The pressure cooker society

Opinion by Amara McCune
April 5, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

In a campus culture permeated by Duck Syndrome — the idea that we are stressed out or struggling but not showing it, much like a duck furiously paddling underneath the water’s surface — let’s not forget that it comes with a mortality rate. College campuses are not unfamiliar with instances of suicide, and there is increasing pressure for high school students to get admitted to elite schools, particularly in the Bay Area. We as a society are getting swept up in this pressure to achieve and are losing the intellectual vitality that makes us human.

I, like most students at Stanford, grew up with the notion that college was an expectation rather than a goal — an inevitability rather than a happenstance. My parents, luckily, placed no specificity on which college they hoped I’d attend. The pressure for me to achieve my dream of Stanford was internal and entirely self-sustained. Unfortunately, the pressure to achieve does not diminish with matriculation. Being surrounded by such intelligent, driven people creates implicit pressures to achieve, achieve and continue to achieve more. This is something I’ve struggled with during my time here, and I know I’m not alone.

In some ways, we are all here for very similar reasons. Presumably, we have a passion, and we came to Stanford to pursue that passion, as well as the degree that will allow us to continue chasing it. We’re at an elite educational institution pursuing high-impact degrees, often with intentions of becoming leaders in our respective fields of study, whether that be through academia, technological innovation or political aspirations. We are enveloped by a space of stresses and strains: pressures we place on ourselves, those brought upon family members, those induced by our elite surroundings and societal pressures to make something of ourselves. It’s not too hard to feel inadequate.

The main reason for this might be that with the age of information comes the age of comparison. In Malcolm Gladwell’s “David and Goliath” (an interesting account of underdogs and well worth the read), he argues that our self-worth is formulated based on comparisons we make between ourselves and the people that surround us. In a collegiate environment, where we are surrounded by high-achieving students, budding entrepreneurs and Nobel Prize-winning professors, these comparisons can begin to weigh us down as individuals. This decreases our self-worth in our own eyes and inhibits our ability to see our intelligence or talent in a grander scheme. Gladwell goes as far as to argue that it is better to be a big fish in a small pond, by attending a state school or small liberal arts college, than to become a guppy struggling in the vast intellectual ocean of a place like Stanford. While I’m undoubtedly glad I came here — to receive one of the world’s best undergraduate educations, pursue research and challenge myself — I can’t help but think what my life would be like if things had gone the other way.

This effect of diminished self-worth is amplified by the outpouring of measurements constructed by an entire industry — comprised of AP, SAT, GRE and MCAT, to name a few — designed specifically with the intent of ranking individuals, putting a specific score on the comparison factor. I will admit that there is no good way to overcome this in the admissions process other than by implementing a more holistic system, but our society is desperately in need of a shift away from a number-centered measure of worth.

Putting so much pressure on high-level achievement decreases the value of jobs fulfilling basic necessities. It’s rare to see someone aspiring to become a plumber, for instance, and even the teaching profession is losing its credibility in the wake of the pressure to become great. These sorts of jobs are becoming less respected and we as a society are losing sight of the humanity of people, instead weighing the question of career quite highly in the measure of self-worth. When we meet people, one of the first questions we ask is, “what do you do for a living?” This contrasts greatly with other cultures, particularly in Nordic countries, which place less of an emphasis on jobs than on the judgement of a person’s character, most likely due to differences in the fundamental economic systems that drive the respective countries. A capitalist economy translates to a culture that places too much emphasis on personal achievement and far too little on a person’s character, the very thing that should be guiding our judgements of self-worth.

What this all adds up to in the scheme of a collegiate atmosphere is an aggregation of negative mental health effects. And our country’s current approach to mental health is the equivalent of coming into the hospital with a broken arm and being told by a misguided nurse that it will heal on its own if you just try hard enough.

The discussion of pressure, society and self-worth ultimately circles back to the greater question of what we should be seeking in life, why we are here and what we are working toward. Happiness? Entrepreneurial success? College becomes a blurring of lines in this respect, and we must not lose sight of the fact that we should have full reign when it comes to determining why we are here and what matters to us on a personal level. We are brought into a fully structured world complete with a timeline of education, jobs and marriage to guide us into a form-fit mold of humanity.

One of the greatest lessons offered at this time in our lives is that it is okay to fail. It’s okay to ask for help, it’s okay to struggle and it’s okay to sometimes not be okay. In a society that is stranger-averse, we need to stop approaching each other as faceless individuals and start realizing the power of relating to each other personally, in the hopes that we may start to relieve some of the pressure.

 

Contact Amara McCune at amccune2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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