A few days ago I got my math midterm back. I received a substandard grade, despite my immoderate amount of studying. It was disheartening, and I was considerably upset. So instead of moving on, I bothered my TA, friend and Daily editor, Julian, sharing with him my persistent paranoia and feelings of imminent failure in life. I doubted my ability to pursue math in the future, both academically and professionally.
Yeah, I know, I’m that person.
Regardless, after much complaining from me, Julian was silent, sporting his signature glare of irritated, yet tolerant, disdain. He then asked one question: Why do you care so much?
I was speechless. Because my test results are indicative of my competency, right? Because knowing how to find the tangent line of a space curve shows how well I can do math, right? It proves to me that I can be a math major, right? It shows how employable I’ll be, right?! Right?!
Julian, naturally, was not amused. He politely told me to shut the hell up, and returned to his beloved game of 2048.
This situation was silly and, in retrospect, I obviously overreacted. Nevertheless, I know that the pressure to do well and therefore the frequency of questioning one’s competency only increases in the early years of college life, especially when we compare ourselves to those who are already outstanding. Really though, my impulse to measure competency by a grade, or any other tangible accomplishment for that matter, was perpetuated by the constant need to prove capability — not to someone else, but to myself. I was constantly trying to evaluate my ability in an irrationally meticulous manner — down to every test, worksheet and assignment that I received back — because how else was I supposed to know if I’d make it out there, especially when everyone else around me was so … capable?
Receiving this test back was the last straw. I was done caring. No, not done caring about academics, but done caring about things that were beyond my control (I really did study hard for that test) and attributing enormous weight to petty things. So instead of dropping out of Northwestern to become a peace-seeking, tree-planting nomad, I decided to sit down and evaluate my situation. For me, this meant making lists.
Pressure to succeed has multiplied since coming to college because of:
1. Financial burden: Can I afford to pay $250,000 to major in interpretive dance and gender studies? College life is a constant struggle to optimize present happiness and future return.
2. The sudden descent into the real world: I’m no longer a bright-eyed high school student, day-dreaming about becoming the next Anderson Cooper. I have to grow up, get real and find proof that I’ll succeed.
I realized that the latter category is really not in my control. I can’t actively choose to “succeed” post-graduation. Therefore, I made an introspective, supposedly more productive list. I realized that:
1. I’m really not great at math.
2. This doesn’t mean anything, since I love it.
I know. There’s already excessive preaching about this idealistic, yet hollow philosophy of “doing what you love, not what will make you money.” Beyond its sunny facade and idealism, it really is just an empty statement. However, I do think that we often forget how inapplicable our “accomplishments” in college are to the real world. Accomplishments should be evaluated on a holistic level, not through the myopic standard of grades and resume buffers. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the real-world pertinence of these accomplishments is often blissfully ambiguous.
One thing that is for sure: if the rest of the world were to behave like I did post-Math 230 midterm, we’d have a society full of hyper-efficient, paranoid and, in the long run, dispassionately obsessed, sub-par mathematicians. If that doesn’t sound like a recipe for disaster, then I don’t know what does.
In all seriousness though, it’s important to remind yourself that even if you received that 96 percent on that Orgo exam, to stay humble and curious. On the contrary, receiving a 17 percent on the same test may be partially indicative of capability, but not of success. Regardless of your situation, continue to be passionate, for true passion and dedication is much rarer, desired and applicable than any level of competency.