Life as an undergraduate, graduate, or professional student can feel overwhelming. Navigating academic and social experiences at the university can be tough. Job prospects after graduation are uncertain. Families may be struggling, financially or otherwise. Even though institutions like Yale provide generous financial support to many of its students, student debt in this country is significant. In this environment, the pressure to succeed can feel relentless.
And looking at students at Yale and other elite institutions, we see yet another layer of pressure. One of our students used a term to describe it that resonated with me and my fellow Student Life professionals at Yale: “effortlessly excellent.”
Being “effortlessly excellent” is feeling the need to always be and look happy and “together”, no matter their struggles. In other words, students feel pressure not to appear stressed, even when the opposite is the reality.
What was the source of this idea of “effortless excellence,” and how did it take hold so strongly? The answers are in our successes. Yale alumni are a highly successful group, and students stated that the push to achieve a particular kind of excellence was increasing their stress.
Students pointed to the alumni that Yale and similar colleges and universities hold up to them as role models: CEOs of Fortune 100 companies, Supreme Court Justices, award-winning actors and musicians, Nobel Laureates, cutting edge researchers, and venture capitalists.
There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to these positions, of course. But has it become the only definition of success acceptable to students—or the only definition offered to them?
Some Yale alumni are CEOs and presidents, true. But these are not the only roles in which our alumni excel. They are active in potentially less visible but certainly no less critical ways, every day: helping their communities, teaching or raising a child, working as health professionals, to name a few.
Could the University provide an expanded, perhaps more realistic and accessible, definition of success, one that places a greater emphasis on the legitimacy of effort and impact?
Over the coming year, I’ll be looking at new ways to define success, leadership, and achievement. There’s exciting work being done in this area, and I invite you to join me in this exploration.