September 7, 2014

GUEST ROOM: Unhappy in Our Own Success

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By NOAH TULSKY

By now you’ve likely read William Deresiewicz’ indictment of elite universities called, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League.” The New Republic article condemns both universities and the broader college preparatory/admissions process for creating student-bodies of look-alike upper-middle class high achievers hobbled by insecurities.

Many response pieces have taken issue with the effete portrayal of Ivy League students as “intellectual zombies.” Others argue that criticizing universities is naïve, given how many have invested so muchmoney to encourage diversity and alternative thinking on their campuses. The New Yorker cited Deresiewicz with confusing the progress of modernity with an institutional problem in our educational system. I tend to agree with most of these rebuttals and, in essence, I don’t think that sending your child to a renowned research university to learn from distinguished professors is such a bad idea.

But I don’t want to waste your time arguing the point one way or another; we’re already students at an Ivy League university and, in any case, we’ll be lucky to get our children into our local state university in 30 years, let alone past Cornell’s four percent 2044 acceptance rate. However, Deresiewicz’ central observation that Ivy League students lack purpose should resonate in our Ivy ears. His harrowing characterization of the modern elite student as “anxious, timid and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose” is honestly not that far from the truth. Deresiewicz exhaustively criticizes the institutions for their lack of true diversity and inability to engage student’s“souls.”I would like to offer an alternate theory for exactly why so many of us are miserable atop our ivory towers.

We don’t have to look far to realize that fractal inequality has consumed our lives. I want to look at exactly what fractal inequality is and how it makes us so unhappy.

At a school like ours, we are surrounded by consummate high-achievers. Nearly every one of us ranked among the top 10 percent of our high school class and we all scored well on standardized tests; some of us have been published in national journals, others are concert level musicians, some both. Ignore the rankings and Andy Bernard gags: There is no dearth of talent on our campus.

Yet within this culture of excellence, minute differences in levels of ‘success’ become exaggerated. The “higher” we rise in intellectual, social and professional prestige, the more we become aware of those who are allegedly ahead of us. We become hyper-conscious of our peers’ accomplishments and, thus, the disparity between our own achievements and theirs. This is the dilemma of fractal inequality.

The 93 on your chemistry exam delivers a fleeting moment of happiness until you see that the kid who sits next to you scored a 95. Your summer internship seems silly compared to one friend’s foray in a Senator’s office and another’s adventures curing Ebola in Sierra Leone. Cornell even begins to feel like a wash when we see Newsfeed pictures of high school buddies lounging on the Harvard green or representing Stanford at a global entrepreneurship conference. Social media only feeds our unhappiness. The deluge of news from our #blessed friends feels overwhelming. Many of us never realize that this experience is universal.

Thus, we are forever like children pressed against the toy store window staring at the red (Harvard Crimson maybe?) wagon we will never have. As my dad presciently once said to me after a particularly rough rec basketball game, “No matter what you do, there will always be someone out there better than you.” He wasn’t being malicious, but that singular thought is a punch in the gut for our generation.

Fractal inequality is a self-defeating social phenomenon. We climb the mountain only to discover that our greater altitude affords us nothing more than a view of a higher peak, and beyond that an entirely new range. Our satisfaction becomes transient as we measure our success in light of other’s accomplishments.

Fractal inequality breeds breath-taking insecurity.

Sadly, fractal inequality also produces strikingly homogeneous undergraduate paths. As we compare ourselves to others we strive to emulate their success and to do so we adopt similar career pursuits. This mimicry lets us easily take stock of how far we’ve progressed and where we stand relative to others. Although we are uniquely talented individuals, we yearn for similar corporate jobs that promise generouscompensation, a flashy lifestyle and, above all, assurance of our elevated place in the social order. We expend so much effort attempting to keep up that we forget to search for what would make each of us truly happy.

I don’t claim to have a complete solution to fractal inequality and I doubt anyone does. However, as we begin this new school year, let’s make sure to take stock of what we’re doing and decide whether the outcomes for which we strive will truly make us happier.

We may not be the intellectual zombies of Deresiewicz’ dystopian campuses but if we capitulate to fractal inequality, we will feel forever unfulfilled amidst a maelstrom of success.

Noah Tulsky is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at nst42@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.