Feature image from inspirerr.com
I don’t remember when exactly I met Nick. I just knew that ever since I could remember, Nick was around, Nick was a year older, and Nick was always better than me.
Our parents knew each other, and we were part of the same family friend group. Within the children of this group, Nick and I were the “smart” ones. Not that everyone else wasn’t smart — they were — but Hannah was a “dancer,” Max was a “chess master,” and Peter was a “comedian,” so on and so forth.
And it’s not that Nick and I weren’t creatively inclined either; we were just the ones who also made the grades and got the test scores. Looking back, we were really similar in a lot of ways.
The Start of the Arms Race
From a young age, it was like our respective parents were in a competition to create the most well-rounded child. I don’t know if they were ever actively competing, but it sure felt like my early life was an attempt on my parents’ part to make me good at everything.
At four I was propelled into piano lessons; somewhere between five and six I began dance lessons. Art lessons started happening in third grade — I learned watercolors, oils, Chinese painting, charcoal — my hands grew calluses from long hours of pencils and brushes. Chinese calligraphy came next (I’m not bad), followed by violin and then percussion (I got more calluses from my mallets). At some point in the mix I took lessons in Go, not chess, because my father thought chess was way too simplistic.
For every skill I acquired, Nick had one to match. He too started things on the piano, and then he took up the flute. Instead of dance, he took karate and got his black belt. He always took to arbitrary rules (ugh) better than I did, and so he took up chess. Unfortunately for me he also took Go lessons, and I’ve lost many a match at his hands. He was very athletic, way more than I was; he played tennis and ran track and was good at both of those things.
You can probably see where this was going. Two children, both alike in dignity, both hanging around the same social circles. This was so contrived that it was almost fiction.
We could only be rivals.
A One-Sided Matchup
Neither of us were ever bad at anything — we were at least decent at everything we tried — but Nick was somehow always better. He moved through piano books faster than me. He was a performer and I wasn’t; he’d adore giving impromptu flute recitals because he could. He was stronger, faster, more flexible.
I remember him lending me a skateboard to try out once. He enjoyed watching me fall.
That pretty much sums up all of my childhood experiences with Nick. I was always the one lagging behind, chasing his footsteps, living in his shadow. And the worst part? He knew this and made fun of it.
When I’d take home a silver medal at some violin competition, he’d scoff and then brag about his gold for flute. We compared grades in subjects and even state standardized test scores; when I scored perfectly in math, he told me he already did that two years ago. I tried to impress him with anything from trivia to metaphysics and he already knew everything each time.
Asking him for help with homework was good because he’d explain it to me like I didn’t know anything. It was also bad because he’d explain it to me like I didn’t know anything.
But I’d always had a competitive streak, so his dismissal only empowered me more. I wanted to show him that I could catch up to him and do the things he did. I wanted him to see that I was just as good as he was. I wanted to someday stand on the same level as him and make him acknowledge that I was his equal. I was tired of being second best.
And so we fought, for most of our childhood and teens.
Setting the Bar for College
I had watched Nick’s college application process as a third person, with mild interest but not a lot of attention. He might have struggled, but it’s not like he’d ever tell me if he did. He might have stressed and felt insecure — I don’t know. He said very little and I wasn’t one to pry.
I knew that his sister had turned down Yale for pre-med at UCLA, and that Nick probably also had reason to aim high. What I knew of his resume was impressive and his academic performance was almost perfect. And somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that just like every other time I’ve tried to go up against him, he was probably going to get into somewhere that I couldn’t even hope to get waitlisted for.
However, I hadn’t given up yet and I wasn’t going to give up now.
So when my Facebook timeline showed that he had committed to the engineering school at UCLA for computer science, I knew that I had to apply there too. Of course, there were other reasons I wanted to apply — it was two hours from where I lived, Westwood is beautiful, James Franco teaches there — but what really sealed the deal was this pointless feud.
And there it is. It was done: I was going to apply to the Henry Samueli School of Engineering as a computer science major because I needed to prove my self-worth to a childhood friend.
