I still remember how ecstatic I was when I landed an opinion column my first semester at Cornell — an over-eager, naive, freshman who was still unsure about her purpose and existence in Ithaca had made it into the newspaper! The future looked bright.
And if you’ve followed my journey these last few years, then I applaud your voracity, commitment, support and skepticism. Because you, like me, are most likely still trying to figure out what the hell you’re doing with whatever you’ve been given.
Three years later, and I am nowhere closer to finding the answers I sought so eagerly when I was a freshman. But looking back on my “young” self (and I say young just to distance myself from the girl who ate at Okenshields at one point and actually went to the Homecoming fireworks), I can pinpoint events and people in my college career that have significantly impacted me, in ways that make me feel that what I’m actually doing is making some kind of small — at times, even infinitesimal — difference.
It’s these experiences throughout this short that give me a sense of relief that what might be coming my way isn’t as frightening and daunting as it seems. The endless stretch of time ahead that isn’t marked by any important milestones anymore, as the sweet sixteens and twentyFUN’s have passed, suddenly becomes a time to build a career and, according to conventional norms that as much as we try to avoid seems like a mosquito that has constantly been biting us since we entered this institution, move up the ladder. Success, as a blanket cover for many things, was landing the job you had hoped for while you wrote a 10-page paper on a topic you knew you would forget in 24 hours or sat through a grueling prelim.
And I know this idea of success comes from my own upbringing, but I also know many students can relate to this notion of what it means to “make it,” to feel like they have succeeded in one way or another.
Because don’t we want to make our parents proud? Don’t we want people to view us as successful? Don’t we want to think of ourselves as having achieved something great?
And if we can get that job we pined for, sustain ourselves and our habits, feel like we have made something of ourselves, then haven’t we done it?.
But if these past few years have taught me that Zeus soups will heal all things, they’ve also taught me that this type of success is a modern-day depiction of Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void.
Because when we follow all these how-to steps of success, then what comes next when we finally reach it?
Throughout my struggles with trying to understand my future, grappling with this entity that seems to fluctuate and exist in a constantly transient state, someone close to me sent me some writing about what it means for a life to be successful. The bottom line was that if you are able make someone breathe a little easier, if you can lighten the burden of an existence, you have succeeded. Maybe it’s my way of defending myself from academic failures or future career opportunity losses to come, but on the most personal level, my idea of “succeeding” in life is what the Gaby who entered Donlon Hall didn’t know, or wasn’t able to understand.
Maybe what I’m trying to say is that we shouldn’t look for some kind of golden pinnacle of success, for a breath of relief when we think that we’ve done it. By showing kindness, by sympathizing with people I care about, and even those I dislike or have disappointed me, that’s how I find success: I’ve felt the most fulfilled and closest to understanding my purpose in this world that has been walked on over and over, by women and men who have discovered life-changing solutions, who have fought and talked well and loved deeply and made a mark. And by showing this compassion for life, success happens everyday. It’s getting out of bed when Trump has wronged us again and knowing that there are people out there who need me to keep going. It’s forgiving someone. It’s understanding that my mental health is just as important as my physical health and it’s okay to take a day off for my mind. It’s letting myself be vulnerable when I didn’t think wholeness was a possibility again.
And when we see these seemingly small things as successes, then we don’t have to keep chasing some idealized version of what our future might be. And when you don’t land that dream job, or you don’t find yourself in a place where others can see and praise you, you can’t be crushed. Because you have succeeded a hundred times before already.
Gabrielle Leung is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Serendipitous Musings appears alternate Thursdays this semester.