What I Learned From Feeling Mediocre

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Freshman year of college is supposedly comprised of endless trips to the dining halls, red Solo cups, and learning why 8 am classes are a bad idea. My freshman year lived up to the stereotype pretty well, but it also brought something I wasn’t expecting -- a feeling of mediocrity.

My transition from high school to college was drastic in itself. I switched from a small high school with a graduating class of about 120 to a sprawling urban campus full of 20,000 aspiring engineers. It was almost inevitable that I would become a small fish in a big pond.

Day one of college began with an introduction to my roommates. I quickly learned that one had already interned at Google, the other had just finished a research project at Berkeley, and the third graduated salutatorian from a prestigious international school. Despite my own achievements, I immediately felt unaccomplished and overshadowed in light of my new roommates. And the thing was, the more people I met, the more this feeling seemed to amplify. As I sat down in lecture every morning, the girl on my left could code in more languages than I could speak and the guy on my right could solve Riemann sums with his eyes closed.

The students in college were one thing, but the academics were another story. I knew that college was challenging, but I was definitely not expecting the rigor that Georgia Tech put me through. I would spend hours and hours hunched over my books to scrape by on tests. I used to be the one that tutored others back in high school, but now the roles had switched. It seemed that everyone around me was simply smarter than me.

As a result, I felt out of place. I felt inadequate, incompetent, like I didn’t belong at the school. I woke up every single morning feeling stupider than the day before. My confidence disappeared and for the first time in my life, I felt absolutely mediocre.

I think my experiences provide a glimpse into a larger situation college students all across the country face. A study in the International Study of Behavioral Science reports that 70 percent of millennials admit to dealing with impostor syndrome (a tendency to feel that one’s achievements are under deserved) at some point in their academic or professional careers. In addition, The National Survey of College Counseling Centers attributes feelings of depression and isolation to college students who constantly compare themselves to their classmates.

I was curious to know whether some of the world’s most influential figures had ever felt this way, so on a whim, I reached out to the co-founder of Apple -- Steve Wozniak. He replied saying,

“In some subjects I didn’t feel that I was the smartest but [I] fell into my place fine.”

And now that I’m halfway done with my college career, his words mirror my thoughts exactly. College isn’t about being the best anymore -- it’s about finding yourself and your place.

In retrospect, feeling mediocre my freshman year was the best thing that could have happened to me. I came to the realization that being surrounded by those who were smarter than me wasn’t an obstacle -- it was an opportunity. The reason I left Dallas and traveled 800 miles to attend college was in fact to be challenged, tested, and have my peers push my boundaries. After all, if you’re the smartest person in the room, then you’re in the wrong room.

The feeling of intimidation from my peers eventually turned into a feeling of motivation. Being humbled provided a new insight into the person I wanted to become and the path I wanted to follow. As a result, my entire perspective changed. Each and every single morning, I’m now thankful to have the opportunity to sit in the same classroom as some of the smartest, talented and gifted students across the country.

So here I am, about to begin my junior year in two months. I’ve become comfortable with feeling uncomfortable and have consequently regained my confidence. I now gauge my growth in relative comparison to my past self, not to my classmates. My focus has shifted to becoming the best person I can possibly be, and that’s the most important thing feeling mediocre has taught me.

A proud native of Texas, Kamesh is currently a student at Georgia Tech studying industrial and systems engineering. You can check out more of his writing here: https://medium.com/@kd1996x