I think that almost all of us at Harvard have insecurities about our place here, but but nobody likes to talk about them. Getting into Harvard is undeniably a prestigious achievement, but one for which I’ve always hesitated taking full credit. Perhaps it is a side effect of feeling like an overwhelmingly normal person at Harvard. Like many others, when I go back home, I am inundated with the same question: “How did you get in?” I cannot answer, because to be honest, I do not know why I, out of thousands of other candidates who probably shared the same qualifications as me, got into Harvard.
It is because I cannot pinpoint that one thing that makes me special that I never really felt very special. With every achievement, I only partially credit myself—I got lucky, they were looking to diversify their pool, the admissions council just came back from a great luncheon. Rejections and failures, though, were every bit my own doing, of course. I have no experience, I wasn’t confident enough during interviews, and what am I but a speck of dust against the backdrop of more than qualified candidates.
I suppose that when viewing my file, the admissions council saw potential in me that separated me from the crowd. The problem is that I have yet to uncover that potential, and I feel that I have disappointed some greater Harvard power that saw me destined for glory. I see a similar insecurity in most of my peers; I will call it the “inadequacy complex.” I hesitate to use the term “inferiority complex” because it suggests aggressive and overcompensatory behavior.
For those of us who cannot describe ourselves with a superlative, the inadequacy complex is the constant fixation on the feeling that we are not doing enough, with the fear that our acceptance into Harvard will be our greatest achievement. There is always some higher position to hold, more accolades to win, and more that could be done—all to prove that we belong. In some ways, this is the same commendable motivation that drives Harvard students to achieve, but it also prevents us from being grateful or content with what we already have. It breeds a toxic mindset in our struggle to not be forgotten.
This issue of misguided self-doubt is not unique to Harvard students. The inadequacy complex avails itself to anybody whose talents are judged, criticized, and analyzed by strangers who then ultimately have the power to determine the fate of that individual. Going through competitive processes like getting into Harvard, such as applications processes for internships, scholarships, or jobs—for which there is no formula to predict the result—acceptance feels like the luck of the draw.
This stems from how we talk about these decisions. We try to comfort ourselves with the notion that if we do not get accepted, it is because we did not fit into a quota or have an insider connection. However, this source of comfort backfires if we do get accepted. To think of ourselves as just another number fulfilling a quota, defined by a quality separate from our talents, degrades our self-esteem and takes a toll on our mental and emotional health. Furthermore, we continue to feel the burden that we must consistently prove to ourselves and to admissions committees that the acceptance was not a mistake. These stresses can become so overwhelming that they prevent us from appreciating and taking advantage of our opportunities. Instead, we fear that we will fail and become an embarrassment.
The same attitude with which we entered the admissions process carries through our time at Harvard. We too often allow ourselves to let our resumes determine our self-worth and compare them against each other like they are trading cards. We are afraid of more than just failing: we are afraid of embarrassing ourselves, because we are expected never to fail. What we often forget to remember is that rejections should not be taken so personally and acceptances are sometimes not taken personally enough.
This is an environment that constantly pressures us into being productive all of the time. We are rarely told that spending our time to do something for the sole reason of making ourselves happy can be valuable. Instead of working to fulfill some grand and spurious expectation of what it means to be a successful Harvard student, we should keep in mind that the goal is not to please Harvard.