Why not Harvard?

At a family dinner recently I sat across from my husband's cousin. She just started her junior year of high school and is thinking about colleges.

"So what are you thinking?" I asked.

"Maybe dentistry," she said. "Or international relations or psychology or business or journalism. Maybe journalism. I'm really not sure yet."

"Those are good choices," I said, impressed that she was already thinking ahead to a major. "But I meant what colleges are you thinking of applying to?"

She told me her list of schools, all places in Boston and New York.

"I really like Boston," she said.

"Harvard's in Boston," I said.

"I could never get into Harvard."

I know colleges and universities have gotten more competitive. I know that you're supposed to have perfect grades and perfect test scores and a thousand extra curricular activities in order to get into an Ivy League school. I know that most of the people who have been admitted in the past wouldn't be able to get in today.

But I don't think that means a 17-year-old young woman with her whole future ahead of her should decide she isn't good enough before she even tries.

First of all, maybe she could get into Harvard. Maybe there would be someone on the admissions committee who could look past some C grades ("A" students are teacher pleasers, it doesn't mean they're necessarily smart) and see a young woman full of promise and curiosity.

Maybe something in her application would resonate with someone on the committee.

But more importantly, you can't get accepted if you don't apply.

Of course, you can't get rejected either.

Who wants to be rejected? I once stayed in bed, my head under the covers, for a week after a boy who kissed me at a party ignored me the next day and I saw him draped over a hipper older girl at her locker. My father was puzzled. "Are you sick?" he kept asking. "Does something hurt you?" When you're a teenager and you've just been jilted and your father's standing at your bedside with an anxious look on his face you don't know what to say. You don't know how to explain that your whole soul hurts and you feel like you swallowed your heart.

If someone had tried to tell me then that it's good to get rejected I probably would have thrown-up (I was so lovesick I felt like throwing up anyway). But I'm saying it now anyway: It's good to get rejected.

In Psychology 101 Professor Maas taught us that well-adjusted self-confident people believe that when they fail it's due to circumstance but when they succeed it's by dint of their own hard work. I always felt the opposite, like it was my fault when I failed and like someone had made a mistake somewhere when I succeeded.

But if you try and fail at least you've tried, at least you're awake, at least you're trying to make something of your life, rejection or no rejection. It's so much easier not to try. To stay in the same place you've always been in. To be comfortable and mediocre.

I remember hearing on the radio about a CEO of a prominent computer company yelling at his employees. "You're not trying hard enough," he cried, angry that they weren't being creative enough and weren't pushing the limits of their talent. "Everything we've done lately has been a success. I want to see some failures!"

"You should apply to Harvard, if you want to go there," I said to James's cousin after trying to explain all of this to her.

She was quiet for a moment. "Maybe I will."

is the editor of "Toddler: Real-Life Stories of Those Fickle, Irrational, Urgent, Tiny People We Love" (Seal Press), which won the Independent Publishers Book Association Award, and the author of "Why Babies Do That: Baffling Baby Behavior Explained" (Willow Creek Press).

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