I am a failure. I have dropped out of an Ivy League school, been a shitty friend and worse academic, and started over. It was the best thing I ever did.
Admitting defeat isn't something most of us at Dartmouth are used to. I was a pretty fucking successful child. Sometimes I think age seven was my golden year. I learned to read at age 4, started piano and flute at age 5, studied in advanced math classes throughout elementary school, took the SATs at 13, went to really, really socially awkward summer camps with the other 99th percentilers.
Of course, I was still bad at things, but that could mostly be covered up. I talked my way into that A in AP Physics, played golf instead of a real sport, engaged in an excessive power play of complete silence against my stepmother for two years—essentially, I'm a paragon of success.
High school culminated in an early decision acceptance to Columbia, after which I immediately stopped attending school, though of course my grades and reputation were buoyed by that shining stamp of Ivy League approval on eighteen years of success. Then I went to New York.
By most accounts, I kept winning.
I got good grades. I had cool friends and the Facebook presence to prove it. I took some great humblebrag Instagrams. I accumulated glamorous stories for my mother to share with her book group—galas with the Princess of Sweden, gallery openings with Jake Gyllenhaal, brunches at The Standard, box seats at the Met, evening gowns from Barneys. I had a store of ostensibly less glamorous misadventures to tell my friends: getting my neck licked in a Soho alleyway, wandering Brooklyn at 4 am, sprinting down a subway train in Harlem to escape a syringe-wielding maniac. My friends, at their liberal arts schools in picturesque-but-sleepy New England towns, looked forward to the tales I'd regale them with after my weekends.
And yet, I failed. I wasn't happy. It seemed impossible. I had achieved the rich white girl dream: to see and be seen in the city that never sleeps, to own more possessions than I could possibly keep track of, to be envied by people I respected.
Evidently, it kind of mattered that I had no purpose in life. I didn't give a fuck about my classes, and most of the people I knew seemed like placeholders. College—the stage of life I'd looked forward to since my childhood diagnosis as "gifted"—was the least intellectually engaging place I'd ever been.
That summer, I went home and interned at a law firm. And, I swear to the god I don't believe in, I saw my life flash before my eyes. I just knew that I would wake up at fifty, working eighty hours a week so that I could make money and spend it on an ever-growing collection of possessions. I would have tasteful dinner parties and donate non-anonymously to charities and send my children—raised by a slew of nannies—to good schools. But I wouldn't know who the fuck I was, or what I cared about.
I told my parents I was dropping out of Columbia. They said no. I called the school, dropped out, and told them again. You can imagine their delight.
I met with my stepbrother's wife, a stunning Australian medical student who had taken time off from university to travel thorough India, finding her passion for medicine in a shaman's clinic on the eastern mountains. She sent me a list of NGOs, and I picked the one least related to anything I had ever thought about in my life: teaching English to novice monks in rural Thailand (incidentally, great Instagram potential). I booked a flight to Chiang Mai for two weeks later.
My mother's book club probably thought I was a meth addict. My dad's friend that had hired me at his firm probably thought I was pregnant. But—and since my life is a succession of cliches (poor little rich girl "finds herself" through an ancient eastern religion in a developing country with simpler values?!)—fuck the haters. I went. And I didn't fail.
I lived in the mountains at an elephant sanctuary, took meditation lessons and learned to not infect my mosquito bites from an 81-year-old monk, rode through jungles and up mountains on strangers' motorbikes, and ate more than was perhaps advisable given the necessity for skimpy clothing in the suffocating heat.
I gained the perspective I'd so thoroughly lacked at Columbia. I rediscovered my love of books, and burned through nearly one a day. But it was the people I met who most galvanized my spirit. The sister of the abbott at my monastery took me in to her home at the elephant sanctuary without knowing a word of English; the Australian guy from a prominent family looked at me in perplexity when I asked if his parents were mad that he didn't go to college ("why should they care, so long as I do what makes me happy?”). I met quite a selection of randos. I highly recommend it—the life stories of strangers in strange places are rarely boring.
I began to envision a life free from the confines of what my parents thought was important and what my friends thought was cool. Maybe I could spend my life waitressing, reading, rock climbing, dancing (badly), hiking, and falling in love (if possible)! Who decided that CEO of Goldman Sachs and Ferrari-owner was the definition of success? Who decided that Jake Gyllenhaal has good taste in art?
I took long walks along the city's 1200-year-old moat at night, by myself, breathing in my freedom from those oppressive societal constructs of being young and exceedingly fortunate. I could be anything I wanted—so what did I want to be?
In the end, I realized that I'm not a fucking island. I could pretend I went to Thailand, found out who I truly am, and escaped other people's expectations, but I didn't. Now I have a fucking blotchy dragon tattoo on my sideboob (sorry to my parents who, in reading this, are discovering this for the first time), which I thought I got because I didn't want to be who my parents wanted me to be, but in retrospect definitely got to seem like the person the Australian boy with me wanted me to be.
So, whatever. It was still a great experience and truly buffered my social media presence for years to come. I did transfer to a *different* Ivy League school, and have now decided that maybe I'm more interested in finance than in law. (And I'd love a Ferrari.) Did anything change?
I hope so.
At the very least, I realized that it was passion that I craved. I realized that I failed at Columbia not because -- to use the anthem of the Beats -- I needed to drop out, but because I needed to tune in. I came to Dartmouth, a school, with all its allegedly "unusual" collegiate levels of binge drinking and exclusivity, that is actually absurdly womblike, both academically and socially. It took stepping away to realize that everything we do, however small, however privileged, does matter. Most of what we have depends on the very relationships I resented when I was trying to figure out who I "really" am. Maybe there's a worthy reason we all cave somewhat to our parents' expectations, and maybe our friends' opinions are important to us because that's why we chose them as friends.
Apathy was my problem all along. At some point, it became cool not to care about anything, and I bought into it. I thought I needed to see the world to figure out my place in it, but I really just needed to change my mindset...and I am aware of how cliched this next part will sound. However, it was allowing myself the platitudes that made me happy: letting the splendor of sunset atop Thailand's tallest mountain take my breath away, giving in to the visceral thrill of meeting someone new and interesting, allowing myself the agony of parting with a person I would likely never see again. Even the simple joy of banana pancakes in the morning -- for me, it took eight thousand miles to learn to live life with the vehemence that will make it matter