tired of this chip on my educational pedigree
June 6, 2015 9:54 PM   Subscribe

There will always be somebody better than I am at everything. I'm fine with that. But there's something about seeing someone from the same cohort as I am (similar childhood circumstances, same demographic, largely same interests and pursuits, etc.) going on to slightly out-achieve me by some measure-- namely, educational pedigree. Please help me get over this.

My question is similar to this one. The main difference is that this issue/inferiority complex mostly comes up when I compare, specifically, educational pedigree with respect to this one person (let's call them A.), and not notably in other contexts.

A. and I attended high school together. We were in the same classes, and we had the same interests so we were co-president of most every high school activity (teachers frequently couldn't decide who to make president or captain, so we shared the position for many activities). We had similar family backgrounds (first-generation) and our families talked (and talk) a lot, though we were not friends because I felt A. to be aggressive and two-faced in dealing with people.

We both ended up at Ivies for college, although A. ended up at a "better" Ivy than I did. The same thing happened for graduate school (we are again in the same field), where A. ended up attending a program that was more highly ranked than the program I ended up in (again, we both ended up at top programs, but A.'s had the edge).

Most of the time, I don't think or care about this. I have had a fantastic time and learned a lot at the institutions at which I have chosen to pursue my higher education. They were a good fit for me, and I shouldn't have any problem getting to where I want to end up. I wouldn't give up my experiences for anything. But for me, there's this lurking "what if it is better to be at Harvard? Could the grass be greener...?" and it specifically comes up when I'm reminded that A. has consistently made it over the edge, while I haven't. It makes me wonder what I am lacking such that I consistently fall short in getting into these selective programs. I know that people like to say that "elite" admissions is a "crapshoot"-- it is to some extent, but I also know that getting in isn't random. I have mixed feelings about having been waitlisted at Harvard for both undergrad and postgraduate studies; being a finalist for the Rhodes but falling short of actually landing the scholarship, and so on. I have consistently "fallen short."

I'm embarrassed to ask this question, because I know I'm beyond fortunate to be where I am. I am not entitled to anything. And I hate that I even care about this. It is such a petty issue, and beyond that, I feel that the pursuit of prestige ends up actually limiting a lot of people, so I doubly hate that I care about this. I thought I would be better than bending to these arbitrary societal ranking-shenanigans and prestige-whoring, but I guess I am not. When it comes up (especially when I return to my hometown) that A. is doing such-and-such, and I get these pangs of insecurity, even though I know that I shouldn't care, that we're all going to die anyway, and that as long as I put forth a good effort, I have nothing to be ashamed of.

To clarify once again: I think this only happens with A. (in other words, I am projecting all of my insecurities onto A.). I don't think I feel this way about anybody else. And it only is a matter of educational pedigree: I do not envy A.'s personality at all. I do not envy A.'s specific abilities or intellect, or anything else about A. other than the educational pedigree aspect, which I know is extremely superficial. I do not envy other friends' educational pedigrees, even when they are equally impressive and shiny. I feel like this is specifically with A. regarding their academic pedigree, although I could be wrong.

I am looking for perspective, articles, books. I found "This is Water" to be helpful, but more beyond that would also be appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I do not envy A.'s personality at all. I do not envy A.'s specific abilities or intellect, or anything else about A. other than the educational pedigree aspect

I think you're halfway there, then. A great way of reducing envy when comparing oneself to others is to take into account the whole picture -- you can't get only the good parts of someone else's life; you have to take the whole package. You don't get to be you plus A.'s good parts.

I find that I tend to feel most competitive or insecure around people who embody aspects of myself that I don't really like. I'm working on accepting those parts of myself that get brought to my attention by such people, which seems to take some of the competitive sting out when I see those traits in others.
posted by jaguar at 10:02 PM on June 6, 2015 [7 favorites]

Stop following what A is doing and check back in on him in 10 years. Time is the best perspective.

(I have a highly relevant personal story I could relate, but it's something I'd rather not disclose on a public forum. PM me if you want to know.)
posted by Ndwright at 10:32 PM on June 6, 2015

When I've seen old grad school acquaintances showing up in prominent places in the discipline we studied, I've always been glad for them, but I've also winced very slightly at the reminder of past opportunities that I either neglected or flubbed--maybe a little moreso when it was someone I found mildly irritating back in the day.

It seems pretty human? I mean, you say that most of the time you're not worried about this, and if you're not dwelling on it, maybe it's not that big of a deal as it stands--just a residual feeling lurking in your head somewhere. It sounds like you're cultivating other sources of ego rewards, and in time, those should mostly displace things you used to judge yourself by.

