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Placing our self-worth in our grades

What makes us happy? Certainly, this is a question that has frustrated philosophers, psychologists, doctors and just about everyone else since the dawn of time. While finding what makes us happy may be difficult, finding what makes us unhappy is a much easier task. Kelly Hatfield wrote an excellent piece the other day highlighting the many mental health issues that pervade this campus. I was struck by the statistic that over 40 percent of students on this campus have reported experiencing depression while at this school. And here I thought it was just me.

As I think about it more, I can’t be surprised that this is true. The fact of the matter is Princeton students put too much emphasis on academics in their pursuit of success and happiness. It’s unhealthy, especially in an environment like Princeton. There is a contradiction in the way the University handles academics. To make it here, you have to care about superficial representations of your work ethic and abilities — grades, SATs, extracurriculars. You have to strive to be the best and set yourself apart from your peers. You have to love the feeling of being praised and rewarded for your hard work. It takes a very gifted individual to casually drift through high school and find themselves sitting among the best students in the country. And yet, is this really a healthy way to live your life, to make your happiness contingent upon being better than the person next to you? When everyone wants the same thing, can we ever all be happy?

Oddly, I don’t come from a family that pushes academic success as a measure of personal value. My parents have always told me that whatever I choose to do with my life, they would support me no matter what. Yet, somehow, somewhere, I tricked myself into believing that academic superiority was the key to my happiness. Nobody ever told me that I had to go to an Ivy League school, but still it was always my dream for as long as I can remember. Somewhere along the line, I began equating academic success with self-worth. Very early on in grade school, I was selected for my district’s gifted education program. During a time in my life when friendships and popularity came hard for me, I was told I was “special,” and it made me feel valued as an individual. I may not have been the popular kid, and I certainly was not the athletic kid, but at least I was the smart kid. Although this sounds like the cliché plight of the unpopular child, I believe this played an important role in my valuation of academics early in my life.

Fast forward a decade and I find myself at Princeton. What seems like an affirmation of my success and self-worth has turned into a turbulent and stressful time in my life that has legitimately made me question what I value. I believe this is at the heart of many of the mental health issues on this campus. People become infatuated by the concept of success, and success here means being the best. Of course, being the best at Princeton is next to impossible, no matter the measurement. Why is grade deflation largely considered the greatest threat to mankind since the plague?  Simply put, it restricts access to what every Princeton student has made central to his or her self-worth. People tell me I shouldn’t compare myself to others so much, but how can I not? I have an addiction, an addiction to superiority. It’s how I am where I am today. It is how most Princetonians are where they are today, and it’s unhealthy. More importantly, I don’t know if it’s even possible to change, to learn to look past these unimportant measures of self-worth, because it is so deeply engrained in how we define ourselves. That is the unfortunate truth about elite institutions like Princeton.

So here I am, sitting at the finish line of the last ten years of hard work, suffering from an existential crisis and frantically looking for something with which I can measure my own self-worth. For a while, I believed that coming to Princeton may have been a bad choice for me. Maybe I would have been better off going to a largely uncompetitive school, working hard and finding myself again near the top of the food chain. But now I know that would have been a poor choice. Eventually, the use of grades to superficially measure my value will end as I move into the real world. I will be forced to move on and compare myself by some other superficial and irrelevant metric, like income or occupation. Eventually, I would have to face the fact that life isn’t about being the best. Better this happened sooner rather than later. So then, just what is life all about? Psh, don’t ask me. I’m not a philosopher.

Christian Wawrzonek is a sophomore from Pittsburgh, Pa. He can be reached at cjw5@princeton.edu.

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