I spent most of my childhood and adolescence at the piano: One of my earliest memories is of lying my head on the keyboard of our brown Yamaha upright in the basement, listening to the echo of middle C and wishing I could be watching cartoons instead.
By high school, I was spending all of my after-school hours not dedicated to Advanced Placement Calculus and AP English practicing Chopin and Liszt. My mother, the epitome of a tiger mom, saw to it that no time was wasted on things such as sleepovers or friendship; those were distractions from the ultimate goal of gaining entrance into Harvard — or, in a pinch, Yale or Princeton.
I went along because I had no other choice, but years later, now a parent myself, I’m determined to give my children a completely different experience. I’ve never urged them to specialize in one instrument or sport, or enrolled them in an endless stream of activities in hopes of identifying a talent to help them get accepted by an elite school.
At the same time, I know that when it comes to crafting an application to a top school, my daughter — still only a freshman — could be considered late to the game. And I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a part of me that, as she and her brother get older, worries that I’ve shortchanged them as we head into an uncertain future.
But if my experience at an exclusive college, and the years after, have taught me anything, it’s that not all roads to success go through the Ivy League. And the tunnel vision that getting there often requires can come at the expense of things that are truly important.
The prevailing marker of success is for your kids to “do better” than you, or at least maintain the status quo. That’s what my parents, who immigrated to the United States from Taiwan, thought when they decided that my sister and I would go to Harvard. As for so many immigrants, education was the golden ticket, but the specific benefits were never really discussed. Better financial prospects were quietly assumed, of course; social status and prestige as well. (Annoyingly, the one thing my mother did mention expressly was the elevated marriage prospects.) But otherwise, college was presented less as a tool than a wholesale future: best college, best possible life.
But I’m not sure going to an Ivy League college necessarily made my life or my sister’s “better” in any definitive way. My sister is an oncologist, I’m a writer — both careers we could have pursued just as well without the Harvard imprimatur.
Moreover, the height of the bar set in our teens had repercussions that lasted well into adulthood. It took me years to feel worthy of basic happiness after my creative endeavors met first with early success (a Fulbright fellowship and book contract) and then repeated failure (years spent toiling over two long novels that never found publishers).
Financially, neither my sister nor I live on the edge, for which I am immensely grateful, but don’t look too closely under the hood. That’s where you’ll find burnout, guilt, and — in my case — a daily sense of shame that I should be doing something more “important” than raising kids or volunteering, or writing columns for the local newspaper.
You can’t lay all the ills of middle age at the feet of your alma mater, but it’s worth considering that success is a relative measure. Yes, the Ivy League grad’s median annual earnings are higher on average than those of other college grads (double, according to a 2015 Department of Education study), but those figures say nothing about quality of life. The desire to do something extraordinary or be seen as special can blind you, as it did me, to the things that actually do matter.
And what are those things? Ron Lieber, in his 2021 book, The Price You Pay for College: An Entirely New Road Map for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make, lays out a thoughtful list of things he considers worth paying tuition for, such as diversity (leading to more expansive perspectives and better leadership skills); and genuine career counseling (helping to direct students toward purposeful work regardless of their field of study). He even acknowledges — as my mother suggested — that college is an important time for many in terms of meeting friends and potential marriage partners.
None of this is to downplay the importance of economic and social security, especially in times like ours. The America of 2022, with its climate crises, inflation woes, and widening political rifts, seems a lot more fraught than in the ‘90s, when I dropped my college applications into the mailbox and hoped for the best.
My best friend from college, whose parents fled Vietnam when she was a baby, believes that there is a “list” of people who will be guaranteed safety when famine or disease or government collapse strikes us — which sounds paranoid until you understand that her parents were only able to get out of Vietnam because her mother made lampshades for an American ambassador’s wife, who arranged for her family’s transport before the fall of Saigon.
I would never deny the role that affluence and influence have on so many lives, including hers, but I wish it was possible to acknowledge both the truth of that power and the idea that proximity to power is a poor system on which to base a future where money and power seem likely to be consolidated into fewer and fewer hands.
The pandemic has made so many people rethink their life choices and priorities. In its ongoing wake, I hope one issue up for reimagining is the standard of success among the comfortable classes in this country. I look at my kids and ask: Are they kind and thoughtful? Can they adapt? Do they consult themselves, and not some arbitrary external benchmark, in their valuation of their wild and precious lives?
If so, Harvard or not, they’ve already won the Nobel Prize.
Francie Lin is a writer in Florence, Massachusetts. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.