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The Hamster Wheel of Success

By Alexia Pelletier

“Nosedive,” a popular Black Mirror episode, contains a riveting quote from its main character Laci as she describes her conformity to the system of her dystopian society: “I’m still fighting for [a fulfilled life]… Enough to be content…until I get there I have to play the numbers game. We all do, that’s what we’re in. That’s how the f*cking world works.” In her society, “playing the numbers game” means everyone rates their social interactions on a scale of one to five, and the society then compiles these ratings into an overall score. This rating defines a person’s mobility through society and has an immense impact on the outlook of Laci’s future. As university students, we play our own sort of numbers game. While we don’t receive strict ratings for every social interaction, our lives are strikingly similar to Laci’s dystopian world. Anyone who has ever placed value in their GPA or their credit score can attest to this. While these standards may not always be a number, ideals of success can lie in anything from a degree to a certain job position. These things matter to us, undoubtedly, and perhaps they matter too much to us as students at UCLA. 

As high-achieving students, many of us have the mentality that we will not be content until we reach a certain level of performance. We trick ourselves into believing that we just have to “play the game” until we arrive, whether that arrival is a certain job or graduate school. It feels as if we just need to do everything we can to maintain that GPA, and then we can finally rest. All the hours spent kissing up to a T.A. or perfecting a paper to get a good grade are essential to us as Bruins. These things seem necessary, as if we have no other option if we want to have a good life. However, the numbers system will never go away, and we will always be caught up in some sort of system. If it’s our GPA now, it will be our credit score later, or climbing the ladder in the job we have. We may think we are working hard and sacrificing now to run towards contentment, when in reality we are just running towards another system in which we will never actually reach satisfaction. In short, we ruin our present lives by telling ourselves that the system will end. There is a pressing need to break free from this system that holds such a tight grip on us. When our focus lies on reaching standards that others have set in place, it can be easy to let go of moments spent with family and friends. We might prioritize our academics so much that we let go of interpersonal relationships that contribute immensely to our personal health. For most people, having close interpersonal relationships is essential to their mental well-being. Life inevitably gets difficult, so it is crucial to have people in our lives that we can lean on through those times. If we spend so much time trying to keep up with the system, we may just run ourselves into mental breakdown. Therefore, it is essential to prioritize time spent with people we love because they are a support system for us when things become difficult. The system, on the other hand, will only demand more from us.

An essential way to fight this pressing urge to perform is to examine our core beliefs and values, which can lead us to prioritize what is meaningful in our lives. Oftentimes, these values we hold are essential to who we are, but they are completely outside our pursuit of success. For example, we may base our life on a certain worldview, religion, or passion, yet we spend most of our time ignoring it and instead pouring time and energy into reaching unrealistic standards. It is important to step back and identify the ways in which we put too much stock in an abstract number like our GPA. If we would “literally do anything” to get a good grade that maintains our GPA, maybe this is a sign that we are enslaving ourselves to the system.

While working hard is certainly important in life, it should not be everything. Most likely, we won’t look back on our lives and wish we had spent more time writing papers or studying for exams. However, we will probably regret not making time for ourselves to pursue things we’re passionate about. If we have a passion outside of academia, such as art or writing or being outdoors, we shouldn’t sacrifice those things on the altar of success. It is important to make time for things that don’t contribute directly to our success because we will always be climbing some sort of ladder towards prosperity. This striving towards success won’t end for many years, or possibly ever, so putting too much stock in it can lead to discontentment when we find we still haven’t arrived at whatever we deem as “the good life.” Seeking passion over success, especially success that comes from years enslaved to the system, is crucial to actually reaching contentment. Since we will always be striving toward success and climbing higher, we will only attain true fulfillment by pouring into what we care about, instead of what we feel we need to do in order to succeed. Instead of running toward a life of contentment that will never come as long as we are slaves to the promise of success, we must rest in what we value.

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