A reality to consider: there are students alive right now who consider getting out of bed in the morning to be a matter of considerable triumph.
Another reality, to juxtapose: there are students alive right now who have near perfect GPAs and well-paying dream jobs and the out-loud approval and validation of their professors, and who can still feel like the most incompetent trash the Universe ever spat out.
A third, just to throw a wrench in there: these are both valid human experiences.
This week, the eAmbassadors are all writing posts about our #GLsuccess, collections of personal definitions and anecdotes of our successes. It started with a meeting where we discussed the overwhelming pressure people–especially students–are under to ‘succeed’ and be ‘productive’ members of society. (Seriously, if I hear ‘those lazy/selfish/etc Millennials’ one more time…) We thought it would be an eye-opener for everyone, both the eAmbassadors and their assorted audiences, to give insights into what success looks like in our lives; we are under such an immense societal expectation to act and behave a certain way that we figured some much-needed, barefaced bloody-knuckled honesty was in order.
Because we want to start redefining success in a healthier way. Because we want to take back our agency over our value as members of society. And because I personally am tired of answering to the unattainable standard of ‘productive human’ that said society has so ungraciously imposed on me.
So–what is success to me?
Do I belong to Category A, or Category B?
It’s not a one-post answer. Success and I have a complicated relationship; she keeps forgetting to call, and she owes me money for at least two nights out. I’m going to explore that relationship a little bit, with the help of a story that I know will resonate hugely with some and will seem a galaxy away to others. Either way, I hope you learn something from it.
“Ugh, You’re So Smart!”: The Gifted Girl’s Academic Recap
The psychologists will tell you I’m a Type A personality. The astrologists will tell you I’m an Aries. The university will tell you I’m in the top 10% of York’s students grade-wise. My friends will tell you I’m a robot, what with how fast I learn and how efficiently I get things done. It’s all the same thing, in the end: different angles on the same old fact. I’m an overachiever, plain and simple. My natural penchant for perfectionism, combined with my intellectual status as Gifted (more on that later) stacks up to form one heck of a pedestal sometimes.
This might seem like something to applaud, even to envy. We’re taught to always strive for perfection, to fear and revile failure; we’re exposed very early on, either subconsciously or not, to the idea that we need to be ‘smart’ in order to succeed. And that the way you show you’re ‘smart’ is by getting good grades. So it makes sense, when friends of mine sigh longingly after the apparent effortlessness with which I thrive in university. It makes sense that they’d want my overactive drive and motivation–and of course, my GPA.
But I am here to tell you that honestly, it’s a dangerous place to be if you’re not careful. Meeting society’s standard of academic excellence might seem glamorous, in a weird way, but when your definition of success is so mountainous, the struggle to constantly meet it wears you out more than it’s worth.
Let me tell you of elementary school.
For the first three years, I had average-to-below-average grades, except for when I was allowed to really engage my creativity and my marks would temporarily shoot up–the problem is, I was bored. I wasn’t receiving enough stimulus to keep my brain interested.
That changed in 3rd Grade, when I was identified as Gifted. (A Brief Note on Giftedness: it does not mean I am smarter or more intelligent. It means that I generally process information faster than a neurotypical person. This can end up more a hindrance than a help, because in a strictly-regimented classroom, people like me get bored and frustrated and end up resorting to all sorts of troublemaking to take up the extra space in our minds. You can usually identify Gifted children as the ones who are really bright and really difficult.) They offered me a transfer to a school that had an enriched program in 4th Grade and I jumped at the chance.
The transition was rough on me, though–I lost touch with most of my friends from my first elementary school, and it was difficult to find any super close friends in this new environment. I turned to art instead–turned to it so much, in fact, that it eclipsed my academics quite severely. I’d need to go back to my elementary school and check (and I don’t even know if they keep records like this, going that far back), but it may be that I still hold the record for most assignments never handed in, collectively. It was somewhere hovering around fifty, if my fuzzy memory serves me right. I failed four subjects in 5th Grade simply because they didn’t have enough material to mark me on; they took me and my parents to the principal’s office and they essentially told me ‘look, we’re going to move you up a grade level because it’d be embarrassing to you to hold you back, but if you keep this up then we’ll drag you right back down to 5th Grade’.
And I looked at them and went, ‘Fine’.
And that was that. It’s funny to say, but the beginning of my brilliant comet of an academic career began out of spite.
It continued out of a need for approval (in my experience of the Gifted program, your popularity was directly correlated to your intelligence as measured by your test scores) plus bragging rights (like I said, Aries–we’re prone to arrogance if we’re not careful to humble ourselves). Once high school hit, it was out of habit. And so it’s been ever since. Achieving A-grades on every assignment, every exam, every class I take–that’s become as much a fundamental part of my identity as my own name. And that’s a very dangerous way to live.
