TELLING STORIES

Why I don’t mind looking like a failure at my Ivy League class reunion

Middle-aged, unemployed, single and my money spent, I’m an utter failure in comparison to many of my college peers.

I graduated from an elite university in the 1980s. My class of approximately 1550 has generated a Nobel Prize winner, a Pulitzer Prize winner, a World Bank chief, a few ambassadors, at least one current governor and several mayors. I know former classmates who are university presidents, hedge fund managers, college professors, CEOs and so on.

What a load of over-achievers!

Meanwhile, the rest of us remain uncelebrated, absent from the public eye, not courted by private bankers, nosy paparazzi, respected charities, luxury real estate agents or art auction houses.

Post-graduate achievement is usually measured in degrees earned and awarded, class rankings, corporate titles, magazine covers and social media popularity, and money made. At elite institutions’ alumni gatherings, the bar for storytelling is set high, with summary biographies of our most luminous graduates shared in hushed murmurs. How can we compare ourselves to our peers’ stupendously visible achievements and not think ourselves failures? Those best stories and legends are rarely about success or failure; they’re about us, just as we were. 

In the 1800s, Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard addressed the same question with his own story: “The Lily in the Field and the Bird of the Air.”

In it, Kierkegaard describes a little bird that loves to gossip to its friend the lily. The bird, he writes, has a bad habit of saying “all sorts of things, true and untrue, about other places where lilies far more splendid were found in great abundance.”

The listening lily, in turn, becomes troubled. Seeing its own unsplendid existence in comparison to the bird’s fantastic tales of other and better lilies, the lily begins to doubt whether it deserves to call itself a lily at all.

Concludes Kierkegaard:

In the distress of comparison, the troubled person may go at last so far that in view of the difference he forgets that he is a man.

In despair, he conceives himself so different from other men, that he even conceives he is different from what is meant by being a man, just as the lily was so inconspicuous that it was questionable if it was really a lily.

In other words, it’s not just painful to doubt. To measure success in any way but from the inside is to rock the foundations of your identity.

Most of us are already busy enough trying to get by.

We’re busy with the practical tasks of everyday living, doing and redoing, learning and changing, and sometimes staying the course. We might compare our performance on an examination, or a recent grant proposal; but to compare ourselves against others in the totality of being a successful adult is odious and futile.

Many of us are not the kind of successful that’s easy to see. Many of us who have enjoyed financial success were extremely fortunate, but perhaps not so lucky in love. Many of us understand now that no matter how hard you work or how brilliant you might be, luck has far more to do with “success” than one might imagine.

There may be a few of us in my graduating class who have achieved great things that won’t ever be known or celebrated. There are those of us whose best, most successful and most fruitful years are yet to come. There are those of us who have struggled with darkness and who are very, very happy to simply still be here.

I am extraordinarily grateful for the experiences I have had and I am absurdly proud of what many of my college friends and acquaintances have achieved and continue to achieve, whether they are famous and obviously successful, or not.

The truth is, at a college reunion, the most glamorous resumes are an afterthought; they crystallize only after conversations about where we live, who we love, about our health and our shared memories—of each other and of the institution we made our own, in four years together.

Those best stories and legends are rarely about success or failure; they’re about us, just as we were and are. When I look at my college class, I don’t see successes and failures—I see example after example of the astonishingly rich and diverse human experience.

Follow Marie on Twitter at @blissme8. An early draft of this essay first appeared on Quora.

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