Elena Kagan is officially better than me at everything.
First off, there’s the fact that she’s a soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice. There was a time in my life where I thought I was destined for something like that—I said in my 9th grade yearbook that I wanted to go to Princeton and become a U.S. Senator—but now I’m willing to accept that I lack the political acumen, self-discipline, and ambition to achieve anything comparable. Even if I did suddenly get back on political track, I think I’ve left a sufficient paper trail to make sure that I could never survive an election for dogcatcher, much less a Senate confirmation hearing (Though I have to wonder: what would the attack adds choose? The Cult of Elk? Cross dressing or smeared in fake blood? Dancing on monuments at the Citadel?).
What I discovered yesterday, however, must be one of her lesser-known achievements. I was poking around the Worcester boathouse, and discovered a plaque commemorating her coxing a blades-winning crew in Summer Eights, 1983. After a weekend of frustrations on the water and a month of academic disappointments, it almost felt like adding insult to injury. Couldn’t I at least be better than her at rowing?
Of course, Elena Kagan is a bit of an arbitrary reference point, and feeling the need to point out that one is not actually the same as a Supreme Court Justice seems like an exercise in self-absorption. The problem for me, though, is that I’m pretty sure Kagan is exactly the standard against which I’m supposed to be measuring myself, because we are both part of the same eclectic group of forty people selected as Sach’s Scholars. On one level, it’s a cool feeling—but on another, it makes me feel like I’m destined to be the black sheep of the Sachs family. The fact that our resumés at this point in our lives are so weirdly similar—B.A. at Princeton, M.Phil at Worcester College Oxford, with a bit of rowing thrown in—only makes the divergences in our future trajectories that much more glaring, and leaves me wondering where, exactly, I went wrong.
What I’m getting at more generally is how I find myself having to revisit and revise the ways that I’ve measured “success” for the first twenty-two years of my life. Although my long-term goals have always been pie in the sky—whether U.S. President or renowned activist-intellectual—the intermediate steps have always seemed clear to me. Earn good grades; win some awards; get into a good university / grad school. Check, check, check. And now what? I guess now I’m supposed to be old enough to achieve my goals without much assistance or encouragement; but—as I seem to be constantly hitting walls thrown up by personal limitations I didn’t know I had—I’m not sure what those goals should be anymore. It’s good to be realistic and self-aware, but it’s a bit dispiriting to think that every time I reconsider my aspirations, I’m adjusting them downwards.
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I don’t want to end on a note of complete despondency. So I will throw out one thing that I definitely can aspire to: I want to be walking when I’m eighty-nine.
I’m lucky to have my grandfather here for a visit this week—he is really excited about having a family member at Oxford—and I’m perpetually blown away by how utterly fearless, incisive, and mobile he is. He got a free double-glass of scotch at Eagle and Child, just because the bartender was in such utter disbelief that he was a week away from ninety. He’s still an incredible support to me and his entire extended family – a fact that reminds me that the markers of “success” that I find myself obsessing over are, at most, a small part of what makes for a life worth living.
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Jukebox: Andrew Jackson Jihad – Self-Esteem