How to Keep Your Competitive Edge and Your Humanity at Elite Universities

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Say you’re sitting in class and just submitted a difficult problem set or coding assignment. The student next to you sighs, “glad that’s done!”

You’re focused on your phone, trying to make plans with your cute lab partner. It takes about 30 seconds to realize someone spoke. You answer vaguely:

“Yeah… it was easy.”

Your peer may not have been addressing you. Maybe they just sighed to themselves, or to someone else, or to God. Who knows? But you respond, and you lie. Chances are you suffered too. In fact, this particular assignment took most students, including you, 25 hours this week. But you’re not paying attention.

Besides your lab partner and whatever else is on your busy college mind, you’re focused on your own success. You want to finish stuff, gain entry into prestigious professional schools, and score a high-paying job. You arrived at your elite university wielding the competitive edge that got you accepted. Now, surrounded by excellent peers, you find new ways to hone that blade, even as you bury your mind in social media. You may be out to lunch, but you affect invincibility. Some super competitors aggressively shame others when they whiff the merest hint of suffering. You, however, simply haven’t registered the experiences of others around you.

Had you been listening, you might have heard others describe your comment as a “microaggression,” a term coined in 1970 by Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Chester M. Pierce, for the particular type of thoughtless insults and dismissals directed at African Americans.

Was your comment a “microgression?” How could it have been, since you didn’t even look up from your phone and had no idea whom you were speaking to? Perhaps you’d prefer to think of your response as self-affirmation on autopilot. There’s nothing wrong with self-affirmation in itself, especially since you have to market yourself in college applications, awards, jobs, etc. It’s also possible to turn off the autopilot.

Competitiveness need not produce thoughtless behavior; nor should the drive for excellence be discouraged. Striving to finish first, snare the top grade, create something new, better, and completely original—that’s what students at top universities do. But they can also achieve all this without indifference, microaggressions, or worst of all, Schadenfreude, the joyful relishing of others’ misery.

Does this call to kindness sound like old news? It is. At least since Confucius and Aristotle, ethicists have formulated imperatives of benevolence or ren in Chinese and friendship or philia in Greek. Aristotle even claimed that people were “born for friendship” and that this innate sociability was the fabric of all humanity. Regardless of your personal beliefs, you might agree that being successful does not preclude being good. So then, here are some suggestions for slaying your assignments, not your peers. Your life and theirs will be much better if you can succeed with grace and humanity:

1. Don’t stomp the anonymous. Think philia, and treat peers with the same respect as you give those in your close circle of friends and family. You wouldn’t say to your dearest buddy or sibling who was visibly struggling, “oh, it was easy.” Nor would you dare suggest to anyone important to you: “Really, you don’t know this?” Or, “this is from week one,” duh…. So, why would you say such things to the random student next to you in class?

2. Don’t try to recover from shaming your peers with equally demeaning pseudo-qualifications for your supposed lack of struggle. The explanation: “Well, it was easy for me, because I had this already in high school” or middle school, or in the delivery room, when you were born... even if it’s not a lie, is also a form of bragging. Not everyone went to your high school, had your fortunate circumstances, or such a dazzling delivery room arrival, and even if they did, they might still be suffering because of the genuine challenges of the assignments.

3. Not everyone arrives sufficiently prepared. Not even the most fortunate students. At Stanford, for example, we often see students from elite prep schools who have never written an annotated bibliography, and those who have are often still confused by our own special genre, the Texts-in-Conversation (TIC). A highly achieving legacy student also offers a tale of caution. Having earned the top grade in her high school AP Statistics course, she thought Stanford Stats 60, a notoriously difficult course, “wasn’t too bad.” But she certainly didn’t rub her advantage in with any of her peers. In fact, she was too busy worrying how to conceal the fact that she failed Stanford’s beginning computing course CS106A, which is geared for students with “no prior experience” in programming.

Never having coded before, she reeled at the advanced-looking extra credit assignments from supposed “beginners” in class. Riding her bike home every night at 2AM after the computer tutoring hours ended, she doubted whether she belonged at the highly selective university her parents had attended. A student from less fortunate circumstances might experience a similar loss of confidence as well as many more obstacles.

4. Ask yourself, what is the right etiquette in a world of unevenly distributed knowledge? How did you acquire that knowledge that the student next to you lacks? If you already know how to properly use anadiplosis and chiasmus and took AP Computer Science in high school, chances are your parents paid substantial sums of money for that knowledge, either in property taxes in highly-resourced school districts or in private education or pricey enrichment. The going rate for SAT tutoring is $180 an hour. Your response “I already had this in high school” really means “not only do I have rich parents, I somehow took exactly the right courses to be perfectly prepared.” Congrats if you did. Try not to be a jerk about it.

As elite universities across the United States endeavor to redress their history of primarily serving the rich, they increasingly reach out to low-income students from under-resourced schools. Some institutions have been lucky to attract valedictorians and high-achieving students from this background. These students, ambitious future doctors, engineers, university presidents, politicians, community leaders, many of whom are people of color, thrive and compete successfully. Many have already excelled in the same AP English, Chemistry, Calculus or Computer Science just as you have, but some may have attended high schools without the benefit of any such courses. For these students, they really are the “beginners, ” for whom introductory courses are geared. If you really think that it’s all easy, take a harder course.

Perhaps that day you spoke thoughtlessly to the student next to you, you were talking to rising Stanford sophomore, Garry Archbold Jr, a multilingual first-generation college student from Florida and aspiring biomedical computational medicine major. Archbold Jr. recently took a moment on after his first day interning at Facebook to reflect on his experiences during freshman year:

I wouldn't be able to count the amount of times I heard, "that was so easy" and "I learned that in high school" when I walked into lectures or testing rooms…. It's really hard to feel like you belong when you leave your home/family/comfort behind just to look at the backs of people that have been set up to excel in these spaces, but find comfort (just like I do) in knowing that the distance is fixed, and even when it doesn't feel like it, you're moving a lot faster than the people in front of you.

Know that Garry Archbold Jr. is right. People around you, especially people of color and first-gens are moving faster and working harder than most students. Don’t suck down all the air in the room, make space for others.

5. Abandon that attention-getting, class-disrupting, aren’t-I-smart question in class. Professors love class participation, if it’s relevant to others. Every college teacher works especially hard to get students to overcome their fear of looking stupid for asking questions. Often, they discover too late that many students were afraid to stop the lecture or discussion to ask for clarification. So please don’t hog the spotlight for your own glory by asking questions that are just about displaying your knowledge. No one admires the person sitting in a beginning or intermediate course who wants everyone to know they’ve already read a book for graduate students: don’t be that person. If you want to show off to the professor, go to office hours, and stand at the end of the long line of students waiting for help.

6. If you nailed the PSET or the research paper and see someone else struggling, you can only enhance the value of your work if you offer help. Assisting your peers doesn’t mean letting them copy your work; it means showing them how you solve problems and where in the course materials you found key information. Such benevolence won’t cost you precious intellectual property. It will help you know the material better and make you a better person.

Being a kinder, better person is in fact compatible with competitiveness. As Confucius tells it, refraining from ambition alone is not enough to make one virtuous. One has to simultaneously embrace challenges and practice benevolence. Aristotle measures true friendship on trust, kindness, mutual understanding, as well as mutual struggle. People know never really “know each other till they have eaten salt together.”

So, want to achieve even greater heights of excellence? Take that harder course or challenge, know what it’s like for your peers to eat the salt of their own tears. Be a better student, friend, and person.

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