During his freshman year, Cason Crane ’17 found himself dealing with many new emotions, and not all of them were positive. He found it difficult to make friends, while all of his peers appeared to be socializing and meeting new people. He felt sad, lonely, and like he was the only one struggling.
“I would be in the study room doing work, and when I would finish my work and had the option to go out and join my friends, I just couldn’t get myself to move because I felt like I was the only one in my position and that everyone else was off having fun and I wasn’t a part of it,” Crane said.
In recent years, this idea of “effortless perfection” — pressure to do everything well (academics, extracurricular activities, and social life) without any setbacks along the way — has become part of the Princeton experience for many students.
A new initiative on campus, the Princeton Perspective Project (PPP), is working to normalize feelings of failure and struggle among students — feelings that, according to Undergraduate Student Government President Shawon Jackson ’15, are all too common.
“Effortless perfection affects everyone because everyone at Princeton wants to do really well and has high standards,” Jackson said. “You see people getting awarded at graduation ceremonies, or getting academic awards, and you start comparing their public successes with your private failures. And that comparison is really dangerous.”
The director of student life at Butler College, Alexis Andres, one of the administrators spearheading the project, researched the effects of effortless perfection for her Ph.D. at the University of Virginia and found that UVA students who spent a significant amount of energy concealing their emotions and effort were more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression than other students.
PPP co-sponsor and Associate Dean for Campus Life Tara Christie Kinsey ’97 said the goal of the project is to promote the idea that it’s normal and productive to feel lonely and experience setbacks as part of the learning process. She hopes it will result in a more “failure-friendly” campus, reversing the trend of recent years.
“The smaller the percentage of people admitted, the more unworthy people feel,” she said. “There’s the idea of ‘I’m one of the 7 percent [admitted], so I have to live up to that 7 percent.’ ”
On Nov. 3, the PPP launched its website, perspective.princeton.edu, which includes video testimonials from Princeton students reflecting on their experiences, links and information for students looking for help, and news about campus events and groups organized to frame failure as healthy and to help students realize they’re not alone in feeling inadequate.
More than than 140 students changed their Facebook profile pictures in November to a black-and-white tilted headshot photo inscribed with the project’s motto, “Same Princeton, New Perspective,” to raise awareness about the initiative.
In addition to a series of events in which students will have the opportunity to speak candidly about their struggles with effortless perfection, Jackson said the USG is planning a student-speaker summit for the spring, which will be similar to a TED Talk, as a way to keep the conversation going. Down the road, he hopes to include stories on the website from faculty, staff, and alumni about their dealings with failure and struggle.
“Princeton knocks you down before it builds you up,” Crane said. “But it’s all a universal part of the Princeton experience.”