Diary of an Overachiever

23 06 2010

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.

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10 responses

23 06 2010
graber

yo we really had nothing in common growing up!

23 06 2010
districtramblings

Hahahaha, I could have guessed that.

23 06 2010
rw

“Everything we ever really needed to know we learned in Kindergarten.”

Great stuff, DR. Really great.

23 06 2010
Bros

at least you can recognize when you are a comparative lightweight or failing. most people who have heard only good things about themselves their whole lives are really awful people.

23 06 2010
Wing-it

Bros is right. Most people who hear only good things about them all their lives are more often than not awful people. Well -LB you got an A plus on this one. You can see your short comings and you are willing to admit them for one and all to see. You will do great at your new job -don’t forget to turn off the coffee pot and go for it.

23 06 2010
Mary

well rounded: whales, spelling, pep club, philanthropy work, sports, choir… you’re not a failure, the “real world” is. of course you suck at making fucking coffee. you have better things to attend to in your mind. like being witty and well-rounded.

house, congress, senate, shmenate. i bet this shit blows all of those 25-articles-a-weeker’s blogs away (assuming they’re some sort of ryan seacrest and have time for 25 articles a week, bathing, eating, mildly feigning a social life, and blogging (in ryan seacrest’s world blogging= running half of the earth’s main stream media circuit))<– notice i didn't say sleep, because i've been comfortably assuming for the past 3 or so years that ryan seacrest has invented some form of sleep that takes the form of talking into a microphone…

sure shakepeare's a classic and the newspaper is a constant informer, but i'd rather read belle de jour, klosterman, robbins, mythology, marquez, and district ramblings.

24 06 2010
districtramblings

Wow… thank you. That was a hell of a comment.

24 06 2010
geof

I feel like you should include your blog posts in your weekly article count. This is just what you do for fun; it’s better than what a lot of people are paid to do.

You might be happy to know that the majority of human learning theory (kind of a lumped together category i might have made up) researchers agree that American schools on average are well-structured in ways that make it easy for teachers and administrators to expose students to content, but poorly structured when it comes to allowing students to engage in open-ended problem solving. It prepares us for coversheets on our TPS reports, instead of what goes in the report. I expect it will gradually change, or someone like Bill Gates will throw a billion dollars at it and come up with a fully supported amazing curriculum that teachers/districts can implement.

25 06 2010
Ashley

I’m with bros. Knowing your shortcomings and strengths is incredibly important and disappointingly rare. Politics may not be your thing (just yet) but writing undeniably is. Whatever you want to write about, you can master with time and dedication.
Keep churning out the good stuff.

25 06 2010
Wing-it

Ashley just got an A plus too.

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