On Stanford

Some school in Palo Alto.

We all have ideas of what success looks like. It comes in different images and definitions for everyone, but it’s always the same format: a mountaintop beyond struggle, always visible from any point of the journey, and the only place from where the whole journey can be seen. It is always a place in our heads, and it always comes at different times. For me it came when I was around 12, and it manifested itself in the form of a school in Palo Alto.

Very recently, I had the pleasure of finally meeting the place, although not in the triumphant way I thought I would. I traveled to the bay area last December, and for the itinerary of one day, I met Stanford. “Finally”, I thought, but in many ways I found the experience to be anticlimactic.

My obsession with this school began with and was a side effect of my infatuation with Silicon Valley. This infatuation was in itself a side effect of my love of technology and computers. One day I heard about this guy Steve Jobs. From there I couldn't get enough of Silicon Valley folklore.

I learned about Jobs’ story, and with it I became immersed in the history of the Valley. I started reading the SF Chronicle, TechCrunch, and discovered Recode Decode and YC. At around that time I had started going to the gym, and began listening to podcasts. YC’s “How to Start a Startup”, Kara Swisher’s “Recode Decode”, and Gimlet Media’s “Startup” made it for me. I was hooked.

As I fell more in love with Startups, Silicon Valley and Venture Capital, I found myself thinking of Stanford more and more as the ultimate place where all this happens. The Mecca of the Valley, I thought.

Having goals and working to fulfill them is a behavior as fundamental to the human condition as anything could be, and for me, Stanford started to become this goal. The way to know if my life had gone right or wrong. Success became equivalent to Stanford, a prerequisite to happiness.

To be clear, I have always been a very neurotic person, so what happened between me and Stanford was always going to happen between me and anything else that seemed challenging. It just so happened to be Stanford.

At this point I am in High School, and talking in every class about Silicon Valley and Startups landed me an internship in the first VC firm in the region—where I still work. This made it seem even closer. I just had to do good on the SAT’s, create some great products and interesting work, excel at my essays, and I would be there in no time.

I was still consumed by the research I was doing for the firm, while also doing 3 other extracurricular activities, which meant going home at 6, everyday. That was my first semester of High School, and although filled with angst, tired, and battling an eating disorder, I still think those 8 months were one of the best of my life.

The idea of Stanford kept materializing within me. I read all about admissions, and I was sure I would be all set up by the time the time came. I read about the Duck Syndrome, the concept of need-aware admissions, and what “holistic admissions process” even meant. As I did all this I thought about me getting in, and it was feeling ever more real.

At some point, I had a trip to Mexico City that changed my life forever. Lot’s of things happened, and lots of thoughts were had, but long story short, I dropped out of high school next semester, and during the time I was out, I feel not only out of love with school, but so with Stanford.

As I had read a lot of existentialism, I realized just how shallow and hollow my love with Stanford was, and the fundamental contradiction of me hoping to get in some school but dreading the fundamental aspects of the institution of school had become too big to ignore, and I had become too smart to be blind to. “Why must happiness come after Stanford?” I asked myself.

I dropped out of high school, and with it I dropped out of hoping to get into Stanford. I thought about how unique my path had to be, since I was so different to everybody else I saw. I am different in many ways to most people, but so is most people. Still, discovering myself was a process too consuming to allow spare room to discover what was beyond me. So I dropped out, and for 6 months lived out of school, convinced I had embarked on a new life.

Some times I wish I had never dropped out, and other times I wish I had never come back, but I did, one semester after leaving forever. And as circular as all things prove to be, I came back precisely for the same reason I had left. I felt it was the best for me, and for what I could do. It was also, looking closely, fundamentally to do with Stanford.

I left because I felt school was too performative and not fulfilling, but once out, I saw what the alternative was. It is never, it turns out, not at least a little performative, and unfulfilling. All work is more similar than we often assume, so the things you work on are ultimately what you want to improve, as the nature of all work is not too dissimilar.

It was then a function of working on things as challenging as possible, and as impactful as possible. This was another question I was better equipped to answer due to having left school. I knew it was all about who you know and who knows you. Stanford as a Mecca is not useful because it is so symbolic, but because it joins so many people. Stanford then became the most pragmatic goal I could have, since it was right there, where I wanted to live and work, and filled with people I wanted to meet.

Now I came full circle, back to wanting Stanford, but for completely different reasons.

