Under Pressure: The ‘Leaders and the Best’



A good friend from Texas asked me recently, “What’s it like to live in Ann Arbor?”

Though much could be said, I started with the seasons. “Every single season is beautiful here,” I said. Even if winter feels too long, at times — my Texan friend was flummoxed that snow could stick to the ground continually for months! — it is beautiful. This town is gorgeous all year round.

But it didn’t take long for my friend to ask questions about the high-pressured culture of the University of Michigan as well. I had quite a bit to say about this too.

Ann Arbor is a high power, achievement town, and the University of Michigan drives a great deal of that culture. I admire the brilliance and inquisitiveness of the many people who live here for an academic season of their lives as they pursue degrees at all levels. Along with the faculty, students at the University of Michigan make contributions to research and innovation in more subject areas than I can easily count. It is truly impressive.

Yet along with these high levels of achievement, come high pressures to succeed and succeed continually. People internalize quite quickly that they must be the leaders and the best — that’s literally the university’s motto — and these pressures can be felt in very tangible ways, even if they aren’t always easily named. It feels as though there is an unnamed cost as well. Competition kicks in, and people ask internally, “What happens if I’m not the best? What if I fail?

Achievement is high here, but so is anxiety.

Leaders and the best certainly sounds like a motto of privilege. In many ways, it is, and I could write an entire post about that. But today, I ponder the human cost of this internalization. It’s twofold:

  • It can be dismissive of people who don’t have the opportunity to attend an elite, expensive university with its many academic and economic options. Many people rightly hear this motto as one of pride.
  • It can distort human lives from feeling whole, as if achievement is all that matters and makes a person worthwhile. After living in this town for three years, I don’t primarily experience this motto as one of pride. In its internalization, I see and hear people asking all the time, “What if I can’t measure up? What if I’ll never be enough?” These are questions of shame.

These sweeping distortions of self-image are part of the human experience, not only in Ann Arbor, but everywhere.

Whether we view ourselves through the lens of pride (“I’m better than others”) or through the lens of shame (“I’ll never be enough”) we live apart from the truth that we have sacred, intrinsic worth. We forget that we have intrinsic value apart from anything we do or achieve. Our worth and value cannot be lost even when we fail.

Here is the truth: We are beloved, finite, imperfect human beings with sacred worth – no more than that, no less than that. And we need to remind each other of that truth, both because we need it and because we need each other. We harm ourselves and others if we climb over one another, scrambling up a ladder of competition to prove our own worth and value. We need to be rooted in community and in the sacred message that we are loved, simply and fully as the ones we are.

Who needs to hear this from us?
How do we need to tell ourselves?

However we might answer those questions, let’s commit to speak some truth this week.

Renee Roederer

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