Perhaps the greatest tragedy of life is to hit the ceiling. It happens to everyone many times, each with diminishing effect. Ice cream has been eaten, beers downed, videos posted on Youtube, parents and society blamed, revelations made and life rethought. This might be the root cause of mid-life crises, of low self-esteem, of chronic misery and of god-seeking. It might be the reason happiness declines after 26 and only recovers after 48. Life might be reduced to series of filters in a funnel. University is such a filter. Mostly every one of your and my friends have made it past this filter but for many (including myself, perhaps), this is the ceiling. There are other parallel competitions or conciliation prizes but they are largely a function of reduced expectations.

I felt the ceiling when I couldn’t make sense of English or French in high school despite all my best efforts. I might have felt so after writing the ludicrous COMM 341 exam, but I found a reasonable entity to blame for that shenanigan. I reread my Theory of Knowledge essay I wrote in grade 12 and found no difference in my writing style or my thinking. I might not have advanced intellectually since high school (though I have advanced in other ways, arguably).

The following consideration is that of causality. To the “nature” crowd, I should simply make peace with my ceiling. To the “nurture” bandwagon, something can be done: a change in environment, for example. Unfortunately, I am predisposed to stride with the “nature” crowd. This is a fairly defeatist attitude that engenders no optimism and provides no solace for those coping with the ceiling. It also probably ascribes too much importance to pedigree and luck. But why do boys outnumber girls in the top 0.01% of SAT Math Scores three-to-one, if not because nature? (I am proud to announce that I helped my fellow gender-men shift that ratio ever so slightly up, though I made a rather large fool of myself in the other subjects).

The nurture argument has its proponents too. IQ scores have been rising and women are making grounds on men. The true answer is nature and nurture. But I am a strong proponent of declining marginal benefit, an economic theory that applies effectively everywhere. Work (cost) is worth it when it is outweighed by the benefit. But after a certain point, the marginal benefit of work dips so low that pursuing the benefit only causes dissatisfaction. This is the ceiling I speak of. Many people who hit it work tremendously hard and hardly see results; they have mental breakdowns. To pass this ceiling depends on nature.

There might be a lot of ceilings in life but only a few are important. As life progresses, there are fewer things you excel at, and even fewer you are definitively better than your peers at. This creates a rather monomaniacal desire to improve on these few redeeming qualities that they become the sole proponent of your self-worth. The “nurture” camp will argue that it is this accumulation of effort and time (10,000 hour rule) that makes someone great. Unfortunately, time is a scarce resource and 10,000 hours are hard to come by. So one day when you hit the ceiling on all you might consider important, you cannot fathomably focus on something else.

Sports players hit such ceilings early on in their lives. Tiger Woods, certainly; and Jeremy Lin, most probably. Very few can achieve anything worthwhile after their pro-sports careers. Actors fall to the same early ceiling in glamorous Hollywood and postpone it with botox.

Of course, there might be people who never hit the ceiling in their respective fields and there might be people who find a new, pristine ceiling but these are the outliers.