On my first day of a new high school, I felt invisible in the midst of 400 athletes, writers, artists, gamers, and singers. Everyone seemed to have a “thing,” and glancing at the clusters of students, I wondered if I would ever find mine.
Our gym teacher took the floor to make a speech to the freshmen. “In high school, you will discover there are three types of people,” she paced, smirking. “There are those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who say, ‘What happened?’” She mimed a bewildered face, and the students snickered. “We need those who make things happen. But equally, we need people who watch things happen—who show up as part of larger efforts and are in the arena. I just don’t want any of you to become the ones who aren’t at the event—who miss it all and come to school the next day wondering, ‘What happened?’”
The difference between makers and watchers was not lost on me: I noticed how she was reluctant to say that “watchers” are valuable too. At that moment, I decided what my “thing,” my identity, would be: Without a clue about what I was passionate about, I was determined to be a leader. Even as my clammy hands shook, I felt ready for the future.
So without hesitation, I joined every club I could think of. Within two short years, I was class vice president, community service chair, and literary magazine editor, along with countless other leadership roles. I woke up most mornings while it was still dark to finish homework, send emails, plan workouts, and zip to school for morning meetings. I stayed in the building, often until night, dashing from club to club.
But it wasn’t long before my involvement in these activities changed from invigorating fun to a burdensome chore. I had loved every club, but when I became a leader, I began to resent the intense, endless obligations, making me feel sour toward each club as a whole. I pushed that feeling down, reminding myself of who I was, and kept going through the end of high school.
During my first week of college, I was filled with excitement. I had an incredible group of friends back home, a support system, and most of all, an identity as a likable leader who could, I thought, win any position she wanted. At the club fair, I penned my UNI on every club that remotely piqued my interest. Fearlessly, I tried out for the debate team, a cappella groups, class president, and political club boards. I was rejected by each one. At a school where being a leader is the norm, my high school credentials no longer felt special. In one week, my untried confidence was pierced with the sharp needle of reality.
I was turned down for the very thing that defined my identity: my ability to make things happen. Suddenly, I no longer had a choice. I was forced to become someone who would watch things happen. Begrudgingly, I accepted my fate. I joined general bodies and signed up for random clubs I’d never heard of. I supported my friends in their leadership roles, tagged along on volunteer trips, and became part of off-campus communities. It was strange watching others in leadership roles, but I learned to appreciate the hard work they did, instead of wondering why I wasn’t the one doing it.
Over the past few years, something strange has happened. Instead of seeking out places where I can be a mover, I look for spaces I care about and enjoy. The clubs I’m currently in are ones that have brought me deep friendships, fulfilling work, and transformative experiences. I look forward to every event, because my extracurriculars are now a choice, not an obligation or a mindless decision. Without the constant pressure of being a leader, I am able to appreciate each group instead of being frustrated by its inner workings and my responsibilities.
For most Columbia students, before college, we were that person, the one who makes things happen. The pressure to continue this trajectory is intense, whether from external forces or within ourselves. I propose an alternative: You can make a difference and have a meaningful experience without a board position. While there’s nothing wrong with taking on a leadership position, there’s also much to be gained from being a participant. As my junior year begins and friends encourage me to join boards of my favorite organizations, I am reticent to fill out the applications. This chance to exist as “merely” a member has been a blessing.
While some may call it “burning out,” I think my time away from leadership has ignited my flame. It allowed me to step back and explore gently, slowly. It allowed me to ultimately discover who and what I really care about. And that is something I am immensely grateful for. So here’s to those, at a college like this, who are vastly underappreciated: the people who watch things happen. You are doing just fine.
The author is a junior studying sociology and Jewish thought in the joint program between the School of General Studies and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She doesn’t have a specific talent to put in this bio and is perfectly okay with that.
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