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📝: Stacy Vazquez 📅: August 29, 2023 🔗: /a-is-for-average
🏷️: Thoughts College
A is for Average: College and the Myth of Normal
Disclaimer: Unrelated to the Book "The Myth of Normal"
This blog post, in part, shares a name with the book "The Myth of Normal," but it is essential to note that the content and ideas presented herein are entirely unrelated to the book.

Is calling someone 'smart' a compliment or a curse?

I grew up as a high-achieving student, and I've asked myself the same question numerous times growing up. Even just scrolling through TikTok, I've come across many comment sections where people bond over being 'formerly gifted'. And, as a typical self-conscious teenager, I've wondered when the day where I will be able to consider myself 'formerly smart' would come.

Now, when this fear mixes with the impostor syndrome that comes with attending a top college, mental poison is formed, and the search for an antidote begins.

In fact, in this blog post, I have already shared an example of a dangerous mindset that I'm sure many didn't notice: typical self-conscious teenager. Now, I'm sure there is extensive literature that discusses the effects of labeling teenagers and young adults as self-conscious. After all, 'self-conscious' is a negative adjective and that is sufficiently evident. However, I think the word 'typical' is more dangerous. It goes unnoticed as negative and, thus, kills in silence.

I'm flying back to college tomorrow to start a new semester of college, yet I haven't gotten myself to finish my 'Freshman Year in Review' blog post, and I undeniably feel guilty writing a different post before finishing it. However, after a bit of introspection, it's become increasingly clear that I'm dreading finishing the post because there is just too much to unpack from my freshman year of college. The year felt like a sine wave or a roller coaster, and I am not exactly ecstatic to take myself back to that unstable mindset. Additionally, I'm not sure how the post will be received, or if I want people to see the side of me that isn't breezing through school. In short, me struggling is not something my audience would perceive as 'expected' or 'normal'.

So, in this post, I will try to unpack one of my biggest obstacles freshman year: impostor syndrome and blending in. While I'm sure I will only scrape at the surface of this complex mental challenge, I hope this post will resonate with other victims of the word 'typical'.

So, why is the word 'normal' even dangerous? Let me walk you through a mindset and thought process I've had my whole life.

How can I thrive? Well, for starters, I want to be socially accepted but also successful. And, the truth is, successful people can't be average people. But, I also don't want to be lonely. So, let's see. I need to fit in but not blend in. I shouldn't want to be like the other kids, but I also can't be too eccentric. I need to be a normal person, but also not basic. And, above all, I need to stand out but not feel like an impostor.

Now, this might sound a lot like the Barbie movie monologue. Surprisingly, I realized that after reading it; it was not intentional. It just showcases a similar thought pattern that many women and young individuals struggle with: the fear of the extremes. No one wants to be too much of one thing. Everyone needs to be 'just right'. But isn't just right, just basic?

The spiral never stops. So, here's the deal: what does normal even mean?

Now, I'm sure many will begin to list qualities that a 'normal person' has. But, I want to break down the word 'normal' itself.

Normal, typical, average, the middle 60% of the normal bell curve. These are all basically synonyms. Awe yes, basic, the word that makes 'normal' an insult. So, bringing up the normal curve has actually given me an idea,—since talking about feelings and words is becoming a little too subjective from my STEMy self, why don't we take a statistical approach at defining 'normal'?

Okay, well, the average in Statistics can be either the mean or median or another statistic that measures, well, 'average'. But, in order to find these statistics, we need to have data. And, to have data, we need to have a sample.

Good news and bad news. Unfortunately, we have found our first issue: we need to consider other people. Fortunately, we have found our first piece of evidence that normal is an illusion.

Many kids grow up in one place and never get to experience living elsewhere. I was one of those kids: the only times I've switched schools are when I got promoted from sixth grade to middle school and when I got promoted from high school to college. I also grew up in a town that was pretty far from other communities. So, for eighteen years, I was in a little bubble.

Thus, my sample was pretty consistent, until it wasn't.

