Moving the Limit

Why do Ivy League students self-sabotage?

There's a strange subpopulation of Ivy League undergraduate students. They're accomplished, driven, and capable. Yet they're deathly averse to genuine effort. In fact, they actively sabotage their own goals.

In college, as the years passed and the stakes rose higher (from intro classes to job hunting) I noticed some of my friends spent increasing time consuming reality TV, experimenting with drugs, or partying. They drowned themselves in pleasure and mindlessness rather than send an application or crack open a textbook. Although they talked about how badly they wanted to achieve, it seemed that their real goal was to guarantee failure.

"Maybe they got sloppy, maybe they lacked drive, or maybe they couldn't discipline themselves." Maybe. But in my late-night talks with them, I found that it ran deeper than apathy, laziness, or an inability to self-manage. After a lifetime of habitual success, my friends weren't suddenly struggling with the familiar road to achievement; instead, they were actively sprinting in the opposite direction.

Why? Why were these overachievers suddenly sabotaging their own goals?

I think the problem was a mix of identity and self-worth mechanisms.

The Solitude and Leadership speech describes many Ivy League students: we're sheep, selected for our ability to jump through contrived academic hoops. My self-sabotaging friends fit neatly into this category. They'd all experienced a lifetime of never-ending institutional approval, gold stars, and top-of-class performance.

What resulted was a brittle existence: failure of any magnitude feels like an existential threat to people whose identity and sense of worth are based on being outstanding.

My friends were told about their immense potential throughout their entire lives. Dump trucks of praise were showered onto them. But at an Ivy League, and in the face of tackling real-world problems rather than contrived academic examples, they were smart enough to realize the impossibility of flawlessly living up to their own hype. Unfortunately, that hype was all they had, was all they'd been chasing for two decades, was the bedrock of their self-worth and identity. To protect it, they went to nonsensical lengths:

My friends clung, with bloody fingernails, to their bubbles of potential and hype. They were terrified of anything less than immediate, outstanding success. But doing so ironically guaranteed eventual failure, because they couldn't risk putting forth genuine effort. Even dipping a toe into the valley of disappointment would morally crush them, and they knew it.

But areas like drugs, partying, or binging TV were different. Similar to a dot-com bubble startup which only celebrates and never builds a real product, there's nothing tangible to be disappointed by. There's only hype, only potential, only promises of castles in the sky. Thus, eventually, some of my friends only ever did unproductive things. It was how they felt safe — it was how they could maintain the fragile illusion of never-ending perfection and success.

I didn't write this to belittle my friends. I just chose extreme examples to illustrate something which I struggle with as well.

For those who might also be wrestling with something like this, I've found that Richard_Ngo's replacing fear sequence and Nate Soares' replacing guilt series have been, even within a few days of reading, tremendously valuable for me.

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