How I Used Empathy to Overcome Failure

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Your years in college are supposed to be the best years of your life, but for me they were incredibly dark and sad. I remember how excited I was for the opportunity to go to Princeton. It was my dream school so I applied there early decision. I awaited the day that I would receive their decision in the mail, and to this day, I can still remember every detail of walking to the mailbox, feeling excited that it was a big envelope, reading about my acceptance during the short walk to the house, and hugging my mother who was probably ten times more excited than I was.


Getting into college was a huge weight off my shoulders. I went to a very regimented and competitive all-boys high school where about 20% of my peers all received early entry into Harvard. On top of the stress of competing with these ultra-talented peers, I also lived in the shadow of an over-achieving older brother who traveled the world winning debate tournaments, who got straight A’s, and who eventually got himself into Yale. I was happy to be done with the stress for awhile and to turn the chapter – and go to school with girls.


In high school, I was my authentic self, and for that, I was rewarded. I was voted Varsity Wrestling Captain and I held leadership positions in many clubs and organizations. I was not necessarily the most popular person in my class, but I had good relationships with most people, and to this day, I still make a habit of staying in touch with many of my classmates. Even though I was not the brightest person in the class, I received one of four major awards handed out to my class and to this day I consider that to be one of my proudest achievements.


In college, things took a very sharp turn for me. My senior year of high school had been difficult for me in many ways, particularly with the death of a close friend in a car crash and the subsequent survivor’s guilt I felt a month later when I had my own near-death car crash. People I had trusted let me down. I was depressed, and that angst carried its way into college, where I tried desperately to regain my footing by being liked by other people. Losing sight of who I was ended up being my greatest mistake.


My desire to fit in had me acting in ways that were not truly reflective of who I was, and it turned some people off. Princeton has social hierarchies in the form of “Eating Clubs,” which are really like co-ed fraternities/sororities where members also meet to eat meals three times a day and host parties on nights and weekends. These social strata were often dictated by groups you were affiliated with – sports teams, Greek life, a capella groups, or what have you.


Without getting into too much detail, I was unsuccessful in getting into the club of my choice where all of my friends hung out. This was, unfortunately, a social death knell. I was so upset when I found out about it that I left the campus and did not return until classes resumed the following week. I was embarrassed to see anyone, especially when I found out what some of these people had been saying about me behind my back.


So, when my friends would be eating their meals together, I would be eating alone in my dorm room. Every so often there would be members-only parties at these clubs that I was not privy to. I truly felt like an outsider. I would often cry and lament some of the decisions I had made. I did not understand what had happened to the old, authentic me that people used to admire. For the first time in my life, I felt like an absolute failure.


There were probably two things that helped me to hold everything together. One – and most importantly – was my best friend and eventual college roommate, Jeff. Jeff was in my fraternity, was a Varsity Volleyball captain, and he was a member of the club I wanted to be part of. Despite that, he felt exactly the way that I felt – like he did not belong. Jeff is the nicest person I have ever known, and being a little socially awkward made him feel like he was an outsider, too. Like me, he felt that we were surrounded by a somewhat phony social system, and that we were not exactly being true to ourselves by participating in it. Ironically, he could see who I really was, and in my moment of greatest need, he reached out to me to start hanging out, for no other reason really than that he knew I needed it and that he knew we secretly had more in common than I would have realized.


The second thing that helped me hold things together emotionally were my studies. I had been rejected by the Creative Writing program when I first applied to college, but after honing my work a bit, I got into the program later in my freshman year and retained my spot by applying every semester thereafter. I enjoyed that immensely. The people in my classes were a very different mixture of people than the ones who I normally interacted with socially, and in that world, I felt like I had a fresh start, being able to write about whatever was on my mind and just get things off my chest.


Eventually, in the spring of my senior year, I joined one of the clubs that anyone was allowed to join. For three and a half years, I had convinced myself that I was “too cool” for that. It turned out I was wrong. I remember being so angry with myself for having written people off without knowing them. That semester was the best semester I had – and it was the last one I had. I finally felt like I belonged somewhere, and people were very kind to me. But it was fleeting.


