David and Goliath is Malcolm Gladwell's latest book to challenge assumptions. This time, Gladwell posits that what we consider to be an advantage may actually be a disadvantage, and what we consider a disadvantage may offer an advantage. This is a concept I discuss briefly in Acing It!, so I was excited to read a full book on the topic, especially with the adept Gladwell at the helm.
While there are many ideas explored in David and Goliath that make the book worth reading, here's one that jumped out at me in how directly it relates to where you are in your life: prepping for admissions tests and the college application process.
Gladwell tells the story of Caroline Sacks (a made up name representing a real person).
Caroline loved science all her life and was an all star in school. When it came time to apply to college, she applied to two schools: Brown and the University of Maryland. Caroline was accepted by both schools and selected Brown University.
Brown was Caroline's top pick, making the decision easy. It was an Ivy League school with smart students, exciting professors, and ample resources. The benefits are obvious. But, Caroline didn't anticipate the downside to such an environment.
While surrounding oneself with intelligent, accomplished people can certainly be inspiring and motivating, it also provides a skewed basis for comparison.
Caroline, a proud science "nerd," suddenly became overwhelmed in Brown's challenging science classes. What's more, when she looked around, she saw other students grasp the concepts. Combine this with her first B-, and Caroline felt like a failure. She dropped her science major.
Gladwell and Sacks posit that had Caroline attended the University of Maryland, she would have performed better in her science classes relative to her classmates, felt better about herself, and kept her science major.
I would suggest to Caroline Sacks a little compassion and self-forgiveness. The truth is, she probably attended Brown for the right reasons. She was excited to sit in a classroom with other intelligent, accomplished students. She didn't anticipate how sitting in that room would feel or how she would compare, but how could she have? No one can predict the future. She made the best decision with what she knew. She followed her gut. That's the best any of us can do.
Of course, a part of me also wants to tell you that Caroline's first problem wasn't choosing Brown University, it was basing her self perception on how she was performing relative to her classmates (another point I touch on in my book). Had Caroline attended the University of Maryland and performed at the top of her classes, there probably would have been other students comparing themselves to her and feeling worse off. In fact, Caroline probably had classmates at Brown comparing themselves to her and feeling worse off. Self-comparison is a slippery slope. There will always be people better off and worse off than ourselves.
Comparing ourselves to others is human nature. It's bound to happen. And, maybe there was a piece of Caroline's gut that she was ignoring—maybe she was so flattered by the acceptance letter to Brown that she never really considered the University of Maryland. So, what else can we take from the story of Caroline Sacks?
While we tend to think that "bigger is better," maybe that isn't the case. The college admissions process can feel incredibly overwhelming, as if it's up to you, the student, to either succeed or fail.
But, what if we could remove our black-and-white judgements from the outcome?
While certain schools are renowned, that doesn't lead us to the conclusion that they are the only schools at which a person can have a positive experience—let alone the best experience for that person. If we release our attachment to names and to results, we open ourselves to finding the most favorable option, even when that option is counter-intuitive.
Furthermore, trust that it will all work out and that your test scores won't deny you the opportunity to attend the school that is the best fit for you. Give your best effort to preparing for the admissions test, and then let it go. Trust that it will all work out. Move forward with mindfulness, purpose, and perspective.
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