I brace myself for rejections, and I brace myself for the success of others.
There’s something integral about success and failure to the undergraduate experience at Columbia. Where one may have been struggling in a course, only to surprise everyone (including oneself) by achieving the highest grade on the final, that same person might have been rejected from each of the internships they’d applied for. These experiences are not unique to Columbia—surely any undergraduate student experiences the same highs and lows—but at Columbia, these experiences seem exacerbated by a high-density student environment, where the pinnacles of success can be mighty.
While success and failure are part of any undergraduate education, the institution only shares the former. We receive emails congratulating students on their successes in extracurriculars, receiving funding to do extensive research over the summer, or for having written a wonderful philosophy essay; we listen to tour guides talk about the incredible internship they had this semester. The sentiment is clear: Columbia is a place of constant and overwhelming success.
In being bombarded with all of this success, I feel resentment. The applause created to celebrate the achievements of some feels like applause, too, at my expense. That fabulous internship the tour guide discusses inspires envy—I haven’t had a fabulous internship; why haven’t I had a fabulous internship? The pictures on my peers’ social media (holding hands with a Nobel laureate, meeting with a major U.S. politician) make me furious. I want to be happy for them, these acquaintances of great esteem, but all I feel is sudden petrification. I am frozen, my mind unwinding as I try and assemble the steps they might have taken to reach that success, all while being afraid that the blood vessel in my eye is going to burst.
Success is exclusive; it is exclusionary. Part of what makes success so enticing is that not everyone can be successful. For some to be successes, others must not be. When I learn about the brilliance of my peers, see them meet with celebrity professors, read about how they’ve been offered an amazing job or have been accepted to a stellar fellowship, I feel excluded from these successes. Moreover—where I am envious of the peer who is offered a leadership position for which I’d also applied, or the grant which I, too, had sought—success, more broadly (drawing from even the arenas where I am not competing) renders my lack of success a failure.
Failure becomes, then, not the negative of success, but its absence; failure is not sabotaging one’s own career or studies, but rather, the inability to reach the same levels of success as others. The outward projection of success—by the institution, by the students—as a feature of attending Columbia sews the conditions where failure feels like the mere inability to keep up. I am a senior, I haven’t a clue what I will do (or want to do) after graduating. According to this model of success, I am the definition of failure.
Of course, I don’t actually feel this way about myself. And yet, I’ll admit that it’s hard (but not impossible) for me to genuinely feel happy for someone else’s success when I am still struggling. I haven’t figured out what I’m doing (or what I’m going to do), so it becomes alienating to feel surrounded by other people who have figured all this out. Hence, I am happy for you, but only from a distance.
I think what I’ve articulated is an understanding of my own envy. Living in an echo chamber of successes, I’ve become quite familiar with envy and its effects. Envy is immobilizing: Reeling from the shock successes of my peers, I am unable to move and (am once again) unable to speak. Envy is physiologically felt: I feel it like a bundle of yarn tightening my abdomen, or as pressure from inside my skull. Envy sours perhaps my entire day. It coincides, quite frequently, with confusion. How did they get that job? What have I been doing with my life? What could I have done differently to get a similar position?
I’ll also think of envy as epistemic. Where an embarrassment of success warps our perception of success and failure, envy warps our mood. I want to feel happy for all the people achieving great feats, climbing to new heights of success, and I know I should feel happy for them. It is a delayed happiness, however; first I must overcome my own envy. Envy itself becomes dissonant. It points to the strange shift in success and failure. Habituation, realizing that my own path to success doesn’t need to align with someone else’s, and the renewed desire to achieve success become the outcomes of quelling and recognizing my own envy.
The fruition of my academic journey at Columbia might not be my own moments of success, but learning to deal with the success of others.
Sam loves a good success story, but learning about people who are also struggling is just more relatable. You can message him about your life messes and your envies to email@example.com. Functioning Incorrectly runs alternate Mondays.
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