Learning how to be excellence adjacent


Humor columnist Emily Sumlin ponders the feeling of looking around at U.Va. and seeing excellence everywhere.

Danny Bass | Cavalier Daily

“Are you the only one of your friends who didn’t get a lawn room?” my mother asks, only kind of kidding as I rattle off the names of people I know who will be walking outside to pee next year. Well, no. But isn’t that what it feels like? The University is good at three things — peer pressure, problematic legacies and basketball. I’m sure I’ve missed a couple in there but those are the main three. I constantly find myself grappling with the feeling that I am not excellent, dazzling, brilliant or extraordinary, but rather that I am simply excellence adjacent. I get to say, “Oh I know her!” or “Yeah, he’s in my class,” and that glimmer of pride via association turns sour before the moment even ends because someone else did that, not me. 

To be fair, we’re trained to get an unrelenting itch anytime someone even seems like they’re pulling ahead of us in this awkward obstacle course we call life. I have always been told that life is not a spectator sport and as someone who detests any form of competitive athleticism, it did not bode well. College itself is uniquely formed to thrust others’ success in your face from all angles and weirdly, make it very personal. Everyone is doing something completely different, but we still all hold ourselves to the same antiquated, high-school standard of who’s got their stuff together. You can’t be the basketball star and the lead in the musical now, Troy Bolton. You gotta get used to people being successful around you. I mean I haven’t, but you definitely should. 

Now if you’re too humble or focused on your own “grind” to know what I’m talking about, I’ll break it down. The situation is simple. Are you a Biology major? No. But will your friend’s scholarship to go research Lupus in the Netherlands still make you jealous? Yes. You never learned to play the violin, but why didn’t you start practicing 15 years ago so you could eventually get the same chance to play with The Who like that first year just did? Why? Why does every UVAToday make me want to tear my hair out while simultaneously applying to three more internships? “I should be doing that,” I say morosely when Facebook shows me a friend becoming a data analyst for Google, ignoring that fact that A. I would hate that and B. I got a D in calculus first-year. Soft skills only, baby. 

But now I am making an — only performatively — brave attempt to counteract this intrusive insecurity by making a comprehensive list of all the kick-ass stuff my friends have done that I will, realistically, never do.

  1. Get a lawn room
  2. Deliver babies in New Zealand 
  3. Live in a bookstore in Madrid for the summer
  4. Get a consulting job at Bain 
  5. Be a published poet 
  6. Win a student Emmy for a news segment 
  7. Finish a master’s degree by 23
  8. Design an exhibit of Australian Aboriginal art
  9. Study community development in Marrakech
  10. And run with Jim Ryan — this is still possible, but I just really don’t see it happening

And you know what? That’s OK. It’s completely OK. One of the greatest things about the University is that fact that you are swimming in a sea of the “most likely to succeed” and if that doesn’t light a fire under your ass, I don’t know what will. And if you’re anything like me, sometimes that previously aforementioned ass-fire is still not enough. But ya gotta keep pushing.

I always tell visiting students that I can’t promise them a 4.0 or a room on the Lawn but what I can promise them is that they will be surrounded by brilliance and that will inspire brilliance within them. It’s all about having to learn to applaud the people on the podium, especially if it’s one you wanted to be on. And if you want to be excellent, first be excellence adjacent. The bathroom is guaranteed to be indoors.

Emily Sumlin is a Humor Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at humor@cavalierdaily.com.

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