Searching for Ladders to Climb

By Stella Haffner   |   September 7, 2021

Bringing my laptop downstairs to work in the few minutes I spend waiting for the kettle to boil is what my flat mates call the “American work ethic,” and they find it more than a little disgusting. For many Montecito kids, you would have to take a crowbar to separate the person from their ambitions, and I think that we sometimes must squint to see this reality. Our aspirational behavior is native to us when we grow up in a town that boasts academic, athletic, and philanthropic achievement as if these entrepreneurial accolades flowed as easily as tap water. In anticipation of the back-to-school season, Lillian Perlmutter is joining us this week to talk about her relationship with ambition and education. 

Dear Montecito,

Perhaps it is unfair, but I attribute my injurious relationship with ambition in part to growing up in this place. Santa Barbara boasts a community dotted with public figures — Nobel Prize winners, captains of industry, movie stars, and prominent philanthropists. In my experience, this town also has a tendency to place columns of pressure onto the heads of children to match this pattern of high achievement, to perform above the average level, above the above-average level. It does not affect every child, but it affects some. I write this in the hopes it may resonate with some of you.

In my elementary school classes, no one founded a company at age ten, as is the fad now, but young children occasionally launched their own nonprofit organizations, several adolescent actors I knew were cast in TV shows, numerous girls signed modeling contracts in Los Angeles, and volleyball stars regularly attended the Junior Olympics.

Most of our afternoons were booked past sundown; childhood hobbies were not always just hobbies — they were vocational ambitions. 

The pressure to be great bubbled to a breaking point in my senior year at Cate. When college decisions were released, I faced the worst emotional breakdown of my life. I was devastated, caged in a thick gloom of my own creation, as I accepted the reality of attending my eighth-choice school. After my first taste of perceived failure, I felt it meant I had nothing to give, and I was humiliated down to my core. 

Watching me disintegrate into a pink, tearful mass was painful for those near to me. In the bitter, lonely wake of what I felt was the ultimate proof I was nothing special, I regularly forced myself to sleep 12 to 14 hours a day to avoid being conscious. 

In college, the improvement in my mindset was slight. My sophomore year, I taped all of my A papers to my wall to console my fragile ego after the occasional B. This display made everyone uncomfortable upon entering my dorm room, their mouths falling into an appropriate cringe, as if overcome by nausea. They knew grades didn’t matter, but I was convinced that perfection was a requirement of adequacy.

I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew I had to be notable, important, special, or else I would fade into nothingness. This attitude made me appear buffoonish to anyone with real sources of stress, like paying off loans, remaining housed, and affording healthcare. It was melodramatic, fringing on comical, and my family was understandably concerned.

In the fall of 2019, I went to Havana for a semester abroad and was shocked when teachers read students’ grades out loud to the class. I was further surprised when no one appeared humiliated, their faces neutral, their minds already elsewhere. No one went to the bathroom to cry in solitary shame. Instead, after class, we huddled together to gossip and went for a bite to eat on the street.

No one in the class wanted to be a household name someday, whereas I grew up in an environment in which my 14-year-old peers talked openly about their goals of becoming Supreme Court justices, President (of this country and of others), and of dancing with a top-tier ballet company. 

For me, that idea, that being distinguished from the norm is not necessary to being a person of worth, was revolutionary. I had never considered the reality that just being alive is enough.

Kids like me who grew up with unhealthy attachments to their ambitions sometimes have existential crises once they achieve their goals, as they were fixated on getting through the gate, never considering what they would do once they got inside. “I just want something stable, where the expectations are clear,” a friend from Cate told me after a punishing first year at Yale. “Why can’t I just be a nurse or something?” 

Who would I be if I had spent my childhood and adolescence thinking in terms of collective, rather than individual success? The intense focus on conspicuous, individual achievements inhibits the development of a genuine sense of self and fosters a breeding ground for teenage narcissism. If we’re all consumed by our own reputations, how are we supposed to work cooperatively? How can we fight for necessary societal changes if we’re more focused on how our activism looks, rather than what it creates?

This obsession with a specific definition of success also sets up dominos of inevitable disappointment, as in today’s economy, simple accomplishments our parents took for granted in their 20s and 30s, like buying a house, getting an entry-level job, and even finding an unpaid internship, are steeper mountains than anticipated.

It is ironic that last year, just after I had begun to consider the potential superiority of an “average” life in which I achieved zero of my childhood dreams, my career unexpectedly took off. 

Last September, I began writing world news pieces for VICE while finishing my senior year of college, racking up hundreds of thousands of clicks on some of my more recent articles. My most popular article is about a special breed of marijuana, traditionally grown by Rastafarians, destroyed by an erupting volcano on a tiny Caribbean island. I love this job, and I work hard to avoid ruining it by ruminating on how my career appears to others.

A few months ago, I complained to a friend from college that my articles were not good enough and that I needed to be writing better pieces, longer features, for many more outlets. She rolled her eyes, and I realized I had slipped back into an old pattern. My brain has been coached to search for ladders to climb, even when I am forced to create those ladders out of thin air. Often it seems an impossible task to stop, walk over to the monitor, and turn it off.


Lillian Perlmutter

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