“I’m going to try to really do what I want. You know, do my own thing without caring what everyone else is doing,” I said, looking around nervously at my cross-legged peers, the mid-afternoon sun blaring down on our shoulders, my bare, mud-caked toes wiggling in the grass. “Yeah, that’s it.” They nodded emphatically, then turned to the kid beside me and waited for him to announce his goal.
We were in the middle of a group-bonding activity for all the students who were part of a club at my high school. With our stomachs stuffed with burgers and lemonade, we were lounging in an open field, announcing our goals for next year, based on this year’s mistakes.
I chose the goal of autonomy. It had been a struggle for my sophomore self, always feeling like I should be somewhere else or doing something else—something that never even crossed my mind. It wasn’t peer pressure, per se—I certainly enjoyed my fair share of the typical high school escapades—but something more. It was as if I was constantly checking over my shoulder to see everyone else’s lives, looking at their Instagram posts with a magnifying glass to see how mine compared.
Sometimes it all lined up, and I could let out a relieved exhale. For the moment, I was in the in-crowd, my social and academic life up to par with that fake checklist of milestones I had made to mark my growth as a successful high school student. But other times, I was left in the dust. It was as if I had gone adrift, too focused on memorizing the film credits of my favorite directors to notice that everyone else had moved on. It was at those times when I realized how truly alone I was—not in the lonely way, but in the factual way—and that no matter how hard I tried to compartmentalize my peers’ lives, we were all just floating along, trying to make sense of ourselves in the context of others.
Autonomy would, I hoped, break this trap I’d fallen into. I needed to separate my perspective of myself from my perspective of others. Rather than dissecting every move they made and how I measured up in comparison, I would appreciate the individuality we all offer. Uniqueness and individual experience would become my new lens.
The first step is to learn to like myself for my current form and to shape myself to be someone I’ll respect in the future. That means cultivating my interests and hobbies: writing, watching movies, listening to indie folk, drinking three cups of coffee a day, taking mediocre pictures with my new camera, memorizing the film credits of my favorite directors—all without thinking about the perceived reactions of my peers. It means not worrying about events I’m not going to and simply looking forward to the ones that are on my calendar. It means using this summer to craft myself without the gaze of classmates in the hallway and, more importantly, without my own inner critic constantly comparing myself to others.
I’ll be exploring the elements that go into this goal further in July, when I’ll be spending two weeks making short films all the way across the country. A few days later, I’ll travel to two cities I’ve never been to. I’ll only be posting on Instagram for the sake of my photography, and I won’t be comparing my summer photos to those of my peers. I’ll be writing a lot, mainly fiction, and I want to finish that screenplay about World War III that’s been bugging me for the past year. When I buy new clothes, I’ll focus on my style—a mix of bohemian sundresses and beachy shorts—rather than the latest trends. I hope to see only the friends I want to see.
With this new-found autonomy, I aim to enter Junior year with a bit more independence and spunk when I talk about what I’m doing now and what I plan to do in the future. And above all, I hope that when I look back at the goal I announced in that group activity, I’ll realize that I’ve accomplished it, at least for the most part.