Growing up, I spent seven weeks of each summer at Camp Mowglis, a summer camp in New Hampshire. Mowglis was a small camp of about eighty boys, most of whom returned each summer. It encouraged its campers to unplug and embrace the outdoors, and my time in New Hampshire was dictated by a regimented daily schedule. I even had to go to chapel on Sundays.
But I loved camp. I reveled in the opportunity to live with my best friends, wholeheartedly partook in traditions that had existed since the camp’s founding in 1903, and embraced the freedom that I received when living away from my family. At camp, a smile was never far from my face, and I wholeheartedly bought into Mowglis’ ideals and values.
Achievement at Mowglis was measured in ribbons. These were earned once a camper had mastered an activity, or as we called it, an industry. In order to do so, one had to complete all of the requirements for the respective industry, and this might take one, two, or even three summers of hard work. The physical ribbons themselves were nothing more than a small piece of colored ribbon, stapled in a loop, yet these mementos served as a reminder that it was the lengthy process rather than the end goal that held true importance. To earn a ribbon was certainly a challenge, yet these processes helped campers to understand hard work, growth, and self-improvement.
When I was looking at boarding schools during my sophomore year at Middlebury Union High School in Vermont, Groton’s high achieving and diverse student body, beautiful campus, and world-class academics seemed to be the perfect fit. I also loved its similarity to Mowglis: tight-knit communities, long standing traditions, defined values. As I walked around campus, my mind couldn’t help but return to that place in New Hampshire that I loved so dearly.
When I arrived at Groton as a new Fourth Former, novelty mixed with nostalgia as I slept in dorms, attended Chapel, and ate in a dining hall once again. But not all of Groton was composed of variations on my previous experiences. I had never been asked to perform academically in the manner in which I was now required, and while this was certainly challenging, it was also something that I embraced. I came to greatly enjoy the opportunity to study and learn from inspiring teachers and peers. Athletically, I appreciated the way I was pushed by my teammates and coaches, and a higher level of play allowed me to continue to improve and develop into the athlete that I desired to be. In this new and exciting environment, I was surrounded by excellence in a myriad of different areas, and I still appreciate how fellow Grotonians routinely blow me away with their work ethic and incredible talent.
While aspiration and dedication are traits that many Groton students have in abundance, the excellence they foster does not always result in happiness and satisfaction. A lifestyle aimed at perfection breeds stress and insecurity, and I found it easy to get caught up in a constant desire for flawless performance upon arriving on the Circle. When I would ask my friends if it was normal to feel unhappy and stressed at the school, I always got answers along the lines of, “That’s just Groton for you.”
My mother and father have always been quick to emphasize the benefits of carrying a growth mindset, or the idea that we have the power and ability to improve our own situation and see failures as opportunities for further learning. As a result, I have taken much interest in this perceived dearth of happiness that many Groton students seem to suffer from. But how can we improve ourselves in this manner? How can we work to reduce our own stress levels and ultimately live more fulfilling lives?
This idea of happiness is one that I’ve thought about a lot over my two and a half years here at Groton. Over this past winter break, I came across a podcast produced by a Yale professor by the name of Dr. Laurie Santos. She presented a peculiar paradox that linked medal winners at the Olympic games, and their resulting happiness. A team of researchers from Cornell and the University of Toledo noticed that the majority of silver medalists appeared significantly less happy when standing on the podium than those who had just won the gold or the bronze.
They decided to further investigate this phenomenon, gathering a team of undergraduate students to review footage of the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. They flicked through images of medal ceremonies from every sport, and asked their students to rank each competitor’s apparent happiness while standing on the podium on a scale of 1, agony, to 10, ecstasy.
Predictably, gold medalists appeared to be happiest. However, the investigation of silver and bronze medalists brought unexpected results. Silver medalists scored a 4.8, while bronze medalists scored a 7.1, a difference of more than two points in favor of those who had performed worse in the event. Now I was certainly puzzled by this when it was presented. Shouldn’t superior performance result in greater happiness? Was this study telling us to strive for third?
I’d argue that these scientists’ results reveal a lot about our own perception of success. I’d also argue that this study is very applicable to life here at Groton.Whether we are willing to admit it or not, success is frequently measured comparatively, especially among adolescents. At a place like Groton, everyone wants to be the best at the things that they do, whether that be the classes they take, or the sport or instrument they play. While competition is natural, and likely expected when a group of high-performing people lives in one community, it is not always beneficial for the happiness of those residing in such a community. Unfortunately, only one individual can be the best at each class, sport, or instrument, leaving those who hold a perfectionist mindset wanting and dissatisfied.
