I’m Opting Out of Ambition
My 10-year-old daughter’s bedroom is dotted with awards. She has several academic excellence awards, a social justice award, and a smattering of other “official” accolades.
Framing them and hanging them on her wall wasn’t my idea — it was hers. She’s very proud of her awards.
I’m proud, too, but I’m also wary. For years and years, I attended schools and worked at jobs that preached the importance of teamwork and collective responsibility, but rewarded individual achievement — often in ways that elevated a select few and made the rest of us feel kind of crappy.
I still remember my middle school Spanish teacher, who used to write all our test scores on the whiteboard in a long narrow column from highest to lowest. She didn’t attach names to the scores, but you could still clearly see if you were doing worse than everyone else, doing ok, or doing pretty good. My score was always the one at the top.
I loved being at the top.
Like my daughter, I loved my awards too. I collected them with enthusiasm. A teacher once commented on my report card: “Sometimes I feel that Kerala is out to conquer the material, not just learn it.” I don’t think she meant the comment as a compliment, but I took it as such. For me, school was a conquest. I wanted to be the best, and according to my report card, I was.
I competed with my peers to get admitted to a college prep high school, which had an acceptance rate lower than Harvard. I competed with those admitted to get financial aid. I spent most of my four years there competing, whether in the classroom or on the basketball court.
Though my high school fancied itself a progressive educational institution, the main lessons I learned were that in order to be successful, you have to put in long hours, prioritize work above all else, sacrifice other things that bring you joy, and be better than the person sitting next to you.
Outside of school, I played three sports, and though I learned some important lessons about teamwork, the season always ended with three of us getting awards while the rest of us clapped. I often came home with another trophy to add to my growing collection. I liked looking at those trophies from my top bunk as I fell…