As the alarm clock on my iPhone rings, a flood of energy and stress washes over me, and I slowly become conscious of the ambitious deadlines I set for myself the night before. It is a new morning at Hamilton. Although I and probably hundreds of others are eager and willing to embrace this kind of lifestyle, sometimes I cannot help but wonder why.
I think we tell ourselves it is ambition, or maybe even noblesse oblige, that drives us in the challenging moments. This is no doubt partly true, but perhaps it is not totally clear why overachieving Hamilton students work as hard as they do. Given the strange kind of pride I witness in myself and my classmates as we consistently complain about our packed schedules, and given the rise in demand for health/counseling center services, such questions should be asked.
Debates about the meaning of “ambition” and “success” actually go a long way back, perhaps even further than the Enlightenment era to which Hamilton’s curriculum and community owe so much. Thinkers debated whether the meaning of life necessarily involved rising above everyone else. Back then, the lazy jester in Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew spent more time justifying his lack of ambition to rise above the mass than on his chosen trade of foolery and mimicry itself. But if the nephew is right that “there is nothing degrading in doing the same as everybody else,” there is perhaps nothing elevating in it either. It is probably at least a little natural to want to “stand out,” and it goes beyond what our parents, teachers, friends, and coaches told us growing up about working hard, achieving success, and setting ambitious goals. It is engrained, I would suggest, in the very notion of a democratic society.
It is obvious that we are at least partially products of the world around us. But there is a strangeness to the seeming contradiction between the amazing place I genuinely believe Hamilton to be and the tremendous stress and preoccupation with success here. We should think more intelligently about it. Not because I expect everyone to understand precisely where I am coming from, but because I believe others are at least thinking, if not feeling, a similar way. Thinking about excellence, midterms, and stress in the context of Hamilton and its heritage, then, need not be an individual conundrum to be faced alone, but instead a challenging emotional-intellectual exercise from which all can benefit.
So important is the concept of excellence to Western thought that virtually any prominent philosopher can be found addressing it at one point or another. There is little question, for example, that when Alexis de Tocqueville sought to understand post-revolution France, he was engaging, if only tangentially, in just such an intellectual exercise. Lover of the old aristocracy or not, he came face to face with the peculiar question of how one could possibly stand out in an increasingly equalized—and thus increasingly homogenized—Western society. In Democracy in America, he “surveyed this countless multitude of beings” and concluded that they seemed destined to become more alike, not better than each other. Tocqueville, whose relatives had faced the guillotine a generation earlier, was somewhat cursed to be an aristocrat after the French Revolution. But he was also “blessed,” meaning fortunate, because he had achieved status the easy way, by birth.
There is ample reason to see traces of that same predetermined excellence in today’s growing income inequality. But it would be foolish of us to assume that excellence today can be reduced to privileges alone. Each and every privilege, however they are defined, means for any individual an opportunity that others may not have. But if we think about excellence in the context of a society of free individuals, we see that it is personal before it is social. Receiving social privileges based on one’s family background does nothing to produce excellence in the individual.
Consider students who were educated at Phillips Exeter and went on to an elite college, yet never really applied themselves at either level, doing the bare minimum necessary to get through. They would receive the institutional privileges that come with attending those schools, which can be substantial, but they would not receive the benefits that come with excelling at them. There is a difference between being privileged and being excellent. And today, the difference between privilege and excellence is the degree to which we apply ourselves to making the most out of the privileges—whether few or many—we have been given in life.
This is all well and good, one might ask, but how does “making the most of things” relieve the stresses of competition and the pressure from our peers and family? Indeed, doesn’tmaking the “most” of things imply the impossibility of a balanced middle ground, thus adding fuel to a dangerous fire? Are we to be forever chained, as Jose Ortega y Gasset put it, “to a maximum or a minimum of demands upon ourselves”—to be either the best or completely undistinguished?
If we choose to see excellence as an individual struggle towards betterment, and not as a competition with the world, the only thing we are “chained” to is ourselves. It seems like a tautology at first, like 2+2=4, because of course everything comes down to the decisions we make in life. But in that case it must be ourselves, and not others, who are responsible for how much credence we give to outside pressure to “succeed.” It must be ourselves, not others, who take on difficult projects and pack just too much into a day. This is not freedom from responsibility, but freedom in how we approach responsibility. It cannot take away difficulties, but it can change where they are coming from.
Understanding modern excellence as an individual enterprise cannot get rid of stress, struggle, or sleepless nights, nor does it necessarily recommend them. It cannot erase the difficulty of difficult goals when we feel called inexplicably, against all “rational advice,” to take them on. But it can help us understand how we ought to go about doing them, and that, I think, is a step worth taking.