For eighteen years, my sample considered me smart since I picked up difficult concepts faster than a lot of my peers. So, I was encouraged to find an institution of higher education that could 'exploit' (for lack of a better word) and unleash my potential.

So, I took myself to Cambridge, MA, fully ready to change the world. However, I don't think my seventeen-year-old, inspired brain was comprehending what a drastic change I was going to experience.

For starters, my sample changed… significantly.

I was introduced to a community full of kids that had perfect grades and a long track record of AP courses from high school. So, that wasn't enough to make me stand out. It was now time to find identity outside of my grades.

Straight As were now average. Lovely.

So, here is my second issue: I was too busy trying to be one of the top 1% in high school that I never discovered what my identity outside of school was. Now, I was in this weird position where I was very excited to be surrounded by people who were as passionate about tech as I was and particularly excited for people to not treat me differently because I was good at academics. And, this felt good for a little. But then, I needed to start standing out and being special out of fear of being basic (and, also, fear of being unemployed SOV).

So, when classes started, and it wasn't a breeze like high school, it felt like a 'be careful what you wish for' moment; I felt like I was standing out, as an impostor. Great. So, now, I'm no longer basic :smile:. Now, I'm just bad :sad:.

At best, I was relatively average. At MIT.

So, when I came back home for Christmas break, I was very excited because I was going to see NORMAL people and do NORMAL things. Basically, I was trying to switch my sample back to what it used to be since this sample made me feel better about myself.

Life is a huge comparison trap and the concept of 'normal' is one of the biggest perpetrators.

In high school, when top students did poorly on exams, it made others feel better about their low scores because they were relatively decent. Now, I've glossed over this idea in my blog post “I am a Mansplainer”: as humans, we desire to categorize, label, and predict. Thus, we are pushed to create standards for comparison: normals.

And, it's so unhealthy to base our self-worth on 'where we stand' among a group of people. It makes us prone to mental and emotional instability when we switch environments.

Further, we don't just experience the dangers of normal in academic environments; trends and regional political beliefs also prove that the concept of 'normal' has such a chokehold on society. They prove that 'normal' doesn't exist. Trends are always changing and what is normal in one era is cringe-worthy in another. What is smart in one school, is average in another. When I vented and expressed my fears and thoughts to my high school best friend (and potentially one of the wisest young people I know), she gave me a piece of advice that was able to heal and undo a school year's worth of stress and anxiety. She said, “don't forget that your intelligence is self-contained and you are just as smart at MIT as you were in high school”. In short, I wasn't any more or less smart depending on who was around me. And I shouldn't let my 'sample' affect my identity and self-love.

There is simply no universal normal. And, if we spend so much time worrying about not being completely normal, then no one will be 'normal'. And, that kind of defeats the whole purpose of the word.

Now, I'm sure this blog post won't magically cure people's impostor syndrome. Like I said, it is poison, and no one really knows the antidote. Probably because how we overcome impostor syndrome and insecurity is something so (ironically) relative and personal to each person.

But, my hopes are that this blog post is a step forward in normalizing (:skull:) conversations surrounding impostor syndrome and overcoming patterns of academic self-worth. Additionally, I want to break the concept of 'normal' that I have created for myself. And, I certainly don't want to feel guilty for ruining the illusion of 'Stacy the perfect student' others may have. College is a huge learning experience and 'normal' doesn't exist.

So, is calling someone smart a compliment or a curse?

Well it's both. In fact, not many things are mutually exclusive. You can be brave and still experience fear. You can be happy and still have bad days. You can be intelligent and still struggle.

Frankly, I don't have an answer for that question yet. But, I will continue to search for it. After all, I'm only 25% done with college. I'm certain there is so much left for me to learn and so many conversations and thoughts for me to share in this space. So, I hope you follow along and witness my growth and the dozens of more informal blog posts I have to share (who said I stopped being a kid :smile:).

So, tl;dr, A is not for average, A is for whatever an A means to you. Because in the end, it's your grade and that's all that matters!
Post Info
📝: Stacy Vazquez
📅: August 29, 2023
🔗: /a-is-for-average
🏷️: Thoughts College
Thanks for reading!