Due to the pandemic I have—as many people—lived through tough times which although painful have been enlightening. Depersonalization, panic attacks, and general hopelessness started to creep in about 80 days ago, 40 of which were one of the lowest points in my life. At the heart of all of this was, as one might expect, Stanford.

To be fair, it is not Stanford itself that I was obsessed about, but what it meant to me. A proxy for success. A metric to determine how good I have been at living life and working hard. When social life was put at pause, it gave me time to think, and feel, many of the things I had been ignoring. It was just me with my thoughts, and as Blaise Pascal once identified, it became a sickness.

One can regress a lot of mental progress by being in pain, and so did I. As my pain became more overwhelming, my thoughts became more primitive and my coping mechanisms more barbaric. One thought revolved around my head, giving me constant aches and shortness of breath: I won’t get into Stanford. I had regressed years of progress in self-identification and discovery. I felt alone, and cold, when I was in bed looking at the ceiling, placing my self-worth into getting accepted or rejected by Stanford.

This more primitive conceptualization was exactly that, the result of a primitive state of mind, one where everything became abstracted and symbolic beyond reason. Stanford was life, and outside getting in was death. I felt lonely, as if only inside Stanford I would be less alone. Minds have a funny way of clinging to images and names, and confounding it all with it. A sinister and ill-equipped mechanism to feel back in the world, to have a purpose.

I cried myself to sleep more than once, and although I don’t want to turn this essay into a pity party, I want to acknowledge the struggles and pain of the boy I was at that point. I even made a mental agreement with myself to kill myself if I were rejected. That was the extent of the delusion of a school in Palo Alto and success.

Paradoxically but expectedly, all this pressure froze me. How was I supposed to work on my application if it was such and insurmountable challenge and each misstep could be catastrophic? Beyond this reasoning to not act, the main reason was no reason at all. I froze because I couldn’t make sense of what was happening, what I was thinking, and so I went on autopilot. I still had so much other stuff to do, after all.

My biggest mistake throughout this whole process was not recognizing the signs early and acting on them, knowing their seriousness. Instead I tried to talk myself out of their importance, and make such manners seem beneath me, an intelligent adult with lots of work to do. Had I started taking meds three weeks earlier I would’ve spared myself and others a lot of pain, but that pales in comparison with other things that should’ve been implemented three weeks earlier.

Finally, something that really set off this crisis, and at the same time put it to an end, was seeing the sheer amount of pain around me, through the pandemic, the news, violence in my country, a political and social justice crisis in the country next door, and how it was all also affecting the people around me. It caused me distress, for sure, and it certainly didn't help me feel better. But in a way, it also saved me, because I saw how trivial even my most catastrophic predicaments were when put to perspective with things like the loss of a loved one, of or one’s own life.

Death has always inspired a sense of urgency and clarity, and the memento mori that this pandemic has proven to be showed me a way to see beyond the pain I was feeling, a pain I was also causing, and due to a dream that became one for little more than a happy accident.

I will die, and it could be sooner than expected. What is there to gain from desiring Stanford at the expense of the rest of my life? As with all goals, the goal is to make the journey enjoyable, and the destination just another part of the journey. My life should’ve never become a means to get me into Stanford, but getting into Stanford a means to live my life better.

All of this I knew, or could’ve known before and without the painful experience I went through, but I am glad I went through it, and discovered and rediscovered this knowledge with this clarity.

I think back to when I went to Stanford. I visited the Hoover Tower, the Memorial Church, the Library, and generally walked around the campus. I felt an energy, sure, but it wasn’t what I had been expecting. I saw around-my-age teens bent down looking at TikToks, old computer systems, trash outside the can, and faces of people no less or happier than me. It was just me and Stanford, all that I had been waiting for, and I discovered a place that wasn’t anything beyond what it was. Stanford was a place in the world, nothing about it was magical. Seeing that, was magic. (My recount of my visit to Stanford would be incomplete without a comment on my time inside Memorial Church, which I touch on another article.)

I still think of the trees and the people I met there, and I wonder what it has all meant. What Stanford means to me, and has been meaning through my life, what it means to others. I see my life, and looking back, I think that the human mind is a machine that runs on symbols and pain. My road of Stanford has been filled with pain and occasional joy and hope. We all have symbols, of things going right, of things going wrong, of things being worthwhile. Perhaps understanding what living a good life means is too hard, and I just took it to mean getting into Stanford. Perhaps there’s no right answer and I could never know, but I still have to live for something, right? So why not let it be getting into a little school in Palo Alto with a Redwood tree logo.

