October 15, 2015

It's lonely at the top

Why you shouldn't aspire to be the smartest one in the room

Harper is half empty. A paper cup sits placidly in front of me; a tea bag that’s been used multiple times lies dead on the open lid. It’s so late that the usually stifling heat has been turned off for hours, yet the students are still here. My mind is so tired that reality doesn’t feel real to me anymore, and even the cold winter breeze that needles its way into the room can’t wake me up. It’s nights like these that I ask myself and the stupid paper cup, Why can’t things be easier here? Why can’t I be smarter?...Actually, why can’t everyone else be dumber?

Even when it’s not finals week, I still feel shades of these unfortunate sentiments coloring my experiences here at UChicago—whether it’s when I despair about ever feeling competent in that difficult class, or when it seems that every student around me is doing more with their time. If I spent less time comparing myself to others and wishing I were better, I could probably finish all my P-sets and have brunch too. I miss brunch.

I think I’m not the only one who feels this way. How can I be, when everything seems to be a competition? Our classes constantly curve us in relation to one another. We thoroughly feel the laws of supply and demand during recruitment season. Even the marked lack of forks during peak dining hall hours reminds us that the things we want have to be fought for.

For me, it’s easy to solely contemplate the immediate, negative consequences of having talented individuals around me. I’ve been conditioned to deflate a bit when I hear someone else share a brilliant insight or quickly understand a concept, because it only means more competition for me to overcome in order to do well. At least, it feels that way. For a lot of us, no matter how far we’ve come, our confidence never lasts long when our peers have come just as far, if not farther.

But, I’ve recently realized that the pressure we feel here due to the excellence of our peers—no matter how hard it makes getting an A, no matter how stressful it makes landing that internship—is a true blessing. Being surrounded by brilliant, articulate, and ambitious individuals is part of what makes our time here worth it. Every single one of our classmates whom we dehumanize as obstacles is probably an indispensable friend to someone else at UChicago.

I know that we all have those moments of fantasizing what this school would be like if we were the smartest ones in the room. But also imagine how deeply lonely that would be, if no one else cared for—or even comprehended—the ideas that excited you. Many of us have found our closest friends here, and one of the many reasons for that is our ability to understand one another intellectually.

An article by the American Society of Association Executives discusses why it’s often more lonely at the top: “Many [executives] feel they don't have anyone they can confide in.” They can’t trust anyone because they’re constantly trying to defend their position, which they feel could be taken away at any time. As a result, they avoid showing weakness, which is fundamental to forming meaningful connections with others. For us at UChicago, part of the joy of being so closely competitive is that our struggles and doubts are the same, so we run the race together instead of alone.

A New York Times article looks at power in a different context: “The more powerful people perceived themselves to be in their everyday lives, the less frequently they reported feeling lonely.” It doesn’t always matter how much power you have over others (like those executives); it matters more that you feel in control of your surroundings.

We can choose how we respond to other students (a.k.a. the other tributes) at UChicago, whether that takes the form of fear or of dynamic and sincere engagement. Interacting with one another is what makes us understand ourselves better—and that’s a form of power over our everyday lives, isn’t it? Maybe that’s what so many people miss about college once they leave it, the constant intellectual ping pong that leads to self-discovery. We don’t know how good we have it right now.

A few weeks ago, I went to a Chicago Symphony Orchestra performance downtown. As we made our way to our seats, we were handed booklets that opened with a beautifully written letter by the CSO’s music director, acclaimed Italian conductor Riccardo Muti. As I read it, I could feel tears forming in my eyes: “It is no coincidence that the word ‘symphony’ means ‘the togetherness of sound.’ Music itself is formed by many musical lines that seem to be against the other—what we call counterpoint—but, in fact, each line needs the other in order to have a reason for existence.”

It not only made me want to grab my oboe and sprint back to my third-rate high school band, but also to want something like that beyond the realm of music—to be part of a community with members that relied on one another while seeking to be heard. But I don’t need to want it, I already have it here at UChicago. Let’s make counterpoint together; let’s give one another a reason for existence.

Sophia Chen is a second-year in the College double majoring in economics and English.

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