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There is something about calling myself a golfer that feels deceptive. When I’m at home, I play golf with my friends or family a few times a month. I’ve been learning the game since I was seven years old, but despite years of practice and effort, I’d still only consider myself average. Golf will likely never be more than a hobby to me, and so to say that I am a “golfer” feels misleading. I feel as though it comes with an expectation that I compete, I’m successful, or it has become my career — though most dictionaries simply define the word as someone who plays golf.
This dilemma is shared with other terms, like “artist.” If someone tells me that they are an artist, I begin to speculate that they study art in school, contribute their work to shows or competitions, or maybe even have their work displayed or sold. The answer to what such a term implies is complicated. “When can I call myself an artist,” entered into Google, yields hundreds of millions of varying opinions.
Is it enough to be just average (or maybe even terrible) at something for it to be a part of your identity?
Attending a prestigious university like Harvard, where an acceptance letter is an acknowledgement and celebration of the ways in which one is excellent, exacerbates this dilemma for students here. The procedural emphasis on excellence seems to drown out the importance of hobbies, extracurriculars, and interests that were not notable enough to make the “activities list” on the Common App.
A student’s identity here — as it relates to hobbies or activities — is largely made up of the things they succeed at. Examples of this are athletes who have typically gone through a recruiting process to join varsity teams, or participants in a number of clubs on campus who have completed a competitive “comp” process to join. These barriers to participation in extracurriculars contribute to existing rhetoric that the things worth our time, effort, and energy are those that we are already good at, or have found previous success in.
Despite elements of societal and Harvard-specific cultures that push individuals to identify with the things they have success in, there is immense value in challenging oneself to appreciate and continue to pursue the passions at which they are average, or even terrible.
We gain a certain freedom when we lower expectations of our performance. Performance anxiety can pervade our experience in athletics, education, and other types of competitive environments. Especially at Harvard, where students often crave success in school, a sport, or another extracurricular, this pressure from oneself to excel is common. When we have activities in our lives from which we do not expect perfection, we relieve pressure from ourselves so that we can truly enjoy these activities, instead of worrying about performance.
I practice this freedom by not always keeping score when I golf; removing the pressure of tracking performance allows me to enjoy the company of friends and family, and truly focus on the experience instead of how each bad shot might affect my score. Author and self-proclaimed “professional preacher of the gospel of suckitude” Karen Rinaldi argues a similar point in an opinion piece about her experience surfing: “By taking off the pressure of having to excel at or master an activity, we allow ourselves to live in the moment.”
Relieving ourselves of performance expectations might make participating in activities more enjoyable, but is it worth carving out time for these low-stress hobbies? An article from the New York Times claims that yes, engagement in hobbies for leisure has psychological and physical benefits, citing a study from 2009. Maintaining a hobby has further been said to improve an individual’s mental health and general wellbeing.
Besides a number of health benefits, allowing passions that we may not have attained excellence in to hold importance in and remain an active part of our identities — like golf in my own life — is a powerful stance against a culture that is fixated on excellence. It is unlikely that there will be a large-scale shift in Harvard’s culture: The University will likely continue to admit high-achieving and talented students, so it remains up to each of us to hold a mindset in which failure is okay. It is up to you to remember that you are more than your greatest talents and achievements: You are more than what you are good at.
McKenna E. McKrell ’26, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Pennypacker Hall.
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