One of the things that comes with the transition from a community high school to a university like UToronto is the overwhelming sense of mediocrity. I was always terrified of my own insignificance. I was terrified of ending up like the millions of people in our world who grow up and are forced to let go of their broken dreams of making a difference. How many have trained for the stage? Dreamed for the spotlight only to end up as just another face in the chorus? My dreams were always too big for me, and like so many people, I will never grow into all of them.
As a child, I always liked taking the lead. I was bossy and competitive from the start, and even as some of those traits became buried under confidence issues as I hit middle school, I always wanted to believe I was better than all those other people who dreamed of fame and fortune, then failed. Death of a Salesman haunted me more than I would ever admit; I saw many of my flaws in Willy Loman and he is definitely not a character anyone wants to identify with.
Toward the end of high school, my need to be involved in everything took over again. I truly did love everything that I did, but the desire to be recognized was always a factor in becoming Editor-in-Chief of the school paper or student council secretary or many of the other things I threw myself into. However, the sheer insignificance of my actions hit me in August this year when I was attending a commuter orientation at U of T. We were in a room of maybe twenty upcoming freshman, and each of us had to go around and say a couple of the extra-curricular activities we had been involved in. Every single person in the room was a leader: school president, head of the environmental club, debate club, founder of a charity group, editor-in-chief, etc. It hit me then that for all my contributions in high school, there were thousands of other high schools in the province, and millions all over the world with students like me. Students far, far superior in charisma, leadership, and academics.
As arrogant as it sounds, my mediocrity has been a very hard thing to come to terms with. Being among the best was always nice but I think I’m learning a lot (maybe even more) from not being the leader, not just in ability but in attitude. In joining a dance collective and soccer team this year, I signed myself up to be the worst (no, that’s not an exaggeration) member of both groups. By doing so, I’m not only learning to dance and play soccer, but also how to listen and how teams work together. I’ve always preferred independent activities (archery, etc.) or activities when I am the one in charge because I know exactly what I’m doing. I don’t have to depend on anyone else or fail due to a weaker member’s mistakes. I love control and certainty; it makes me feel safe when I’m the only one to blame. But when I am the weakest link on a team, I have no choice but to be open to criticism and advice and suggestions. I’ve learned to tone down my bossiness and delegate more, working as a collaborator as opposed to a dictator who always got frustrated when people didn’t follow my instructions. I learned to appreciate the patience and encouragement that my experienced teammates showered me with, despite my being their weak link.
This lesson is tied in with how our definitions of success change as we age. I think that this — accepting that being a part of collaborative change can be just as rewarding as being the spearhead of every movement — is something every noble person eventually realizes. If we want to talk nerd terms, that is the difference between a Hufflepuff and a Slytherin; neither are inferior in ability but while a Slytherin will always strive for personal glory (and therefore they are more often recognized for their achievements), a Hufflepuff knows that it’s not all about being the single best, and they will step aside, sacrificing their glory without hesitation.
This isn’t to say that I’ve lost interest in leadership roles; I’m still gunning for many. I think that will always be a part of who I am. I will always feel the need to be involved and be influential. But for all the groups I’ve led and clubs I’ve joined, I’m no less proud of the ones where I was the weak link instead of the leader. I think being able to feel that way, albeit gradually, is a big step in maturity.