I’m a ‘Guju.’ I was born in India and raised by Indian parents (and an awesome but slightly racist grandmother) for the majority of my life. What that means, for those of you who don’t already know, is that academic success was not an option. It was (and still is, really) obligatory. Getting straight A’s. Being cherished at parent-teacher conferences (yea, remember those?). Bringing home fancy certificates and awards. The whole ten yards. My parents ingrained somewhere in the depths of my neural circuitry the importance of academic excellence. Being taught that an education is valuable is invaluable. I really cannot thank my parents enough for helping me cultivate a thirst for learning, a thirst that ceases to ebb to this day. Nevertheless, one of the (I hope) many things I have learned over the years is that dominating the classroom is, well, dominating the classroom. There’s much to life that exists OUTSIDE of the classroom. Much to happiness that shies away from the manacles of competition and modern conceptions of ‘smartness.’ Much to your self that has nothing to do with the numbers on your CV.
My early years were amazing. OK, sure, I knew I had to keep my grades up. But, as long as I did so, all was quiet on the Eastern front. I could play outside until it was too dark to see. I could stay up all night with friends playing NFL Blitz on Playstation 1 or Pokemon on Gameboy; I could go biking and scootering whenever I felt like it. My greatest fear was being verbally obliterated by my mom. And even that wasn’t so bad. I didn’t really give much thought to my identity. Surely there’d be time for that later. Or, so I thought.
High school was about doing anything and everything possible to get into the best colleges. I spent a lot of time thinking, but my conclusions were Impressionistic at best; obscurity from pressure and expectation was inescapable. I am fortunate in that I have incredible friends, and I am thankful for the time I got to spend with them in high school. I had some unforgettable teachers. I did a number of things for the first time. I went to a prestigoius high school, and I was anything but miserable. Nevertheless, upon graduating, my ‘I’ was poorly formed. The inner ball of clay I hoped would take on definite form, alas, remained soggy and squishy. Then, college came around.
For aspiring medical students (like myself), college is a more brutal version of high school. And, the stakes are higher. Volunteer there. Research with this person. Suck up to that person. Don’t take these clases but those instead. Thought and action stream from the coercion of society’s whip. A student born and raised, you know ‘success,’ so you fall back on what you know. The mentality best suited for the classroom, suddenly, metastasizes to all other parts of your life. Thoughts unrelated to polishing your résumé or getting the next ‘A’ are cast aside. Introspection and self-understanding seem trivial. You push forward. Day in, and day out. Meaning loses, well, meaning.
The title of this piece is ‘Insecurity.’ Why, you ask? Well, I’m insecure. No, I am not ashamed to say so. By no means is my lack of absolute certainty paralyzing, but its presence is undeniable. When I tell others I aspire to be a physician because no other profession befits me, an icy voice whispers, “Or is it the money?” When I work out because I think being healthy is a moral imperative, a chill echo sounds, “Or are you defending your vanity?” You get the point. At times, I find it difficult to put faith in MY answers. The thought that I DO know who I am almost makes me uncomfortable. Weird, right? Yet, I don’t think that I’m alone in this regard. I see hesitation and uncertainty everyday. Why do so few people participate in class? Why do personal conversations generate so much unease? Why does the impersonality of social media appeal to the masses? The explanations to these phenomena can all be tied to a lack of self-awareness. It’s just not very fun to share a misshapen, soggy blob, much less claim ownership to it.
Academic excellence, as it is traditionally defined by society, is probably important for most people. Planning on going to graduate school? Asking for recommendation letters? Applying to internships? Your grades, test scores and extracurriculars probably apply in the above cases, in addition to a host of others. So be it. Learn as much as you can, apply yourself – do what you gotta do. But, what is success really worth if you don’t know WHY you seek it in the first place?
Listen to yourself. Feel your intuitions. People, events and memories will always inundate your consciousness. Figure out what matters to you and what doesn’t. Then, act accordingly. Your answers do not have to be ‘right;’ they just have to be YOURS. Do not feel compelled by paradigm, obligated by circumstance or helpless to peers. Live by truth, and live true to yourselves.
If you value learning, you’re already halfway there. You need do little more than just turn your gaze from your screens, achievements and peers – and study yourself. You may be surprised to see what you learn. You may be surprised to see how quickly clay hardens in the heat of scrutiny.