Beating the Rat Race to Succeed

“Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson from Self Reliance 

All civilizations of the world, whether ancient or modern, have always encouraged, promoted, and prized acts of conformity. Our society as a whole today is resistant to change, and Newton’s first law of inertia applies to that as much as it applies to objects. Every one of us would rather adopt such tried and proven methods and follow the best practices to become successful – a blend of temperament, persona, and communal interrogation. But these traits, even if they are followed by the entire world, are not what make a society or person great. When a man or a woman demonstrates to the world that he or she stands for something – that they are willing to challenge the received wisdom and norms of behavior of their day and put themselves on the line as a result — that is true greatness.  Those are the real nonconformists — and they are very far and few in between.

At high schools around the world, it is that time of the year again when people are receiving their decisions for those dream universities they have been working towards for the past three years. Hearing all of the accomplishments of my senior friends, I cannot help but get nervous thinking about where I will end up in the next year and a half. And as I kept on with the trend and questioned others of their success stories this week, I realized the common thread in it all – how in the process of trying to be different and unique, most seem to actually be submerging into the pressures of societal standards. Many seem to stay up into late hours of the night trying to keep up with their rigorous schedules, struggling to get that ideal SAT score or high GPA – the two main ingredients required to get into a great college. And of course, in terms of community service, what all students seem to do is volunteer at renowned organizations or travel to a developing country one fine summer to serve the poor and needy – or even do an internship at Harvard or Yale to gain firsthand experience.

Although all of these are excellent achievements, I cannot help but think – is that the only way to get into a top college? As my mother always says, charity begins at home. So why not get involved and do something tangible in our immediate communities? Are we only motivated by success and fame, and not by the goodness of our hearts? Because as far as I have seen, many seem to do something great and amazing in the summer, but lose that momentum and spirit after they have enough credentials to list in their college applications. How many people actually take time out of their demanding schedules and help those struggling in our local communities (like Keansburg) or at local hospitals when they need it the very most? Or is it only during high school when we need it the most for self promotion?

I have realized that the more I try to conform to the norm and stay in the rat race to fame and glory, the more I seem to be pulled away from the basic characteristics that make me who I am. I cannot help but feel disappointed in our generation, and mostly at myself. During Hurricane Sandy, for instance – how many people came out of the comfort of their homes to offer help to their fellow neighbors in need? Or during the recent snow storms that occurred, high school students could have easily built a team and shoveled snow off the driveways of their fellow senior citizens. Because as Ralph Waldo Emerson once stated — in order for there to be any change in this world in terms of advancement, there has to be at least someone who will stand up and refute all criticism by others and pursue their own interests and do what makes them truly happy in contrast to creating a perfect self image, breaking the long-standing practice of becoming successful. That, I believe, is what makes a person truly great.

If we look back into the past, it is evident that the great sprouts of change in our societies arose as a result of people who refused to follow the norms at their time. Rosa Parks, for instance, took a stand against the unequal and unjust laws of segregation, racism and prejudice. The non-conformity exhibited by these actions provoked us as a society to reconsider our views and amend our laws to aid the greater good of our communities as a whole. We are seeing non-conforming revolutions in many parts of the world today, as people begin to wake up to the domination of their “religious” leaders, laws, and governments that only advantage a selected few, leaving the majority to fend for themselves. However in the younger generation, we find that instead of the readiness to challenge our principles when we are faced with new findings, we most often catch ourselves either concealing our “ridiculous” intuitions deep within our solitude so as to continue in agreement with whatever “crowd” we classify ourselves with, or implanting our perceptions for communal consumption onto our deep-rooted remembrances and philosophies in such a way that we lose all power to support us or anyone else reflect, reason, sense, and understand the truth. And although the above example from our own high school may seem small, it seems to speak a thousand words of our future.

Coming back to Emerson’s quote, I have been warned once more of the boundless labor we all are confronted with: to be and to manifest who we really are, to welcome knowingly the natural movement of the life force through us in its full breadth and with its complete supremacy. When we look throughout the world nowadays, we see such demise at every angle. Instead of growth in the spirit of exploration and precision we seem to value so much, we wobble and waver over the frozen carcasses of political, social, and spiritual suitability. And as I think about the millions of high school students who blindly follow the age-old formula to be successful and great, I wonder if we will ever snap out of this never-ending competition. It’s important we realize that no matter what college you end up going to, big or small, you will be great and accomplish what you desire despite the circumstances. Life just doesn’t end after college decisions. Just like the other events of transformation in history, I hope we may just have another one targeting our own generation. Because if an individual is able to stand apart in his own thoughts and remain alone in his head even in a large herd, then he is truly great.