Yep, that’s me.
First thing, don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong in being an overachiever. When a person has the talent, they can do whatever stuff they want to do or they feel like doing. However, a talented person is a person nonetheless. In this imperfect world, they are bound to face failures and some people are not ready for failures. Unfortunately, I have to admit I am one of those “some people.”
Growing up, I was always at the top of my class, easily. It felt like I didn’t need to do a lot of effort to be there, or maybe I just didn’t notice that I did. In any case, school was a breeze for me. I participated in competitions that I was good at: science and music. And I won them swimmingly. I got the title of “the exemplary student” of my city when I was 8 (how cute!). I was the marching band conductor and the head of the science club in middle school. I skipped a year in high school. I was a cum laude graduate for my undergrad studies. Well, you got the point, I was in it to win it and I am not used to failures.
At this point, you might be tired of my stupid ranting already. But wait, the point is coming later. I think… 😛
You know how parents always repeat stories from your childhood and you always know what they are about to say after the words “do you remember the story… ?” Yea, my mom really likes this one story about me crying my little heart out when I didn’t win a competition. So long story short, four students were selected to participate while only three were actually needed. Somehow, I ended up being benched. I saw my comrades failing to answer the questions while I knew the answers. Trust me, it was not a “vini vidi vici” moment for me, more like “we came, I watched, you lost.” So, I went home and cried in my mom’s arms. I cried because I knew I could have won it, but I didn’t. Instead, I was just a spectator. My mom loves to tell this story because what happened was so stupid. I kinda like this story as well because like I said it is so stupid. Just bear in mind, I was 10 at the time.
Anyway, it’s not like I had never failed before. One time when I was 8 maybe, I was asked to participate in a drawing competition, which I didn’t know I was good at. I didn’t win, but I didn’t care because it was not my forte. Well in more recent events, I have been applying for grants and other awards for the last few years. I have got none. But, I didn’t care because I knew I wouldn’t get it. The competition has been tight as fuck.
So, I think there are two important lessons that I can make from this rant so far. First, it is about maintaining expectation. Like I said, I have faced failures. However, I expected nothing to come out of it in the first place. If I made it, great! If I didn’t, well tough luck! But of course, sometimes you really expect things to happen. Especially, for things that you know you are actually good at. Things that you have a great chance at. Also for those things, you will inevitably face failures which is the cue for my second point: how to deal with failures.
It is very difficult to be an overachiever who cannot deal with failures. You want to do a lot of things and yet you are afraid of the outcome. You end up not doing anything at all. Since you are not doing anything, your overachiever self wants to kill you. It’s a very vicious cycle. Trust me, been there done that. For example, as a researcher, I have to think of new exciting ideas to solve problems. When these ideas come (especially the good ones), I got really excited, then after some time I would get really nervous. I would be afraid of the outcome, whether it will work or not. In my mind, of course the worst case scenario is playing. The method wouldn’t work and I would be a worthless human being. Because of this fear, I often procrastinate doing small stuff or doing nothing at all. Seeing that I don’t have any results, I will hate for not having done stuff. Like I said, vicious cycle.
From experience, I think my fears actually come from the fact that I feel so attached to my work. I feel like it defines me or rather I define myself through my work. Why wouldn’t I? I spent more than 35 hours a week for this. So when my idea to solve the problem fails, I feel like I actually fail too as a being. And of course this is not okay. This is not right. However, I feel like some overachievers feel this way. That their achievements are what define them. Thus, their failures too.
A long time ago, I came across a very nice ted-talk presentation.
It is from the author of “eat, pray, love” talking about the fear of failure after the success of her ground-breaking novel. At the end of the talk, she said something that I really took in:
… It doesn’t have to be quite so full of anguish if you never happened to believe that in the first place that the most extraordinary aspects of your being came from you. Maybe if you just believe that they were on loan to you, you know from an unimaginable source from some exquisite portion of your life to be passed along, when you finish, to somebody else. …
That’s it! I think this is exactly what I should do. I should not let my previous “relatively full of achievements” life defines me. I should distance myself from it. To be free from expectations. If my idea works, thanks genie, it was a good idea. If it doesn’t, well genie, it’s okay there are million other ideas to explore. Work is just work. I am a PhD candidate most of my time, that much is true. But, just because it occupies most of my time, doesn’t mean that it has to define most of my being. I don’t want it to.
So, if you are an overachiever who doesn’t deal well with failures, just like me, maybe you can try doing this. Whenever I begin to implement my idea and the fear starts kicking in, I will just say to my fear “Hey, let the genie work. If he doesn’t succeed, let him take the blame. If he succeeds, well we can take some credit for it,” and code away. 😀