It was my turn to ask a question.
“So, what’s your biggest mistake?” I asked, smiling. Then, like a group of distracted Literature Humanities students forced to comment on the Odyssey, my friends grumbled answers like, “I don’t know. I wonder what would’ve happened if I went to a state school” and “I’m not sure. I wish I could stop sleeping during my 8:40 a.m. classes.”
“Really?” I thought. “Those are your worst mistakes?”
Next, we asked my friend about his most embarrassing date, and he replied, “Nothing. I—I’ve never had a bad date.” Another friend said, “I’m like an open book. I really have no secrets.” At this point, I began to wish we had gone out to a frat party instead of playing truth or dare.
A part of me wished that there was something more—something deeper that we could share with each other to make the moment more meaningful. While it’s possible that my friends really do live “normal,” unembarrassing lives, I think it’s more likely that, like me, they feel the need to hide the less polished version of themselves from everyone else. Compared to some of my friends, a few of whom claim they already have their career paths figured out for the next five years, I feel like Winnie the Pooh. You know, with his head stuck in the honey jar, saying, “Oh, bother.”
Figuring out how to balance spending time with friends and doing my exciting schoolwork is a struggle. Understanding which friends are “real” is something I’m still working on, and learning how to be the not-too-needy but nonetheless loving girlfriend is also still a mystery. The fact is that the real me is still a work in progress. The façade of “competency” that others see in me is misleading most times. It’s a wall that I like to hide behind so that my friends and family will see the Columbia me. Secretly, there is usually something crazy going on in my mind.
Every time I walk onto campus, I feel a new and prideful identity take over. I look straight ahead, with my back straight, and pretend that I’m the well-spoken, cool, and competent leader that I made myself out to be in my application. Just like my friends, I feel no need to share my deepest secrets or fears, because for so many reasons, we want to believe that everything is great. But there’s something inherently wrong with this belief.
The problem with hiding our insecurities and imperfections from others is that it deprives us of the opportunity to live a truly meaningful life. People may argue about the meaning of life, but to me, life is about growing and constantly learning about myself, the people I care about, and the world around me. That means that we need to acknowledge our vulnerabilities—whether they are personal fears or relationship uncertainties—because, by allowing ourselves to fail and make mistakes, we give ourselves the power to improve. We don’t lose anything by experiencing hardship. We are gaining. We are growing. We become more resilient individuals who have a better grasp on how to make ourselves happier, and this, I argue, is why making mistakes is actually a good thing. Life gives its hardest battles and greatest prizes to its strongest warriors. We become stronger the more battles we fight.
If everything in life were perfect, then there would be no reason to live at all. Yes, it sounds crazy, but our imperfections give our lives meaning.
Ironically, though, our obsession with looking competent has actually ignited annoyance with such “fakeness.” Stanford University students have poked fun at themselves for having “the Stanford Duck Syndrome,” in which students pretend that they’re effortlessly gliding through school like a duck across a pond, when, in reality, they’re paddling furiously and working tirelessly. What the Stanford Duck Syndrome embodies is similar to the “Competent” phenomenon at Columbia: We all like to appear put together—that everything we do flows easily—while, behind our façades of competency, we are actually struggling.
So when my friends and I are reluctant to reveal our insecurities to each other in a silly game of truth or dare, it reminds me of how we’re still young and have a long path of growth ahead of us. Of course, it’s OK to want to appear competent. I still carefully construct my image when I’m around others. But I think that, in the long run, it’s important for us to remember that we’re not here to be perfect all the time.
We’re here to learn and be ourselves, as cheesy as that sounds, because truthfully, the real us—not the filtered version—is the most perfect us.
Shannon Zhao is a Columbia College junior double majoring in political science and psychology. She is a member of the Columbia debate team and Columbia UNICEF. Confessions of A Corn Muffin runs on alternate Wednesdays.