Throughout my college experience and for several years after I left, I resented everything about Princeton. I blamed everything about what had happened on other people. I told myself that this was a cutthroat place with narcissistic maniacs who were interested in stepping on the backs of other people if it helped them to climb the social ladder. When I received phone calls about donating to the school, I would lecture whoever was calling me about how elitist Princeton was and how I would never make a donation. To say I was bitter would be an understatement. Even by my fifth year reunion, I remember both me and Jeff being sad to be back because we felt like we did not belong to any of the cliques that had been formed.


Something changed though in the last few years.


First and foremost, I recognized the flaws in who I was. I am a very different person today than I was a decade ago. I am a lot more thoughtful, I am a lot more curious, I am a lot more open-minded about people, and I am much kinder. I am far from perfect, but I am a better person today than I was back then, and I stopped being ashamed of admitting that. It was only by recognizing the flaws in myself and forgiving myself that I was able to start forgiving other people.


In light of what I now understood about myself – that I was a young guy just trying to navigate a complex social circle and fit in – did it not make sense that others around me were doing the exact same thing? Was it possible that others had made some immature decisions that they also regretted? Was it possible – if not likely – that some of the people who had spent years trying to exclude me had decided with the same benefit of hindsight that they had wronged me and wished that they had acted differently? And the most painful recognition of them all – but wasn’t there at least some reason why I might have given some people a reason to turn their back on me? After all, we only got snippets of one another. It is very difficult to know someone entirely, let alone well at all.


Once I had asked myself these difficult questions, my attitudes started to change. When I would run into the people who had created this traumatic experience for me, I killed them with kindness instead of running away. I started to get myself more involved with the alumni community and to engage more with people. If anything, I made a habit of trying to engage more with a lot of the people who I had scoffed at back when I was in college. But my engagement has been personally rewarding in many ways. I have traveled to Iowa City and Stillwater, OK to watch the wrestling team with other wrestling alumni and have attended every NCAA Wrestling Tournament over the last five years with the same group of people. I go back to reunions every year and I consider it the best three days of the year. I regularly talk about all sorts of things with a diverse group of alumni online, and though we do not always agree on things, I find myself learning instead of writing people off like I used to do.


In order for that change to occur, I needed to do three things.


First, I needed to recognize that I was flawed. I think it is impossible to exhibit empathy towards other people if someone considers themself to be perfect. If you consider yourself to be perfect, you assume that everything you do is right, and therefore anyone who speaks against you must be wrong. Only when you allow for the possibility that you might be wrong can you start to see that everyone can be flawed, and you can start to relate to what you see as the flaws in other people since you those flaws in yourself.


The second thing I needed to do was to forgive myself. I knew I could have gone about things in a better way back in college, but I still blamed other people because doing that was a lot easier than blaming myself. To be sure, some of the ideas I had about Princeton do ring true. But I needed to hold myself accountable and also forgive myself for any mistakes I had made. My heart was truly in the right place: I wanted to have friends. I was young and I learned a lesson. It did not need to dictate everything about who I was. Once I had established some confidence in who I truly was as a person, I was able to forgive the younger me who had made mistakes but who I knew had also really tried his best adapting to a very different environment.


Last but not least, I needed to forgive others. And like I said before, you cannot forgive and empathize with others until you forgive and empathize with yourself. Seeing my own flaws made me aware that we all have flaws. Seeing that I was just trying my best made me realize that most of us are also trying our best, even if we piss people off in the process. Telling myself that this was a me from a long time ago made me remember that this was also an everyone else of a long time ago. And I realized that I had discounted all along many people who were my friends in college and who had always been kind to me, but that I was too preoccupied with my own apparent suffering to properly note them.


Today, I am really proud to call myself a Princeton alumnus. While I certainly regret losing grasp of my authentic self, it’s not worth it any more to make that my largest regret. If I wish I could have done anything differently, I wish I branched out more and hung out with people who made me feel more confident in being me. I wish I had taken advantage of all the resources there – the speakers that were brought to campus, the various groups I could have joined, and so on. In sum, I have used the experience to vow to be me and to make sure I get the most out of my own curiosities rather than just doing what I think will make everyone else happy.

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