Columns

Brundage ’15: Redefining success in college

By
Opinions Columnist
Tuesday, October 23, 2012

No matter how much we may have hated or loved our respective high school experiences, there was at least one comfort we all shared: Success was easy to define. Whether you attended Phillips Exeter Academy or a public school in a poor neighborhood, there was a fairly consistent success formula. You were to earn near-perfect grades, score very well on standardized tests and thrive in sports, clubs and other extracurricular activities. To be even more successful, you might have a large group of friends, a long-term relationship with someone and a great family life.
By the time we reached Brown, most of us were under the impression that we were experts at being successful members of society. I hardly think it matters whether you believe that you arrived here solely based on your own hard work and merits or that you are more likely here thanks to your fortunate position in society and the help you received from others. What matters is that you recognize the power you now have and make a conscious decision about what you will do with that power to succeed.
In high school, our selfish actions aligned perfectly with what was probably best for society. It makes moral and economic sense that students should put as much time and energy as possible into building a flawless college resume, because the better educated you are, and the better educated you can safely assume you will become at a competitive university, the better equipped you will be to make yourself and the world around you a better place.
In college, however, you must ask yourself whether your high school motivations were driven by a pure desire to make an impact on the world or by more primeval desires to feel worthy and accepted. The answer to this question will only be clear to you. For me, I found I had been proudly telling others that I had worked so hard in high school to make a difference in a mean and corrupt world, while internally my motivations were more selfish. These selfish motivations are far from gone and are not even something I care to eliminate completely, but at Brown I made a conscious decision to define my own success as something larger than personal accomplishments.
I do not think certain concentrations or career choices can define you as one or the other – selfish or focused on helping others – but the motivations behind these decisions certainly can. A businessperson hoping to create thousands of jobs back in his or her hometown has a less selfish success formula than a doctor travelling to developing countries looking for a pat on the back. I cannot say whether it makes you “good” or “bad” to decide whether you will henceforth determine your own success on the basis of how well you’ve done for yourself versus what you’ve done for others. I can only pose this question: If not now, then when will you ever think beyond yourself? You are surrounded by more brilliant and wonderful people now than you ever will be again, and if you do not currently feel the need to define success as something beyond personal accomplishments, then you probably never will.
This conflict of determining your new definition of success makes picking a concentration or career all the more difficult. You must weigh certain variables according to your own determined formula: how much money you might make in a certain field, where you can make the biggest impact, where your head best aligns with your heart and what sort of work you might actually enjoy finishing at the SciLi when middle America is just waking up for work.
You have never had this much power nor this much knowledge at your fingertips, and you therefore have never had this much responsibility. I don’t necessarily mean responsibility in terms of your social and perhaps financial independence, but rather in terms of your responsibility to the world. As former president Ruth Simmons commented, “It extends to where you are at every moment of your life. Your education benefits society only if you are a drum major for human dignity.”
Having such an incredible responsibility to the world is delightful as far as problems go, so I hesitate to call it a burden at all – but that’s precisely what it is. It is important that we take this burden seriously and consider what we owe not only to ourselves, but also to our fellow man. This will determine whether we are still the clearly successful people we were when it all came together on a perfect college resume.

Matt Brundage ’15 is concentrating in economics and political science so that he can sound smart at cocktail parties. He can be reached at matthew_brundage@brown.edu.