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Reimagining Education: Why Self-Awareness Puts Substance over Style

Being aware of what ultimately matters may help students be more willing to put aside ephemeral flash and fame, and be more attentive to what brings them joy and the courage to impact with authenticity.

©2020 Belinda Chiu
©2020 Belinda Chiu

As college acceptances are about to be released throughout the world, many young people are feeling the anticipation and anxiety rise. It is easy to jump to the conclusion that our self-worth is connected to how fat that envelope is (or how short that digital decision letter is). Yet remembering what it is that is ultimately important to us may help us to remember it’s not the number of Instagram feeds of how many universities one got into – or not, but about something much deeper.

A couple years ago, a university senior asked to meet with him two days before his graduation. We had met eight years earlier when our university admitted him as a high school senior. Remembering (a bit of) his application, I said, “you’re the amazing skater!” to which he responded humbly, “oh, I’m okay.” He didn’t take that moment to boast or even mention how good of a skater he was.

I remembered him. Eight years earlier, he had received an offer of admissions. Which he declined. Everyone around him thought he was making the biggest mistake of his life (wasn’t the goal to get into college?) Instead, he listened to what truly mattered to him, and made the difficult decision to give up his chance at attending our particular institution. Instead, he pursued his love of skating, which led him to a stint on the U.S. national team, a feat he demurs as “a great learning experience.” Four years later, he listened once again to what was important to him – this time, pursuing his academic curiosities. While he knew the chances were slim that he would get in again, he took the chance and reapplied. He was admitted. Again.

Sitting in my office years later, I learned more about how he spent his time at the university.   Not surprisingly, he had a positive impact on various areas throughout the institution. What stuck out for me was the fact that our innovation lab bestowed on him the title, “Ultimate Unicorn,” a title reserved for the one in the senior class who combines intelligence with humanity. One who doesn’t sit on his laurels or accolades, but uses his gifts to better society and forge meaningful connections with others.

Am I sharing this story to prove that one has to be a national-level skater to “get in?” Quite the contrary. The frenzied push for a college acceptance letter seems to require contorting oneself Cirque du Soleil-style to fill in an impressive list of Extracurricular Activities. Given heightened anxiety in the admissions process, many students feel that they must fill their lists with titles to show prestige, a club they founded to demonstrate initiative, and service projects to indicate empathy. Susan Cain wrote in the New York Times that padding resumes with a narrow definition of leadership ignores the “soloists who forget their own paths” and the change agents with the courage to follow. It strips young people from their true calling where they can make genuine contributions. It results in college graduates embellishing resumes with astounding feats accomplished in short order, but whose actual skillsets haven’t quite caught up to real-life performance. In a world of Instagram and Snapchat, style has taken over substance.

Competitive universities state that they are looking for students with “leadership and impact,” and this often gets misunderstood to be an “obsession of narrowly-defined “leadership [in which] learning for learning’s sake is not enough,” as noted by The Atlantic. This misunderstanding can translate into “I-must-be-president-of-MUN-and-start-at-least-one-club-even-if-I’m-the-only-member,” or “I must craft the perfect combination of 24% community service, 18% athletics, 21% artistic endeavor, and 14% political engagement” (for those of you who are math-inclined, please feel free to check if that even adds up to 100% – I’m not sure; I didn’t bother trying). However, every admissions officer that I have met seems to agree that leadership is more than a title; rather, it is the evidence of demonstrated and potential commitment, purpose, and impact in many forms.

The Ultimate Unicorn was a reminder that self-awareness and listening to one’s own values are critical parts of the journey to help us pay attention to our true calling, instill courage to not follow the crowd, and impact through genuine engagement.

Self-awareness can play a critical part to bring humility, purpose, and meaning to “leadership.” It can allow young people be more mindful of how their core values translate into the mobilization of other people and resources towards a common cause beyond oneself. It can help them to better understand how their actions impact others. So, where to start?

  • Be honest

It might seem that at least in the short term, stretching the truth is acceptable. However, the sheen of a shell website being passed off as a successful start-up wears off quickly, not only in the eyes of the admissions officer, but also of those around us. Acting with integrity speaks volumes more to the potential of impactful leadership.

  • Find joy

The reality is that universities do not want student bodies comprised of 2,500 Model U.N. presidents or require 100 hours of token volunteering. Rather than trying to guess what colleges “want” – an impossible and wasteful game – pay attention to natural strengths and to the things that make us smile. As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi said, when we are in “flow,” we experience deep joy, creativity, and total engagement. Whether poetry or soccer, these “optimal experiences” make us more impactful, attractive to others, and part of something greater.

  • Offer joy

Students often question whether they should do X or Y to “increase their chances,” or worry that caring for a grandparent is not seen as valid as an internship. There is no right answer to this because there is no right answer. Instead, by focusing on how to be of service to others through the things that also give us a sense of satisfaction and engagement, we naturally “increase our chances” because we are being more authentic.

Self-awareness helps to remind us who we are and what truly matters to us. How we carry ourselves and how we act are truer indications of leadership and impact than an empty title.

So why did the Ultimate Unicorn ask to meet with me? To get a job reference or boast to me all he’s accomplished? The Ultimate Unicorn met with me to simply say, thank you.

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