I was smart. At least I thought I was. I skipped first grade and was the youngest in my class every year. I scored 5’s on all eight of my AP tests; no one in my class matched that. I had every reason to believe that my path to adulthood would pass through one of the top ranked colleges in the country. After all, smart people go to the top ranked colleges. But something unexpected happened. UC Berkeley said I wasn’t smart enough. UCLA also said I was not smart enough. The six Ivy League schools that I applied to also said I wasn’t smart enough. As much as it was emphasized to me that I should shrug off rejections from schools, jobs, and people, it did not change the fact that I was thought of as inadequate. Up to that point of my life, I had been viewed as one thing by my parents, friends, and myself—smart. If I did not get into a top ranked school, then maybe I was not smart. This was the only path that was ever presented to me, and to have fallen off the path was terrifying.
I have always weighed other people’s assessments of my abilities more heavily than my own assessments because validation from others felt good. I did not understand my own abilities, nor did I trust myself, so to figure out if I did something correctly, I always had to gauge the reactions of others.
“Wow, how did you figure that out?”
“Oh my god, you’re so smart!”
I liked those comments, but my true problem was not the fact that I liked those comments. It was that I obtained a significant amount of self-worth from those comments. My worth did not come from myself, and neither did it come from confidence in my abilities.
There was another path to this validation I so desperately sought, which was to attend community college and transfer to UC Berkeley. I was embarrassed to update friends and teachers that I went to Skyline Community College. In fact, my high school friends and I had often joked to each other about going to Skyline when we made silly mistakes on assignments, with the implication that unintelligent people attend community college.
My attitude shifted as I attended the community college. On one hand, it had to shift, or else I would have gone crazy thinking how I deserved to be somewhere else. This kind of self-induced psychological torment would have done me no good. On the other hand, I began letting go of any expectations and decided to do what I wanted without the goal of obtaining the approval of someone or something. I had already “failed” and there was no way I could continue disappointing others. This meant the only person I could disappoint now was myself. I was not going to let that happen, and this drove me to work hard. My goals changed from “how can I get others to recognize my efforts” to “I will put in the effort until I feel satisfied with myself.”
Oddly enough to me, the friends I made at Skyline never once thought of me as a failure. Everyone there was supportive. Their support did not come in the form of helping me reconcile how I did not get into the school I wanted. Their support came from accepting me for who I was: talents, flaws, and all else. They understood certain paths may curve differently than others, but it doesn’t make those paths any less valuable. Likewise, it was obvious that my friends were no less intelligent and no less hardworking than I was. I was the stupid one for thinking that people fell into broad, arbitrarily contrived categories.
I ultimately transferred to UC Berkeley. But when I saw the acceptance letter, I did not feel the least bit good about it. I felt like this was simply a byproduct of the work that I had put in during the two years at Skyline, and that the natural consequence was an acceptance to a great school. I received a different kind of validation from this acceptance. This was validation that my hard work and belief in my own abilities is the right attitude to carry with me. My self-confidence no longer came from others; it finally came from within.
When the results of my efforts had hit a dry spell, the external validation I thirsted for no longer came, and I was left desiccated because I did not have any faith in myself. But my experiences since college and beyond have proven to me that just because I did not obtain the results I wanted does not mean I was a failure. Instead, I should remain confident in myself and find other ways to achieve my goals. Now that I understand myself more completely and believe in myself, I feel as though I can accomplish anything, which opens up many things that previously I would not have dared tried. Previously, in attempting something new, I would have had to ask someone else if they thought I was good enough to succeed. But to not attempt something because of a fear of failure is itself the biggest failure.