It’s Not About How We Rank Against Others; The Goal Is To Do Your Best

be the best you can be

Kwame Anthony-Applah, who teaches philosophy at NYU, penned this article in “The Ethicist” column of The New York Times Magazine, May 5, 2019, in response to a high school senior’s distress over her many college denials. It’s long but eminently worth the read…

I am a high school senior who was recently rejected from nearly all the schools I wished to attend this fall. I have been left heartbroken by this turn of events, and I’m not quite sure how to measure my reaction around others. I was accepted into a good state university close to home, from which one of my parents graduated, but I would hesitate to attend, as most of my close friends who have decided to go have been accepted into the honors programs that I was rejected from. I know, logically, that it is a wonderful school with great programs, but I can’t help seeing myself as inferior to my honors-bound peers, despite never having felt that way before. This university is an environment that I would be deeply uncomfortable in, as I know from having seen it, but all the schools I was accepted to are very far from home, with fewer accredited programs for what I want to do.

I can’t see myself being happy with any of the options I have. In addition, it is quite painful to see others celebrating acceptances to my dream schools when I am still, quite frankly, in mourning over what could have been. I feel like the butt of a very cruel, drawn-out joke, one which had me vastly overestimating my ability to achieve at the level of higher education I aspired to.

Is it that I am stupid and no one ever let me know? How can I be respectful and celebratory of others’ achievements when I feel awful about myself for failing at my goals? Where do I go from here? Name Withheld

Your letter raises so many issues. Let’s start small. Selective colleges typically fill their classes with reference to a long and idiosyncratic list of concerns, of which academic potential (as measured by test scores, G.P.A. and advanced courses) is just one. Their aim is to assemble a varied group of students who will profit from the varied opportunities available in higher education. People differ in their many dispositions, intellectual styles, moral capacities, imaginations, life experiences and so on, down a long and incompletable list of things that matter.

Now, college admissions can, less appealingly, allow for the compounding of privilege. Consider admissions-easing luxuries like private test prep or the opportunity to join a lacrosse, fencing or rowing team, never mind legacy preferences. At the same time, there can be efforts to compensate for disadvantage. However you design the system of admissions, though, slots aren’t going to be distributed solely according to some mixture of aptitude and effort — by what people tend to think of as merit. If, by a fairly applied procedure, someone gets a place, we can say that the person deserved it. Yet all that means is that the person got it by the application of the rules, as with raffle-ticket winners. Do they deserve their prizes? Certainly. Are the rest of us, in a broader sense, undeserving? Surely not.

A mistaken notion of desert is often accompanied by the delusion that the college you go to will determine how rewarding a life you’ll have. Take a quick look at the résumés of this country’s most successful C.E.O.s. or social entrepreneurs, and you’ll see how many didn’t attend “name brand” colleges. (Last year only 14 C.E.O.s of the Fortune 100 companies attended Ivy League schools.) As an academic, I’ve had marvelous students who wound up teaching at world-famous institutions and marvelous students who wound up teaching at much less well-known ones. Any undergraduate could learn a great deal from any of them.

Sometimes the connections that people acquire at a prestigious institution can be a leg up, but that’s most useful for people starting from a position of disadvantage. In a study (which I’ve cited before in this column) by Stacy Berg Dale and Alan B. Krueger, students from middle-class families who were admitted to a highly selective school but chose to go to a less-selective one earned as much as those who made the opposite choice. Pay is a terribly crude proxy for the array of opportunities that higher education can bring, but it’s the sort of thing economists can measure. The real point is that getting a college degree is, for a variety of reasons, enormously helpful; the prestige value of the college that grants it is of far less importance. The more you come into your own, the less significant such borrowed glory becomes.

There’s a greater delusion here. We’re often encouraged to imagine our society as an egg-sorting machine: jumbo, extra-large, large, medium (and then the sizes that don’t show up in the supermarket: small, peewee). We’re drawn to the idea that the rewards of social life — money, esteem, opportunities at college and then, later, at work — are determined by talent and dedication. In this picture, everyone can be ranked on a scale of how meritorious they are. True, we can complicate that picture a little and acknowledge that skills are various; that one person might be a fine mathematician and another a fine musician. But even if you had multiple scales for multiple skills, you would find that the vast majority of us aren’t great at anything. A person can only be at the top if there are lots of people ranged below.

If your self-worth is tied to being better than others, then, you’re headed for trouble. Your classmate in the honors program can feel inadequate compared with a higher-performing classmate in that program, who can feel inadequate compared with a still-higher-performing classmate and so on up the line. They could all walk around in a state of dejection. But that would be an ethical error. Why ethical? Because ethics, in its classical sense, concerns itself with what makes a life go well.

In the end, what matters isn’t how we rank against others. (Though my hunch is that you’re the only student at your school to be published in The New York Times this week!) You started out with a bundle of talents and interests unlike anyone else’s — yes, even if you have an identical twin. Your life so far has allowed you to develop some of them and to take up projects that you are committed to: Maybe it’s playing the guitar decently, writing a short story, serving the needs of the less well off in your community, being a good Christian or Muslim. Maybe your aim right now is simply being a good friend, taking genuine pleasure in the good fortune of those you care about. “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?” Dorothea asks in George Eliot’s “Middlemarch.”

You may acquit yourself, in these various endeavors, better or worse than another person, but nobody else is trying to do exactly the things you are trying to do with exactly the developed talents you have. Because we all come equipped with different capacities and have been born into different circumstances, and because we choose our own projects, each of us faces his or her own challenge, one that is, like you, unique. You have, as the great German thinker Johann Gottfried Herder once put it, your own measure.

The goal, therefore, isn’t to be the best; it’s to do your best. And don’t think this lets you off the hook. To become a better version of yourself is quite demanding enough. The 18th-century Hasidic rabbi Zusha is supposed to have said that when he died and appeared before the heavenly court, they could ask him, “Why were you not as great as Abraham?” and he wouldn’t be afraid; after all, he wasn’t given Abraham’s intellectual gifts. They could ask him, “Why weren’t you Moses?” and he wouldn’t be afraid; he didn’t have Moses’ skills as a leader. The question that frightened him was this: “Why weren’t you Zusha?” The scholar Martin Buber, writing in the past century, called this the “question of questions.”

I’ve talked about delusions. Here’s what’s true: Lots of things that happen to you — a good number of which will be a matter of sheer luck — will affect the life you make. But what will make your life a good one, along with luck, is a willingness to run with the opportunities that come your way.

Mourning all the things that didn’t turn out in your college-admissions season, you say that you can’t see yourself thriving in any school that has accepted you. Don’t trust that intuition for a moment. If acceptance from elite colleges is hard, self-acceptance can be harder.

Take up that question of questions. Think about what you can do with the opportunities you have, like going to a good college near home. If you do the work, make friends and enjoy reasonable luck there, you’ll come away from the college enriched and ready for the next phase of your life. So seize the day. The race you’re running has only one competitor, and it’s you.