“Embrace mediocrity.” These were the last two words that I expected to hear at the introductory student led panel on my first day at Harvard Divinity School. To put it lightly, I was a bit scandalized. I was sitting in a beautifully ornate chapel about to begin my degree program at Harvard, of all places, and a second year student was telling me to embrace feelings of mediocrity.
Now, as I am entering my final semester at HDS, I realize that this is the best advice that I received as I began my divinity school education. I now know that rather than telling the room full of eager first year students that they should be more boring, or work less hard, or hide their talents, the wise second year student—who would later become one of my good friends—was simply calling us to a different way of existing in the academic world.
At a place like Harvard Divinity school, the talent of your peers can become quite overwhelming. I have spent the last three years of my life in the presence of giants—and it’s hard not to feel insufficient when I compare my own less-than-notable achievements to theirs. At HDS, you will be surrounded by peers who have started successful businesses, written critically acclaimed academic books, pushed through significant legislative change through their activism, or started successful and thriving faith communities.
And those are just your peers. The achievements of our faculty if listed would quickly become dizzying and would certainly push me over my word limit.
If you choose to matriculate at Harvard Divinity School you are committing yourself to keeping the company of a large number of impressive and infinitely interesting individuals. But despite my initial worries, and unlike most educational institutions, Harvard Divinity School has a beautifully noncompetitive atmosphere built on respect and support rather than one-up-manship or resume-comparison.
Somehow HDS has built an environment where the success of one student does not diminish the achievements of any other. All of us take our academic studies seriously, but rather than seeing our peers as competition the HDS community has decided that by working for each other’s mutual benefit and not falling prey to jealousy or needless competitiveness we can work together for the greater good.
You may be sitting at your computer wondering if you can cut it at HDS—if you are smart enough, or talented enough, or accomplished enough. You might wonder if you can handle the workload or if you will measure up at a school with a famous name. I can unequivocally tell you that you most certainly can.
I was told in my first week to embrace mediocrity, because in an environment filled with talented and driven individuals it is so easy to burn yourself out with comparison and self doubt. Don’t fall prey to this temptation, because this place is different from other places.
By the way, I soon found out that the person who gifted me with the great advice of not measuring my self-worth or competence against the achievements of my peers was a Broadway actor. I’m so glad that I didn’t waste my time comparing myself to him—because, if I had, I wouldn’t have learned all of the wonderful lessons that he had to teach me.
So, if I had one piece of advice to you as you’re thinking about joining this community and I’m making my way out, I would say:
Come as you are, do your best, and you will do fine. Free yourself from the need to compare your achievements to those of your peers and you will open yourself to a life-changing experience.