Today I received an email alerting me that my 20-year college reunion is coming up. (Gee, thanks, random person from Class of 1997.) The email included a cheerful, unsolicited update from someone who shared how her Harvard years had given her a career on Wall Street (which she traded in for a career in Milan) and a husband (also Class of 1997), a home in Greenwich, Connecticut (translation for the uninitiated: $$$$ — in case the Wall Street and the Milan didn’t clue you in), and three perfect children who are bound for Harvard’s Class of 20-something-or-other. And there, all of a sudden, my day went from pretty-OK/nothing to complain about, to crappy. Because I was reminded that there are things in this world that I’m theoretically supposed to compare myself to. In response to her request to share with her how I am doing, I shared. (Hey, she asked.) After I told her about my Wall-Street-less, Milan-less, S.O.-less, Greenwich-less, kid-less (but, in all honesty, I’m relieved about that — if it can’t eat out of a bowl on the floor or poop in a box, I can’t be responsible for its well-being) existence, I admitted to “not being a Harvard success story.” She actually wrote back (wasn’t sure I was expecting a response) and thanked me for the honesty. And she shared that she had a couple sisters whose lives resembled mine. And she acknowledged that Harvard is a thing that “looms” over the lives of those who went there, constantly challenging what it means to have “success” in life…
Truth be told, I probably got the idea to apply to Harvard from watching Gilligan’s Island re-runs. I was a sickly little kid — home with strep throat or pneumonia more than I was in school. The primordial ancestor of Survivor didn’t involve sex, so my mother allowed me to watch it. I marveled at the Professor’s ability to fashion pretty much any electronic device out of coconuts. I studied maps to try to determine where the castaways could have ended up. And how I hoped and prayed that those poor slobs would escape from the island. Anyway, one day, lo and behold, Thurston Howell III was discussing Harvard. He seemed to speak well of it, so my tiny, virus-riddled, kid-sized brain decided that I would apply there when the time came. Years later, when I was in high school, my European History teacher (herself a Harvard graduate) tried to talk me out of my Jim-Backus-inspired plan. “If you want to be rich, be a plumber. If you want to get your hand stamped as an Official Smart Person, then go to Harvard. But that’s all you’ll get there.” What nerdy, introverted, shy girl who’s never been good at anything other than reading, doesn’t want to be an “OSP”? I mean, what else is there in life, when your entire identity is being smart?
So, history teacher be damned, the Gilligan’s Island reasoning carried the day. Since the TV show had launched the entire lunatic plan, I wrote my Harvard application essay about Gilligan’s Island. Not kidding. I did. Can’t make this shit up, folks. My high school English class had just finishing reading The Tempest, so my personal essay (which had a broad topic like “Tell us about yourself”) was a compare-and-contrast exegesis that explored the nuanced similarities and differences between the seven stranded castaways brought to us by William Shakespeare and Sherwood Schwartz.
Must have been a good analysis, because they let me in.
And I won’t lie — Harvard was Nerd Paradise. No one teased me for being smart, or weird, or different. Because we all were. The misfit toys were safe in each other’s company. And it was glorious.
Until it ended. After four years, I had to go from being a Harvard student (awesome) to being a Harvard graduate (less awesome).
Much ink has been spilled regarding reference groups, i.e., the stereotypical “keeping up with the Joneses.” Try reading Daniel Goleman’s “Focus” or Sam Weinman’s “Win at Losing,” or probably anything by Malcolm Gladwell for variations on the theme. In a nutshell, if you live your life comparing yourself to John D. Rockefeller, you may feel like a bit of an underachiever. If you compare yourself to someone asleep on a subway grate, however, your life probably doesn’t look too bad.
Psychological wellbeing depends, at least in part it seems, on having someone that you can point to and say, “Well, at least I’m not that guy,” and then having a beer.
I have my own beer fridge. And I try to ignore mail from Harvard.
But sometimes the inadequacy still creeps in.
Having recently embraced a lifestyle based on “downward mobility,” it is hard to have my alma mater “loom” in the background. (Harvard spits out a lot of Joneses. It is a Joneses-generating monolith.) Some days, I confess, it is nice to be able to curl up inside my ego and remind myself that I went there. (And I love makin’ fun of Yalies.) But other days are challenging — days when people ask me (if I went to Harvard) why I don’t have a “powerful job,” or a vacation home, or Mercedes, or all the “trappings of success” that society expects to see as it sits in judgment. For, as someone once told me, “The first thing Society does in the morning after it puts on its pants, is judge you.”
So, what is the cure? I find myself recalling something that another ex-lawyer once told me. When he faces the same questions on stepping back, away, down, or the adverb of one’s choosing, he tells people that he has “something that they will never have.” Curiosity piqued, people invariably paw at the air, asking him, “What?!?”
And he replies, “Enough. I have enough.”
And there is wisdom. The escape from the island. The simple Art of Having Enough.
But I’m still not planning to go to my Reunion — I’m not that well-adjusted. But at least I have a goal.