If you can, try to aim kind thoughts at A. when this comes up. The equivalent has certainly worked for me as a distraction, not least because it makes me feel better about how I've reacted--it's like a private little apology for wincing. You might also bolster your confidence a bit by gathering your mind around stuff that's more interesting and rewarding to think about than your educational pedigree. If I were to suggest books, they'd be on literally anything that isn't this topic, but maybe especially things that come under the heading of "heart-warming" or "thoughtful."
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:52 PM on June 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

First thing to do is stop calling him or her "A". YOU ARE THE "A" IN YOUR LIFE. From now on the other person is "B".
posted by seasparrow at 11:06 PM on June 6, 2015 [16 favorites]

I once heard it said, and took to heart, that "it is better to be good than to be smart." I think this can also be said about educational pedigree, and I happen think that education is very important and have committed my life but it. But, the things that we can add to the world by way of being virtuous human beings are much more important than just about anything else. And being good does not require any sort of pedigree at all.
posted by SpacemanStix at 11:26 PM on June 6, 2015

The only thing I can think to tell you is that most people feel this way about someone, and it's completely normal and common, and it's not a shameful feeling. Like Monsieur Caution said, it's so human. We all sometimes wonder, "Why did X get the thing I wanted when s/he is such an asshole? What am I lacking?" Let yourself feel it when it comes up, acknowledge it, and then let it pass.

Lots of smart people still feel the sting of not getting into Harvard. Lots of people who went to Harvard feel the sting of not having been as successful as their classmates. Lots of people who actually are the successful classmates feel the sting of not having been the one to invent Facebook. My friends who have the most stunning educational pedigrees are the ones with the most crippling insecurities about how they stack up against their classmates or whether they fit the profile of Harvard or whatever grad. They are actually pretty tedious people, and I'm pretty glad I only sometimes visit their world instead of inhabiting it. It sounds like you got a terrific education and have a good thing going. To have gotten as far as you have, you must have a fantastic mind, and I bet it shows in everything you do. Don't fantasize about trading your real life and hard work for some illusory projection of success because from what I've seen, it doesn't guarantee confidence or happiness.
posted by Yoko Ono's Advice Column at 12:25 AM on June 7, 2015 [7 favorites]

You've been incredibly successful academically, (and most likely athletically if you were a finalist for a Rhodes), and one aspect of that has to be having a competitive, ambitious spark. Unfortunately, like anything else, the ambitious adrenaline that made you successful is not something you can so easily turn off like a toggle even though you don't want it to surge when there's nothing to be gained, like with your nagging jealousy of A. I think the reason it happens with A is the natural adrenaline surge one gets when nose to nose in a race. I think you should give yourself a break, look at the envy when it surges and just say, "yeah, ambitious people get competitive in races. This wasn't, and still isn't, a race with A, me," and (kindly!) remind that automatic competitive-adrenaline shooter in your brain that it can put its guns away. Let the surge pass without beating yourself up and don't reward it with self-recrimination or analytic scrutiny of A's success. And then thank it for working quite well in actual races.
posted by third rail at 2:26 AM on June 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I actually think having an A in your life can be helpful, it's all in how you frame it. There was an episode in Modern Family that summed it up well. The younger daughter and family genius, Alex, was in competition with her nemesis for class valedictorian. Their entire school career, they had been head to head with each other. She brought this up with him when he thanked her for it. Surprised, she asked him why and he told her that it was thanks to her and their competition that he was where he was - without her, he never would have been spurred on to work nearly as hard, and he'd achieved so much more because of it.
posted by Jubey at 3:34 AM on June 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

It could be that that edge the other person has is the thing that's so off-putting about their personality to you- being two-day faced and insincere. I know someone who got a prestigious scholarship because he found out who his interviewer would be, read the guy's book, and then just completely sucked up to him about it during the interview. That is not something that I would do myself but it worked for him. You have to look at who you want to be overall. Maybe you could have gotten into the top top tier by pushing more but would it have been worth it if that's not your personality?
posted by betsybetsy at 6:54 AM on June 7, 2015

I went to Harvard, for both undergrad and Ph.D. At Harvard they really drum it into you that you are the best and the people in school with you are the leaders of the future.

Then you grow up and go out in the world and are surrounded by amazing, accomplished people, and to your mild surprise, they almost entirely didn't go to Harvard.

If your feelings about this are specific to A, and if you guys are in your twenties or early thirties, as I'm guessing you are, then A may still have some of this attitude embedded in them, and may be displaying it, even if they don't mean to, and you may be responding to it, even if you're not directly aware A is doing it. I'll bet I did it. It takes a while to get over your training.
posted by escabeche at 7:40 AM on June 7, 2015 [8 favorites]

Your brain finds this itchy and uncomfortable because:

He's a terrible person in a lot of respects, but he's succeeding, which is evidence that the world is not fair--which is disturbing and upsetting and, frankly, scary. It means that bad things can happen to good people and that your success might just be random.

