I sent my sister an article from the New York Times by Ruth Starkman about her experience reading college applications at U.C. Berkeley. I sent it partly because our children will soon be applying for college. I also sent it because I feel like it exposes the gross side of the college admissions process, or really any application process. In other words: playing the game. I find both comfort and discomfort in what Starkman writes, although the first feeling was definitely discomfort.
"First and foremost, the process is confusingly subjective, despite all the objective criteria I was trained to examine.
Fortunately, that authentic voice articulated itself abundantly. Many essays lucidly expressed a sense of self and character — no small task in a sea of applicants. Less happily, many betrayed the handiwork of pricey application packagers, whose cloying, pompous style was instantly detectable, as were canny attempts to catch some sympathy with a personal story of generalized misery. The torrent of woe could make a reader numb: not another student suffering from parents’ divorce, a learning difference, a rare disease, even dandruff!"
In my note to my sister, I wrote that the article stressed me out. She wisely wrote back that it shows that you might as well just be yourself. Oh yeah…that’s what I keep telling my clients.
Then she sent me a NYT article…a transcript of a commencement speech by the writer, George Saunders, to Syracuse University students. It was the perfect antidote. Real. Hopeful. Putting kindness at the top of the list of goals. A good perspective for everyone…graduating from college or at any stage of life.
"It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder."
It may be facile, but that’s what I like about what Saunders says. It boils it down to something easy to grasp. Be kinder. To others, and I would argue, to yourself.
I have the pleasure of working with several 20-something-year-olds right now and one thing I see again and again is how hard they are on themselves. There are so many internal and external voices telling them they should be further, better, happier. They say how old they’re getting. I have to laugh because I know I felt the same way but from where I’m sitting they are so young! Again, Saunders has a lovely way of expressing this pressure to succeed.
"Still, accomplishment is unreliable. “Succeeding,” whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there’s the very real danger that “succeeding” will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended."
That’s where balance comes in. Succeeding is great and we all want to feel productive, but that success will feel so much better if the big questions are not ignored. And, that’s exactly what I see processes like college applications and complete focus on career potentially doing…crushing the big questions. There’s not much room for kindness in those processes. What are the big questions? They present themselves on their own time…it’s a matter of being willing to see them. In the meantime: