What’s Left When Your Goals Are Gone?

Q. Jordan,

I’m an avid reader of Ramshackle Glam, and a high school senior. I realize that this is probably a very strange question, but…I’m at a loss.

Yesterday was decision day for most of the Ivy League schools. I got a perfect ACT score, and I have a good GPA. I took on as many leadership roles as possible in clubs and such, and I’ve made a precariously small amount of friends because I’ve been working so hard to get straight As since freshman year.

And I applied to a lot of Ivies. I told myself that all of the hours writing essays and the late nights studying for exams would be worth it because I would get in to the school that I so desperately wanted, I would be away from the other students who had mocked me for studying so hard, and I would finally be around people that were interested in the same things as I am and would appreciate me for my intelligence. Which sounded like a great plan.

I know from reading your blog that you went to Harvard, so I had some small notion in my head that you might be able to relate, but maybe not. 

Anyway, yesterday I checked online and discovered that I had been rejected. By every school. All of them.

And now, I guess my question is…what do I do with my life? Because I had staked everything on getting into these schools, basically defined myself in high school by the idea that the work would pay off. And it’s not like I haven’t gotten in anywhere; I got accepted to two [non-Ivy-league schools]. But it feels like a whole chunk of my life has been for naught, because I devoted myself to [this idea about my future], and obviously it wasn’t enough.

I’m sorry. I don’t even know entirely what motivated me to write this email. I just…it’s difficult. And now I don’t know what to do. So I guess I’m asking for advice. 

Because when all of your plans and goals are gone, what’s left? Not much.



A. Like the question that I answered last week, this question is much bigger than a question of college admissions. And first things first: by saying that this question is more universal than it seems, I am not saying that you are overreacting, or that this is not a major disappointment. It is, and I’m not going to discount how you feel. Is getting into the college of your dreams about “merit”? Hard work? Being “smart”? Sure. But it’s also about luck. Because that’s how life goes, and this is just one of many times that you will be faced with a situation like this.

And let me tell you: you are going to be OK now, and you are also going to be OK later, when it happens again.

I’ll explain what I mean by this, but first, let’s talk getting-into-college pressure. For reasons that make sense and for reasons that don’t, in certain communities (including the one I grew up in) an enormous – and, in my opinion, a frustratingly and sometimes damagingly enormous – amount of pressure to get into Ivy League (or comparably “fancy”) schools is placed on children who are far too young to be subjected to that level of stress. Some people think all this pressure is good and helps kids push themselves harder; others think it’s unfair and wrong to make children as young as five worry about whether they’re going to get into a “good” school.

When I was in first grade (first grade!) I remember announcing that I was going to Yale, and I worked so hard in middle and high school with that goal in mind that even now I think back on the amount of work I put in and can’t even wrap my head around it…and then ten years after my first-grade declaration, when I got the rejection letter from my early application to Yale, I was distraught in a way that I had been distraught about few things up until that point in my life.

Not because there are no other schools, not because the school I had picked was the be-all-end-all…just because I had put everything that I had into this very specific goal for years and years, and, in my mind, I had failed. All those years of work had been for nothing.

I was wrong.

And I wasn’t wrong because I later got into a “fancy” school; I was wrong because it wasn’t that fancy school that taught me how to be creative, or how to work hard, or how to feel fulfilled in my career; it was the time I spent writing and learning and pushing my boundaries as a kid, and then in high school, and then in college and far beyond that taught me those things. One dream didn’t come true; another did. I’ve experienced crushing disappointments, and been given opportunities that I never thought possible. I know that both of these things still lie ahead, because the possibilities of what the future can bring are much wider than any one school, or job, or place to live or thing to be or decision to make. They’re infinite, and just like not a single one of these twists of fate is a magic pill that will make everything perfect, none of them are the bullet that will take you down.

What it comes down to is you, and whether you take advantage of the opportunities that you are given (whatever those may be), keep on trying things, and keep on following through.

Look, lots of people give up. They experience a major blow, and they say to themselves, “Well, that’s it: nothing I did made any difference, so just forget it. It’s not worth trying that hard only to have things not work out the way I wanted them to.”

Those people are missing out.

I wrote in this post (which I think you might want to read, by the way) that one of the big secrets in life is that everyone talks and talks about all the things they’re going to do, and very few people actually do them. You are not a talker; you are a doer. But the other big secret is that people often stop doing when they get frustrated, or angry, or scared, and very few keep pushing on past the disappointments…which, by the way, aren’t just “maybe” going to happen. They are going to happen. This is a fact, and it’s a fact for everyone.

It’s the ones who keep on trying, and keep on doing, and keep on working who go on to blow everyone away.

An Ivy League education is nice. It is; I learned a lot at Harvard, and it was a cool place to go to school. It was also something that happened ten years ago, and it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with what I’m up to these days. I credit my college with exposing me to new ideas, with helping me to form friendships that mattered both to my heart and to my mind, and with teaching me not to compromise when it came to picturing the possibilities that my future could hold. Those are wonderful things, and they’re also things that I am confident that you – a person who seems so passionate about creating a life and a future that you love and can be proud of – will find at any school that is lucky enough to have you. I mean that.

Our colleges do not create our futures; we create them. And it is because you care so much that I am so completely certain that you have it in you to move past this in a way that isn’t just “getting over it”, but is powerful and shows you that you may not be able to control everything, but the one thing you can control is the strength with which you confront challenges.

Of course you may wish that luck had turned your way at this particular moment in time, but when it comes down to it…luck? You don’t need it.

What you do need is something that you’ve already proven to yourself that you have. And your ability to work hard – to want and hope for and dream of great things, and to keep on moving in the direction of your goals no matter what – is an achievement greater than any words you’ll find on any piece of paper. You deserve to be congratulated both for what you’ve done up until this point, and for where you’re headed. And I’m not saying that to pat you on the back; I’m saying that because it’s obvious, and because it’s true, and because you’re not just going to be OK…you’re going to be great.

Go be great, wherever you go.

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