If you go to a school like Harvey Mudd College, at some point or another you are bound to encounter a Really Smart Person. I had the distinct pleasure and misfortune of being in a sort of study group with two such specimens my freshman Fall. The reason I do not say it was an actual study group is that I was so hopelessly behind them in experience and ability that at my second, and last, hackathon, one of those two pointed out that he could have done our entire project on his own in a couple hours (which he pretty much did) and the other won the hackathon with a different team and a project that still impresses me today.

I couldn’t have picked a better way to develop severe impostor syndrome at the start of college. In fact, it got so bad at one point that I briefly considered just going home and attending a state school (yes, I do realize the privilege inherent in that statement–and I don’t mean that as a condescending statement towards state schools, but rather a comment on how difficult and discouraging a place like Mudd can be). These were not the only two Really Smart People that I have encountered in my time here, and at times I seriously wondered, “Why am I pursuing any of this at all?”, with the rationale that some linear combination of these people, or even one of these people, could probably do everything I can do and do it better. That’s not a comforting thought to have–that you are entirely replaceable and that whatever field it is you want to enter or area you are passionate about might actually be better off were you to be replaced.

I still believe this sort of humbling experience can be beneficial in many ways. I have known for some time now that I am not particularly talented at anything at all, nor do I have any skills that I have polished to a significant degree yet. But, as one does at the time of his life when he is abjectly terrified of what sort of future may befall him, I wondered what point there was to my existence at all if I were so replaceable. But if I were to evaluate everyone with this cruel calculus, would I not be condemning many of us to wither away?

I certainly don’t view everyone else through this same harsh lens–to use a cliché, I might consider offering myself the understanding that I try to offer others. I believe the current pandemic has made this sentiment more pervasive than any time in recent memory: there is a lot more worth to a person than their output. In comparing myself with a Really Smart Person and telling myself that I am replaceable, I am making a value judgment about myself based on my capacity to produce work of different sorts. I think that this sort of judgment is quite common and symptomatic of a capitalist culture. Like any economic system, a capitalist one will affect not only the way we think about and value goods, but also the way we value people.

For some of us, this way of judging value works because it favors us or people who help us. But at the risk of saying something mind-numbingly obvious, we shouldn’t judge ourselves or others solely by metrics that prioritize output. But this, like many things that should be obvious, is often forgotten in that frenzied race towards establishing ourselves and achieving some goal. For a particular purpose and in particular contexts, this sort of value judgment does have its merits, but it is not at all humanistic.

So what are we, if not machines and gears that turn and whir and create words and lines of code and car parts and food? In his 1950 Nobel Banquet speech (following his being awarded the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature), William Faulkner stated:

I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.

It is that unique spirit, that inexhaustible voice, that irreplicable combination of compassion and sacrifice and endurance that makes you who you are and different from any other living being that has ever walked or will ever walk this Earth. You are not found in the number of lines of code you wrote or number of tennis trophies you won or number of promotions you received over the course of your career. You are found in the way you were able to make someone’s day once, in those words you just happened to say in a way that someone else hadn’t been able to say that made someone understand something or feel loved or cry tears of joy or make that change in their life they’d been meaning to make for so long.

You are a distinct voice, with its cracks and tenors and syncopated rhythm and crescendos, screaming at the heavens–a voice that has never been heard before and will never be heard again. You are a pair of eyes that has seen a collection of things and a mind that has thought a collection of thoughts that no one else has seen or thought. The mere fact of your presence, of your existence, is enough to justify itself. It is through that unique method of endurance and compassion that will never belong to anyone else that you help humankind endure and preserve its immortality.

Impostor syndrome and all of the different sorts of self-doubt that we might experience can be incredibly debilitating. I hope that while we all live through these tumultuous and uncertain times together, we develop a little more empathy for ourselves. There is far more to any person than what can be observed or evaluated by someone else. Perhaps some of us will start to love ourselves more for the things we can do and resolve to make the world at least a somewhat better place through the things we can offer, no matter how small.