The dangers of relative success: Fostering unconditional support for our peers

Julia Chiang

There is a critical misunderstanding of success that exists in the common imagination, one that is especially prevalent and perpetrated in places like the College.

For many, success is a concept inherently linked with competition. A student might brag, “I was successful at my cross country meet yesterday.” However, more often than not, what they really mean is, “I was more successful than the majority of others at my cross country meet yesterday.” This language also applies when someone makes a remark about their friend, “She is so good at math!” In reality, they mean, “She is better at math than most people!”  It is impossible to be successful without being more successful than someone else, because relative success is the onlytrue measurement worth having.

Of course, it is slightly ridiculous to think that these two ideas – success and competitive achievement – are mutually exclusive. Sometimes success is and should be measured from a relative standpoint, but in this day and age, it seems that it has become the only perspective that society values – at great cost to us all.

Especially at an institution like the College, where many individuals have spent most of their lives in a rat race to be “more successful than” or “better than” their peers, the line between being good and being the best has all but disappeared. For those single-minded people whose only goals in life are to become unilaterally “better” than as many other people as possible, this is no issue; however, I would like to imagine that the rest of us are not so easily satisfied with being pigeonholed into a definition of success that is only defined in terms of others.

Instead, I propose that success does not have to, and indeed should not, be used as a metric for comparison. I would like to see more people being recognized for being good on an absolute scale, without having to consider the status of others. It seems nonsensical that there should be significantly more merit in being the best than merely very good, since from almost every standpoint the difference is negligible.

The notion that success is a zero-sum game – that one’s success is another’s failure – is an unproductive, stressful and ultimately unnecessary perspective to maintain. While striving for self-improvement is always admirable, the goal should not be to advance one’s standing in whatever invisible hierarchy exists. This especially means that one’s achievements should not come at the cost of others.

I came across a striking example recently which epitomized this ongoing conflict to me. On Sept. 25 of this year, a man named Hank Green released his first novel, titled An Absolutely Remarkable Thing. He is known as being, among other things, the founder of VidCon and the co-founder of Crash Course, but to most, he is notable because he is John Green’s brother. John Green is a wildly popular author of young adult novels, including Looking for Alaskaand The Fault in Our Stars, and is one of the preeminent novelists in America. During this momentous week for the Green brothers as they begin their book tour promoting Hank’s new release together, the elephant in the room is how to reconcile one brother being a debut author with the other being one of the most successful novelists in recent memory. However, in a video reflecting on this dichotomy, John commented, “I honestly feel that every time something good happens to you, it’s a good thing happening to me.” Though this response may seem obvious, I think that it’s actually one that many have trouble grappling with, including myself. The idea of unconditional support at the detriment of so-called rankings and status is deeply uncomfortable to very many people.

I believe in the radical idea that to be ‘good,’ someone else does not need to be ‘bad.’ It’s difficult to leave behind the underlying current of pressure and competition, especially at the College, but if we all paused to deeply consider the effects of competition on our goals and hopes, I believe that we could make this community and the world much more conscientious, self-aware and productive. Which is a goal that, if we all achieved equally, would be An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.


Julia Chiang ’22 is from Lexington, Mass. Her major is undecided.