The problem with being an overachiever right out of the womb is that, for the next 18 or so years, success is relatively easy to achieve. My second grade essay on the big bang theory won a prize. I crushed the competition at state spelling bees and piano rallies. When my 4th grade teacher asked us to pick an animal and build a model of that animal using any material we wanted, my classmates started making insects out of toothpicks and cotton balls while I made a gigantic life-sized whale out of iridescent satin and stuffing that took up half the room.
It only got worse from there. In 7th grade, I was elected student council vice president because people were amused by my elaborate campaign posters, on which I pasted pictures of my face on the body of a basset hound with the slogan, “Laura Bassett is Top Dawg!” I tried out for every sport in eighth grade and made all the teams because I was tall. I founded the Pep Club in high school, attended Help-the-Homeless workshops in New York City, sang in the school choir, played on a traveling volleyball team, protested every A- I received until the teacher agreed that it should actually be an A, and applied early senior year to the one and only university I planned to attend. There were no backups, no plan Bs. And I got in.
I feel like I almost set myself up to feel like a failure in the real world. You can’t study to make yourself experienced at your job. There are no grades to evaluate your performance, no gold stars when you do something good. If you’re the new kid in your office, you have to earn your respect by showing up every day and trudging through the work and helping your coworkers out, which may take a really long time.
It’s much easier to make an ass out of yourself when you’re new than it is to impress people, because nobody wants to be impressed by the new kid. And if you’re used to being able to succeed by reading from a textbook and doing practice problems, it’s really difficult to cope with the days when you just suck at your job, and there’s no book to tell you how to do it better.
I remember working at a Congressman’s office as a Staff Assistant in 2006, one of my first jobs out of college. The job was so simple and unchallenging: make the Congressman’s coffee in the morning. He likes the hazelnut cream packet and two Sweet-n-Lo’s. Arrange these five newspapers on his desk before he gets into the office. Answer the phone, be nice to his obnoxious constituents even when you don’t feel like it, sort his mail and his faxes and distribute them to the appropriate staffers.
The job was so simple that I was bored out of my mind. I wanted to rip my hair out every day, having just come from writing 20-page papers on narrative voice in Milton’s “Paradise Lost” to making coffee and sorting mail every day. To make matters worse, his Republican staffers smelled my liberal-ness from day one and were determined to dislike me off the bat.
One day, to my horror, I forgot to turn the coffee pot off before we left the office. It was on all night, and by the time we got to work in the morning, the burnt coffee had cemented at the bottom of the pot to the point where you couldn’t scrape it off with steel wool. There was no coffee in the office that day, the whole place smelled like dead bodies, and I had to go buy everyone coffee from the local coffee shop. I had failed at my one simple job, everybody in the office let it be known that they thought I was a useless idiot, and there was no paper I could write or test I could take to convince them otherwise.
There’s nothing worse than being an overachiever your whole life and then being helpless in an office full of people who think you’re an idiot. Even in my current job, which should be more tailored to my strengths than any I’ve had before, there’s no getting around the fact that I’m an inexperienced reporter with relatively little political knowledge working in an office full of experienced political reporters.
I make an ass out of myself every day. When I try to pitch a story idea on a conference call, I hear ten seconds of silence followed by my someone completely changing the subject. Yesterday, one reporter had to explain to me in simple terms what was happening with the one piece of legislation I was supposed to be following. “No, Laura, it already passed in the House. Now the House and Senate are working on a compromise. You want me to just write this one for you?”
While the other reporters are churning out five articles a day, I publish maybe three a week. There are days when I sit at my desk fighting back tears because I feel so stupid, and I have a Master’s degree and 24 years of straight As under my belt.
I wish I could go back and tell my Kindergarten self, don’t worry about the stupid As, don’t worry about winning every spelling bee, and take a night off from the flashcards. In fact, why don’t you let yourself be terrible at a thing or two so you can prepare yourself for how it feels later in life. Work on not beating yourself up every time you make a mistake, and realize that it’s healthy sometimes to start from the bottom and slowly work your way up to a more respectable place.
I’m writing this down now so I can remember it later, because that’s what I would like to tell my kid. The way you are measured when you’re young has nothing to do with the way you’re measured later in life. We coddle kids with all these constant empirical evaluations. You got four problems right, and Tiffany got three. You will get an A and an award at the awards banquet, and Tiffany will get a B, and you will both carry these evaluations with you as mental baggage in some form or another for the rest of your lives.
It’s silly. Learning to work hard and do your best is valuable– there’s no getting around it. But it’s so easy for kids to lose sight of the main point of education, which is not to bring home A’s on their report card, but to become educated, useful, hard-working people. A little perspective could benefit us all.