I am at a funny moment, where I can both see my delusions but can’t get myself to fully stop deluding myself by them. Every now and then, I see it so clear. How it is all about enjoying the journey, living life, being happy and helping others. Other times, I am neurotic, and the only thing that matters is that I get into that school, that I prove to others and myself that it has all been worthwhile, the struggle and the pain.

What if, sometimes, it is easier to give a purpose to your pain, rather than find a way out of it? For some pains are so pervasive and so great that you can’t help but crave them. Maybe Stanford is like that for me. “What would I be doing if I was trying not to enter?” I often ask myself. I am mostly sure I would’ve found another Stanford, but for the sake of argument, I sometimes think about how it would be if I had no Stanford. We need the struggle. I need it, sometimes, to keep running, thinking to myself it’s not been in circles.

At times I am beyond Stanford, and other times it is the only thing in the horizon. I hope and believe that the smarter me will prevail, but the primitive me is so pervasive and fundamental. It’s still two sides of the same coin, or two layers of the same onion. I wonder how much of reaching maturity is simply planning around and putting safeguards to our primitive instincts and beliefs, rather than actually replacing them with reason. I wouldn’t know the winning tactic of the war while I am fighting the battle, and so my focus is still on this, but it is still an interesting point.

This might all seem contradictory, and that’s because it is. At the core of this are many contradictions that I still fight to make sense on. Every hour of every day I go through moments of wishing to be accepted, not feeling in the need of, simply wishing for the best, and feeling like my life depends on it. If I get in, all this will have a purpose and and become a sort of hopeful or comedic story. Else, this will all stink of disappointment and tragedy. Either way is the ultimate case, the most likely scenario is that I won’t be accepted. More un likely things have happened to me, but the statistics need not care of my history.

Whatever I happen to be believing at any point, I can still tell the truth straight. Stanford is just a school, and I am just a kid that would be okay with attending school there. I don’t need Stanford to succeed, and they will certainly do fine with or without me, yet all these thoughts about admission, self-worth, effort and success keep rushing to my mind. A constant bombardment to my consciousness, keeping me awake all night, and clouding my thinking throughout the day.

It does get better every day, though. But although the thoughts are mostly false and fabricated, the struggle they create is very real, and it has made me see life in a very different light. Specially as we live through a pandemic.

When the sun doesn’t shine too bright, I see it through a more pragmatic lens. Stanford then becomes a statistical improbability that despite incredibly desirable, I have no entitlement over. I have wished to get into Stanford for about half my life, and I have worked a ton thinking and hoping it could come one day. Still, so have thousands of over applicants, both in the US and internationally, the latter of which have an acceptance rate at about 0.4%, as opposed to around 10 times greater for the former. I see this, and it all feels sordid and fake.

When the sun shines brightest, in contract, I see Stanford and myself through a different lens still, one where I see that I don’t need Stanford. In many ways it’s nothing but a whim, and so what if I don’t get in? I don’t need it. I have never needed it, and I never will. It was just my way to sublime and materialize my childish goals and ambitions, akin to wanting to become an astronaut. Sure, we all want it or at least wanted it, but how many of them get to be one? This is not necessarily unfair, and even if it were, it need not matter as it is real, which dreams are not.

Still, I sometimes smile by the fact that in pursuing this crazy dream I have achieved more than I would’ve imagined, and have had a wild ride. There’s nothing to tell me that I cannot be fulfilled without Stanford, and my own happiness is up to me, which is at times empowering, but at other times lonely. I guess this journey is full of contradictions, as is life, and precisely because this is life. There’s nothing I want to do in life that I cannot already do, and for this I am proud, I just hope I can find ways to make this whole admission circus anything less than a martyrdom, and perhaps even enjoyable—I know, long shot.

I could go on and say that I am past all this. That I approach Stanford fully rationally, but in a way I don’t think I’ll ever stop—or even want to stop—being that kid that is still all dreamy and hopeful of a given school in Palo Alto and what it meant for me. Stanford, is still the symbol it was, and I am still to vulnerable to it, but everyday I change a bit and so it changes, and I see it differently, and I see myself differently. In other words, I am still living.

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Writing stories; code, literature.

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Felipe Acosta

Felipe Acosta

Writing stories; code, literature.

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