect to a commune in the forest (though that’s sounding like a better and better idea). But we can begin reducing the intensity of the pressure we place on ourselves to succeed by examining the reasoning behind why we feel the need to be constantly gaining and building on what we have. Some of the answers we find might require us to sit down and be humble, in the words of one of today’s greatest poets. Many people in the Columbia community and in the nation are already thinking along these lines, but it’s not enough.
Although we can take individual steps to reduce the pressure we place on ourselves, no one can just one day decide not to be mentally ill anymore, and it’s also quite difficult to undo a lifetime’s worth of pressure just by deciding to do so. What we really need to do is take tangible steps toward schoolwide changes that will facilitate an environment less likely to spark mental health issues in the first place.
Some of these changes could be administrative. For example, Columbia could invest in hiring more Counseling and Psychological Services counselors, or we could have at least one class that has the word “compassion” or “kindness” in its course description, even at the expense of one class of the nine pages of them that feature the word “war.”
Things like easier coursework or more social events might be short-term Band-Aids—but I think the only way this behemoth of competition and stratification might truly begin to be undone is if we, as individuals and as a community, ask ourselves why it exists in the first place. Is our fixation with competition and achievement really leading us anywhere?
When I look hard enough at this question, and at why I always feel like I’m running toward some distant neon sign advertising a superficial ideal of success, it seems to me that there’s no clear answer. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe we don’t need to know it all. We don’t need to be the smartest, the strongest, the most beautiful, the smartest, the strongest—could we live in the journey, instead of fixating on the destination? Maybe there is no point. Maybe it’s really all a circle. Maybe not, but maybe.
I believe that we don’t have to live in a world structured around competition and a perceived ideal of “greatness.” We have to understand that we are part of a community at Columbia—a community that should lift every one of its members up.
Eden Gordon is a junior at Barnard studying English with a concentration in creative writing. She loves New York City, music, coffee, and foggy days. She was once lost in a dream but is on her way to waking up. The Idealist runs every alternate Friday.
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