March 1, 2016

GUEST ROOM | Peaked in High School

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If we were all celebrities, I would probably be the washed-out, child star. Something tells me I wouldn’t be alone, either. Many of us achieved small-scale, but early eminence before enrolling at Cornell. Never basis to preen about campus, accomplished pasts may actually encumber us with misguided aspirations toward grand-scale successes.

This time of year, our ambitious inclinations materialize in onerous searches for ready-to-commodify summer experiences. Securing highly sought-after internships at venerated professional firms, policy centers and research labs, entails, in part, repeated rounds of interrogation. Interviewing is inherently one-sided, but it also informs us about ourselves. Curating an abridged compilation of experiential profundities compels a degree of introspection, and soul-searching can be an utterly stupefying task. It might even kindle distaste for the system altogether. A common discovery through this process is that our backgrounds are rather ordinary, and that’s not all bad. Ordinariness isn’t just tolerable, but also darkly humorous (see American Beauty, Sam Mendes). Humor of any kind inspires late night television personalities, so it’s no surprise that Jimmy Kimmel aired a segment accosting unsuspecting teenagers caught strolling along Hollywood Boulevard with a straightforward, but piercing inquiry, well-known to student interviewers: “What is your greatest accomplishment?” Among befuddlement and timid responses, hilarity ensued as one pubescent adolescent claimed to have caught all 649 Pokemon. Kudos there, but I reckoned I might discover more meaningful answers by redirecting Kimmel’s question to close friends here. Walking among our ivied quads are diverse virtuosos: chess champions, recording artists, four-minute milers and startup CEOs. With so many years lying ahead — the statistics from the Center of Disease Control and Prevention suggest college graduates have an increased life expectancy of nine years — one must wonder if we peaked too early. Is it possible that our greatest accomplishments may have already occurred? Without a next big thing, do we lose sense of purpose? Both questions frighten my faded, child star self.

As I endeavor in the allure of fictitiously typecasting myself a child star, my appreciation for bona-fide whiz kids who are making headlines is genuine. Being in the news is cool — period. Having accomplished something newsworthy is often a source of personal fulfillment, plus it’s a cop-out answer to every priming for a fun fact about yourself (e.g. imagine if you were the youngest person to ascend Mt. Everest). Fun facts seem infrequent, but tend to startle me once a month. Because I abhor fun facts, a dozen reliefs per year would be bliss. I met a former prodigy with this good fortune two summers past: a Scripps National Spelling Bee champion, in the flesh. Bee champions lack wall pin-up recognition, but I know he won because his stardom was the third factoid he shared about himself. Prompt admission of such rarefied achievement seems haughty in retrospect, but its immediate impact was simple, jaw-dropping awe. His presence affronted me with the fifth grade memory (read: shame) of misspelling lavender as if it shared a suffix with calendar. No embitterment — time healed my wounds — but I was intrigued. First, youthful accomplishment was deeply intertwined with his identity. Instead of depicting oneself as an avid snowboarder studying economics — like everyone else — his introduction had cachet. Co-workers embraced that and every few hours, would insist spell-checking services of his sage wisdom. I also empathized with the unlikelihood that he would ever precede his age thirteen feat.

Pondering whether a winner-takes-all society could drive us to peak too early, I felt oddly thankful to be an improficient speller. Success begets success and many spelling bee champions enjoy fruitful, productive lives, but delayed gratification also protects us from riding on our own coattails. Too often we confuse recognition and accomplishment. Regardless of whether Leonardo DiCaprio won the Oscar for best actor in a leading role for The Revenant, the public and critics alike would have recognized his career as an accomplished one. Trophies collect dust and propagate a system that values ends ahead of means.

Returning to the greatest accomplishment inquiry, a tepid, “probably getting into Cornell,” was my friends’ parallel cop-out answer. Getting into Cornell pales in comparison to correctly spelling autochthonous (2004 Bee final word). Attribution bias might be at play too. It’s unclear whether our acceptance was a result of hard work or luck, socioeconomic advantages and other arbitrary factors. Simply put, gaining admission to an elite institution is a hollow accomplishment. Colleges must be aware of this too. To glorify the random event, notification comes in writing: a big, fat red envelope designed to complement the decaying trophy shrine in your childhood bedroom. The fundamental problem is attempting to turn an intangible accomplishment into a tangible one. Intangible accomplishments that expand your moral character and intellectual boundaries can be equally fulfilling to those lionized by trophies, money and fame. It is okay to admit that your greatest accomplishment is something that only you appreciate, like talking to your mom everyday or being the tallest sixth grader in your school. There’s silliness to it too, and who cares.

Our faded, child stars are not out of luck either. Now more than ever is a time for a comeback. My first suggestion would be Netflix. They’re reprising Full House, Adam Sandler and Pee-Wee Herman. If that doesn’t work, you could follow Donald Trump’s suit and run for president. Before doing either, contemplate whether one-upping yourself is a worthwhile undertaking. A long list of accolades may lead to no greater happiness than surrounding yourself with friends and Pokemon cards.

David Tauber is a senior in the College of Industrial & Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.