(That sentence was just as stupid to write as it was stupid to read. Don’t ever pick schools just to impress other people, please.)
In hindsight this was a dumb decision in many ways — sure, I might not have known what I wanted to do right off the bat. Engineering wasn’t off the table, but I definitely was not sure if I wanted to be an engineer. I hated math; none of my ECs were in STEM. In fact, what I am now is still not an engineer; I identify more as a software designer than a software engineer.
But because of this stupid rivalry, I had applied to all the UCs as a computer science major.
The process and my struggles are another story for another time. What matters is that in March, I received an email from UCLA admissions saying that their admissions decisions were now viewable online and that I should log into my applicant portal if I wanted to check.
I sat there, in front of the login screen, for about five minutes — the five longest in my life, possibly. This was it. Once and for all. Would I finally be able to do something that Nick could do? Part of me was dying to know; part of me never wanted to find out.
The former won out, obviously — and I clicked.
The page said “congratulations” in neat blue block letters. UCLA thinks I’m good enough to be a CS major, just like they thought Nick was. At least, in this respect, we were finally equals.
An Empty Victory
For some reason, the acceptance letter didn’t affect me as much as I thought it would. I had expected to feel…something. Happiness? Surprise? Excitement? Hysteria? Contempt? But nothing came. I felt nothing positive or negative; the apathy in that moment was overwhelming.
Facebook was open in a tab behind the acceptance decision. It would’ve been easy to message Nick and tell him that I got in, just like he did, and that he couldn’t gloat this time. Two clicks, a short message, and the Enter key. But even that seemed too much; I didn’t want to.
In fact, I don’t think I told anyone that I got into UCLA. What made me more excited was the decision from the school I’m going to now, the one I picked because I thought it was a reasonable long shot and perfect for someone like me. And that one I brandished around like a trophy.
At the time, I couldn’t figure out why I felt nothing for one and something for the other, but looking back it’s really easy: UCLA was never really my choice. It was just something I tried so that I could say that I did it, like fruitcake or fig pudding.
As much as I love Southern California, I don’t want to be someone who’s never seen the outside world. I’m too young to stay within the Angeles Mountains. I haven’t seen what real snow is like yet; I want to swim in the Atlantic, ski on the Alps, push the limits of my comfort zone.
UCLA happens to fall a little too squarely into the middle of that comfort zone.
Truthfully, I only applied to UCLA because of my competitive streak. It wasn’t because of me; it was for Nick. It was to prove to him that I was on equal footing.
But looking back, that was such a petty reason to do things, and really not worth it: Nick and I stopped talking after I left for Ithaca my freshman year. I occasionally see his posts on my Facebook feed, but I honestly couldn’t care less what he thought of my skills or where he’s going to school.
I still acknowledge that he’s good at a lot of things, but I don’t see him as the absolute number one any more. I also don’t see myself as an absolute number two either, because honestly — the world is far too wide to establish absolute rankings for people.
(Plus, it’s tiring to always be looking at other people’s paths when your own is already windy enough.)
I’m still competitive. That hasn’t changed — I’ll turn anything into a game. I yell at the TV when I’m watching basketball. Once, I dragged my friend on a Disneyland ride with a shooting gallery three times just so I could get the top score.
But now that I’m older and wiser (or maybe not), I don’t think competition should be the main reason to chase after something. As I’ve learned from this whole debacle, it’s really not fun to win something just so you can say that you’ve won because it’s ultimately not a win for yourself. Granted, this might be hard to remember when you’re in the middle of your competition and you get tunnel vision and suddenly all you can see is that thing you want — I sure didn’t realize this when I was applying senior year.
It’s easy to cave into the pressure of competition and trying to outrun the pack (or in my case, dethrone the alpha). It’s something I’m still fighting from time to time — should I apply to Silicon Valley because all the other “good” CS people are doing it? Should I be worried if I’m not getting interviews yet but everyone else is? Should my resume be as long as everyone else’s?
And that’s when I now know to take a deep breath, look in the mirror, and ask myself: do I really need this for me?
Names changed to protect privacy.
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