Here at Groton, the search for success can lead to the putting down of formmates after a test or essay is given back. Do we constantly need to be comparing ourselves against others? Does our own success need to come at the expense of others? Why are we frustrated if we received a 90 and the rest of the class scored a 95, but satisfied if we received a 90 while the rest of the class scored an 80? Both times, we’ve received a 90, but our own reactions change drastically.
But success does not have to be so one-dimensional and should not simply be an award for the student who has the highest grade in a class. Instead, we can personalize what accomplishment means to us individually, and we should strive to measure our own success through personal growth and self-improvement.
To explain further, let me tell you about my physics class from the previous year. I signed up for Mr. Hall’s advanced course because I wanted to challenge myself, and I appreciated the subject’s real-world application. By the end of week one, however, I realized something that I probably should’ve understood before entering the class: Physics was hard. I had bumbled through the first couple of nights’ homework assignments, unsure of how to approach the problems, unsuccessful in my methods, and was terribly unprepared for quiz one. But I’ve never been someone to back down from a challenge, and I shunned my chance to drop the class, setting out to tackle physics in the only way I knew. I’d work really, really hard.
I sat at my favorite table in the Schoolhouse for hours on end, doing countless practice problems. I went to Mr. Hall time and again, asking him to reexplain something that I hadn’t quite grasped in class the previous day. I worked with my classmates in order to understand how I should approach and solve tricky problems. All of this work resulted in slight improvement, but it didn’t make me any happier. I would receive my tests, and each time my heart would fall as I saw my classmates score better than I did. I, like those silver medalists, was stuck critiquing myself against the one better while I disregarded the more important aspects of my physics experience.
As the year progressed, I refined my mindset, and this is something I would encourage us all to do with whatever it may be that is causing stress or unhappiness. To reframe your mindset is to find the bronze medalist in yourself, to gain an appreciation for the work you are doing and the life skills that you are acquiring. Bronze medalists understand the immense amount of work it takes to make the podium, and realize just how impressive it is to go and compete against the world’s best. They are grateful for the opportunity to attend the Olympics, realizing that there are so many others who would die to have that same spot, just as we should be grateful for our opportunity to attend this world-class institution.
When applied to my physics class, I now began to see my success as a measure of my own self-improvement throughout the course. I was able to appreciate the fact that I was learning how to persevere in the face of challenge, how to be proactive with a teacher, how to learn from my classmates rather than compete with them.
While I wish that I could tell you that this new approach brought me a 95 in Mr. Hall’s class and universal recognition as an incredible physicist, that would be a lie. For me, however, these were not the criteria that made my own experience with physics a success, and this reframing helped me to see that the skills that I was acquiring would benefit me in ways that a grade would not.
I was able to understand that life skills will prove beneficial in college and beyond, and are far more relevant than my ability to remember the specific formula responsible for finding the potential energy of a spring. As a course, physics taught me immense amounts about the way that I respond to challenging scenarios, and this self-discovery helped make it a wildly successful part of my own Groton experience.
Reframing is a strategy that was successful for me, and it is one that I would encourage everyone to practice when frustrated about a class, a game, or a recital. With a more nuanced view of success as a dynamic and personalized quantity, we can more accurately appreciate the incredible work that we do perform, and hopefully be happier as we go about our daily lives. At the end of the day, we should strive to hold the mindset of the bronze medalist, appreciating everything that went into getting us to where we are, and our own personal growth through the journey.
You might be wondering, “But Henry, should we really be settling for second best? Shouldn’t we always be reaching for excellence?” I firmly believe that not winning does not always equal losing. I’d argue that this mindset isn’t encouraging you to settle, but rather to strive for the best version of yourself. After three years at Groton, I’ve found it humbling to learn that there will always be that smarter student, that superior athlete, that more popular kid. The reality is, we cannot always win. It is what we do with a setback, however, that will enable us to grow as individuals and ultimately find satisfaction through the learning process.
My five summers at Mowglis were life changing, and they served as excellent preparation for the three years that I have been fortunate enough to spend at Groton. More than anything, my time here on the Circle has taught me how to learn, and I will be forever grateful for that lesson. As worlds now morph and change around me, I hope to channel a commitment to self-betterment, make good use of the ability to reframe, and continue to tackle challenges through hard work and dedication.
In other words, I hope to approach the next phase of my life with an open mind and a bronze-medal mindset.