Opinions, Column

The Fruits of My Labor and the Myth of Constant Improvement

This past week, my capstone professor, Fr. Weiss, asked our class to read through our college application essays and write a short reflection on how we feel we’ve changed or not changed since writing them. At face value, the assignment was relatively simple: read your essays and write a response.

In practice, however, the task was much more difficult. Not only was it surprisingly hard to find where I saved my college essays (here I must give credit to my mom, the ultimate historian/accountant), but it was also quite uncomfortable to hear the voice of my 17-year-old self, for all her strengths and flaws.

In one sense, she was able to identify and articulate themes in our life that have continued to direct our college and professional career. Before I even knew what a LinkedIn profile was, I knew that I wanted to help create and be part of a passionate and collaborative community. It was inspiring to be reminded of how sure I was that Boston College was the school for me and to look back on how I have grown as a result. If I hadn’t had my own back four years ago, I wouldn’t have had the wonderful opportunity to become a part of the BC community or to give back to it.

On the other hand, returning to a version of myself that no longer exists was a bit awkward. We often think we remember how we felt when we first applied to college, graduated high school, or experienced any small or large event in our lives. In reality, we only remember a minute-long version of our own history, often misconstrued in memory. It’s one thing to remember how you felt when you wrote your college essay, but it’s quite another to read the first-hand account of that person and reckon with how you’ve changed.

There’s even evidence for why reflecting on a past self and predicting our future is such a difficult exercise. While it’s relatively easy to recall our past feelings and recognize the differences between then and now, it’s a much larger struggle to project our own futures. We tend to think that we’ll feel the same feelings, like the same things, and be the same person, despite all the evidence suggesting otherwise. 

Ironically, while we have a hard time envisioning future change, we also assume that as time passes, we will continuously improve as human beings. Of course we’ll still have flaws, but those flaws are okay as long as they’re new ones. There’s this myth that a continued effort toward self-improvement requires constant reflection on our past selves and frequent change. This overemphasis on maintaining a constant state of metamorphosis not only fails our past selves but also our current and future selves. 

The first danger of this mindset is that it leads you to believe the current new and improved version of yourself has effectively phased out all of your past defects. This can deceive you into thinking you’ll never struggle with the same problem more than once, which is rarely true. Few things in life are linear, and you are better served by identifying the motifs in your life (even the unpleasant ones) than denying their significance for the illusion of change. 

The second danger of this mindset is that if you constantly compare your current self to your past self, you’ll always see the past version as “less than.” Think about the last time you reminisced about your high school or middle school self. You probably laughed off all the problems that seemed so monumental then and appear to be so trivial now. But this prevents you from truly enjoying the fruits of your labor of intentional growth in your life. It also belittles your past feelings—even if they’re feelings you no longer possess. 

Of course, it’s a good thing to no longer be preoccupied with the woes of a middle-schooler as an adult, but the more empathy we grant our past selves, the easier it is to empathize with people who are at different stages in their lives. In short, the more grace we give all versions of ourselves, the more grace we can give to others. 

If you have the time and the means, I’d encourage you to revisit your college application essays or any relics of your past self. Take the time to truly observe and appreciate the person who created that work and the way things have changed for you. Maybe even try to think about how you’ll continue to develop and grow. And after all that hard work, give yourself credit for what you have been able to accomplish and your unlimited potential for the future.

February 5, 2024

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