The option your brain gives you to escape from this particular fear is a well-known cognitive bias, the "just world bias". We are inclined to see the world as being fair. However, in order for you to see this person's success as fitting into a world that is fundamentally just, that means that he would have to be better than you. Since he is a terrible person, this conclusion--that he might deserve these things more than you--is abhorrent to you and does not actually reduce your distress.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:03 AM on June 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

A. has consistently made it over the edge, while I haven't.

This is bullshit. You went to an Ivy League school and are now in a prestigious graduate school program. Wherever the "edge" is that one must struggle to make it over, you are both so far beyond it.

You're twenty miles into a race, and you're upset that A is half a yard ahead of you. If you insist on thinking this way then, even if you end up in a better postgrad program than A, or with a better career than him, there will always be someone else you can find to find yourself wanting in comparison with.

You don't have to be the best. Settle for being very very good.
posted by 256 at 8:23 AM on June 7, 2015

When I was in my early 20s, I was in the Theater program at FSU. I was taking some of my first acting for musical theater classes, and I was coming to the conclusion that there were an awful lot of people who were more talented than I would ever be, and many of them were younger than I was.

The teacher of that class was Neal Kenyon, and I went to his office and discussed my feelings and observations about this situation. He said, "Wittgenstein, no matter how good you are, there will always be people who are more talented, and people who are less talented. "

This made a BIG impression on me, and generalizes to other areas besides theater, I have found.

Hope this helps.
posted by wittgenstein at 9:11 AM on June 7, 2015

When I feel this way about certain people in my life (professional or personal) and it's just this one nagging thing where they outperform me, it has really helped to laugh at myself. I just call up my college roommate to say "Ugh, I'm gritting my teeth because person x got another fabulous job/transfer/promotion/______!" And we laugh about it. Because we've all been there. I've actually made it a standing joke between us that my half-sisters are leading perpetually perfect lives of outstanding achievement and know not failure.
posted by Pearl928 at 12:03 PM on June 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

How much time have you spent around people without stellar educational degrees? Have you worked side-by-side or befriended people with no degree at all, or who are aspiring to electrician's school, or are completing their associate's, or even just got their bachelor's at a mid-ranked institution?

I am guessing the answer is "not much". Because I can tell you, from someone who went from your background and elite community to working in a warehouse stocking auto parts to being back in that elite community, when you start really getting to know people who aren't privileged you start realizing how little that Princeton vs. Harvard bullshit matters. You gain a real appreciation for what you have, because you see how the people at your side will never have those opportunities despite being just as smart and hardworking. And I mean a gut appreciation, not the "Gosh I'm lucky" platitudes that you know you're supposed to repeat but don't really feel. If you're really lucky, you'll meet people who are better at the job you're doing than you are and they'll have gotten there without the fancy education and Rhodes nominations and all of that. That's a real kick in the pants.

Basically, you lack perspective and you are valuing your life by what's on your resume rather than the relationships you build and the good you bring to the world. You think you have perspective, but if you are bothered enough by this shit to ask an anonymous Ask Metafilter question about it than I promise you, you lack perspective. The only way to gain it is to spend more time around people who aren't similarly invested in Ivy League jackoff contests, who don't think a B- is the worst thing that ever happened to them, and whose familiarity with "the poor" isn't just that time they volunteered in a soup kitchen or the once-a-week tutoring sessions with underprivileged children. Real people who exist outside the privileged bubble. Make some friends from groups you'd never have thought to associate with and in a year you'll stop feeling like you're not good enough because you only got nominated for a Rhodes.
posted by schroedinger at 2:28 PM on June 7, 2015 [9 favorites]

Dangit, you just made me look up my nemesis!

For a while, despite my lower pedigree I had the edge in publications and impact. However, it looks like he just leap frogged me by landing an assistant prof position whereas I bailed on academia.

One day I decided that it didn't matter and I haven't thought of my 'A' for years. Even now, intellectually I feel like I ought to care, but feelings wise, its a big meh.
posted by porpoise at 2:33 PM on June 7, 2015

I am in academia. "Top ranked program" is irrelevant to us. We want to know who your advisor is (that's your real pedigree now) and, more importantly, what your research is on and what you have published and what grants and fellowships and awards you have won and other things that actually have something to do with you. "Top ranked program" will not get you a job. Your accomplishments will.

I do not know where most of my non-academic friends went to college. Some of them are doctors and lawyers, so they probably went to professional schools, but I'm not sure which ones of those either. Once you begin to emerge from that academic bubble, it becomes clear that all this pedigree stuff is completely irrelevant.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:48 PM on June 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

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