One of These Things Is Not Like the Others: The Story of My First B+
So it’s third year, and to fulfill a Linguistics major requirement I’m taking an upper-year class in my second language. For once I feel like I have to actually work to earn the grades (something I’m not used to and something which I only managed, I think, because I am in love with linguistics and I’ll work hard for the things I really love). I’m achieving my standard A/A+ grades on every quiz and test and takehome we’re dished. Life is innocent, unassuming.
And then, the night before the last test of the course, a test worth 20%, something unexpected happens.
I have a panic attack.
Ironically, it was my own frustration at the fact that I had such an important test the next day that prevented me from calming down from the panic attack enough to at least get some sleep. It lasted all night and left me shaking and shaken and totally exhausted for class the next day. I could hardly stay awake or focus, let alone drag up all the facts I’d learned in class and translate them from the French in my head to the English I was writing on the test paper. I sat in class for a full forty five minutes, staring at the questions and coming up with almost nothing, doing my best not to cry. I cried anyway, as quietly as I could–I didn’t want to disturb the other students. Eventually I conceded defeat and handed in my 4/5ths-blank test and left the room.
I think I received something like 30% when I got it back a couple weeks later, and the time in between those two moments was riddled with guilt and shame and unbridled fury that my own brain chemistry would go haywire on me at such a crucial juncture of my academic schedule. I spent a few more days dreading the reactions of my family and friends, preparing myself for a frankly terrifying amount of disappointment, and then I worked out the math–it was possible to salvage my grade in the course if I pretty much achieved perfect on the takehome exam. Well, I did (and for a week of winter break I basically did nothing but study the material obsessively. I was no fun at dinner, let me tell you.) Sometime in late December I received my updated academic transcript and lo and behold–the first B+ I’ve ever received from university.
Success is Subjective (And We Are Too Hard On Ourselves)
Some of you will be nodding along by this point. I hope there aren’t too many of you out there. The rest are probably staring dumbfounded at the screen because again, this whole kerfuffle, this whole existential crisis? Is over a B+.
That’s a perfectly respectable grade.
There are friends I have who struggle to pass at all, friends who have actually failed and needed to retake classes, and meanwhile I was sitting there in tears over what amounts to a really solid mark.
So begins our understanding of exactly how great the disparity between people’s ideas of success truly is, and exactly how scary it can be to live up to everybody’s ideal of academic perfection. Because since my pre-teen years, a B+ has seemed to me to carry the same make-or-break presence as failing the class. “Nineties or nothing”, as I used to say. It’s still a struggle now, to recognize that that sort of thinking is unhealthy, that it’s not just what people expect of me, that they won’t be taken aback if I do my version of under-performance. On hard days, I can still catch myself internally erasing that B+ and replacing it with an A+, which is “the mark I should have gotten, if only I hadn’t had that stupid panic attack”. I remind myself that that’s unfair thinking. I remind myself that the B+ was its own lesson.
Because these friends of mine, who struggle to pass classes and are satisfied with Bs or Cs? I have never once looked at them as slow or stupid or dim-witted or worth less than myself as human beings. It’s never entered into my head to judge them on their grades. But because of the educational climate I grew up in, I figure everyone associates my worth with my intelligence as evidenced by my grades. There is still a part of me that thinks professors will equate a single poor mark with a declaration that I don’t care about what they have to say; there is still part of me that honestly believes, if I get a few too many B+s, people will stop liking me or seeing value in me.
So I’m here to warn you against trying to match your ideas of academic success to this lofty a goal. Because–
The B+ Will Set You Free
I always worried what would happen if I let my A/A+ standard slip, and the worrying cost me sleep and meals and sometimes, my own self-love.
Well, we’re here now. No more horrified hypothesizing because it’s Real Life, now, and guess what?
Nothing’s changed. People still see worth in me as a friend, a daughter, an academic colleague. My best friend told me flat-out on the phone when we talked about this that “to be honest, Sienna, people would probably like you MORE if you got a B+ for once in your life. You know, so they know you’re human.”
The only thing that’s changed is my own perception of success–because I have had to learn how to live with the idea of not achieving academic perfection every time, and in the last year I have grown more and more comfortable with it. The loosening of the academic noose around my reputation’s neck has actually allowed me to take it easy, for quite possibly the first time in the last decade.
I’m spending more time with friends (and the more I do that, the more I’m coming around to realizing I actually have quite a few of those), I’m more engaged in my campus community (shoutout to Pro Tem and to my awe-inspiring eAmbassador team!), I’m even prioritizing my art above my studies, or at the very least learning how to combine the two.
And perhaps most important of all, I’m beginning to shift my idea of my self-worth away from my grades–away from my physical achievements in general–and towards the fact that, by sheer dint of existing at all, I have inherent worth as a human being on this planet. Because I AM human, and I’m going to make mistakes (achieve imperfection, I guess,) and as long as I take those mistakes and make them into lessons, I’m doing just fine. So are you.
Understanding that simple, complicated, universal truth? That is true success.