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Opinion: Open message to students who “play the game”

Published March 14, 2014

Is Emma overwhelming herself with school and extracurriculars for the sake of her resume? Photo by Addie McNamara.

Is Emma overwhelming herself with school and extracurriculars for the sake of her resume? Photo by Addie McNamara.

March: It’s that time of year where students find themselves falling into what is commonly referred to as “the third quarter slump.” We’re trying to stay on top of our work but for some reason, this semester it seems so much harder to find motivation to study than it was before.

When our less-than-stellar third quarter reports come though, we eventually wake up and realize we seriously need to get our grades up. Or else. We also realize that if we did not do well on the March SAT we’re eventually going to have to study more in order to get an “acceptable” score. Or else.

Reluctantly, we will spend a little less time on Netflix and a little more time on textbooks. Why? We need to get those straight A’s and that 2300 SAT score, and still devote enough time to all those extracurriculars. We just have to, right…?

This is what I refer to as “choosing to play the game.” People  succumb to the pressures of “succeeding” in school and building up their resume for a variety of reasons: the desire to get into a “good college,” the fear of disappointing others (particularly parents), the belief that one must play the game in order to receive certain career opportunities, and more. When I refer to “you” and “we” throughout this article, I am referring to these certain students at Palo Alto High School and competitive high schools across the country.

Regardless of your reasons or motivations, this opinion piece is a message and piece of advice for those who “choose to play the game.”

First and foremost, no one should overwhelm themselves with so many difficult classes and after-school activities that they are getting only five hours of sleep a night, doing poorly in several of their classes or just so overly stressed that they are completely unhappy. If you are taking certain classes for the wrong reasons, i.e. taking advanced, time-consuming classes solely because it “looks good” to have on a resume, and think that once you get into a highly competitive college all that stress will be over, think again.

Many students of the highly selective colleges in our country report high depression rates because of the difficult course load, the heavy competition environment and the fact that students are there because they thought that attending a name-brand school would make them happy, when in reality that magic easily fades. The bottom line: submerging yourself in more work than you can handle (or just more work than your conscience wants you to handle) can easily lead yourself in a downward spiral of depression or a miserable experience later on in college.

Secondly, don’t play the game just because you want to please your parents or because it’s what everyone else in this crazy Palo Alto community is doing. Yes, your parents have worked very hard to give you all the resources and opportunities you have today, but don’t let them guilt-trip you into being something you’re not or going into a field that you’re not excited about because you feel like you owe it to them.

One of the most incredibly difficult things about attending Paly is exercising restraint from comparing yourself to others. Of course competition can help make you be a more successful person, but oftentimes you eventually realize that happiness rarely comes from trying to be someone you’re not. Instead of making sure you take as many Advanced Placement classes as your fellow classmates take, do what’s most fitting for you and simply know what’s best for you personally. Biting off more than you can chew is a dangerous practice. You really can’t compare yourself to others, only to yourself.

Lastly, you might be the kind of person who has the goal of wanting to do as well as you can in school so you can have the most possible options for college and your career. From there, you would be able to take a powerful position like a CEO or a US senator so you can help as many people possible. Wanting to have a positive impact on other people’s lives is certainly a better motivation than making it into a good school, pleasing others or just making a ton of money. It’s great to have these goals, but it does raise the question of, what happens if you fall short?

The first wrong answer: “I failed.” That is silly, for obvious reasons. Still going to a college and eventually having a career (even if it wasn’t your first choice) should not be associated with the word “failure.” The second wrong answer: “Oh well, I’m not going to have as much of an impact but at least it’s something.” No. While many people would think that being a middle school teacher is less significant than being a professor emeritus of a prominent university, both those positions of public service touch people’s lives for the better, which is really all that matters.

Though college professors might have to meet more requirements or be more knowledgeable in certain areas to teach in their field, the impact a middle school teacher, software designer or grocery store manager can have on others through both their career and personal interactions is truly just as important.

This is very much a counter to what we have been taught as students: While practicing kindness and integrity is certainly important, your main focus should be your grades and school. If success is defined as having a happy and meaningful life, however, the former statement could not be farther from the truth. For many, this idea is hard for people to wrap their heads around and it won’t change the course of their grandest goals.

If you do choose to play the game, however, be aware of why you’re doing it, and know that there is no shame in walking away in a different direction if you see it can lead you to better things.

The most important thing for students to remember is that it’s impossible to actually “lose” the game or come in second. All of us are equipped with intelligence, empathy and strength to have a positive influence on others. This ability to effect the lives of others for the better is the most important tool we have, and it is neither strengthened nor weakened by where you came from, what college you go to or what job you finally wind up with.

If there was a rulebook for playing the game, the “how to win” section would be simple: make a positive impact on other people.


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