April 16, 2010

Not overachieving

I started reading Overachievers because I thought it might give me some insight into the students at my current university. It's an interesting book, and the problem of insane competition and overstressed kids is real and horrifying. While the book focuses on high school, many students have the same mentality throughout college. Instead of working themselves sick to "get into college," it's law school or a prestigious job.

Thinking about overachievers, it occurs to me that I was never like that. In high school, I did all of my work and got A's on most assignments, but I never worried about my grades. I felt oppressed by the amount of work, and I lost sleep because I had to stay up finishing homework. But my goal was always to "get this crap done," not to do the assignments perfectly.

I was in one club for two years --- Literary Magazine -- and I wasn't the president or anything. I loved Lit Mag because my best friends were in the club, and we would stay after school writing poems and drinking coffee. I never joined anything just so I could write it on my college applications. I disdained the honor societies and refused to participate. The idea of staying after school for pointless meetings so that I could call myself an honor student seemed like an absurd waste of time.

I approached college the same way. My stress was about getting work done, not about doing it perfectly. I loved my majors, and I wrote two theses just because I wanted to write them. I never did honors programs or internships just to make myself a more attractive applicant. I didn't really study for the GRE. When I decided to apply to grad school (at the last minute), I had done enough to get into a good school. But it wasn't because I had spent college preparing for my applications.

Now that I'm in grad school, i can see that I am approaching it differently from some of my high-achieving, perfectionist classmates. Once again, I'm following my interests and doing good work -- writing a strong dissertation, I hope -- but I'm not obsessed with preparing for the job market. I'm working at my own pace, making time for sleep and exercise and friends. I'm not scrambling to get publications or present at every conference. I'm just trying to have a balanced, healthy life.

I don't think my approach is better or worse -- I'm just contemplating that this is how I seem to do things. I hope that I end up with a job that I like, whether it's academic or non-academic, but I'm not like my classmates who are really driven -- the ones who have been striving for a tenure-track job since day one. I'm not anxiously strategizing and revising my CV and obsessing about the job market.

I will probably finish grad school just like I finished high school and college, with a degree and with good work to show for it -- but not with a lot of CV-padding extras. I will be nervous about getting a job, but I won't be remotely concerned about landing something prestigious. That just isn't what drives me.

I wonder if this makes me really unsuited for academic jobs, or just for high-pressure tenure track jobs. Fortunately I have some time before I need to figure all of that out.


  • I actually think it's a pretty healthy outlook in what can be a super intense situation.

    It seems to me you have a much better chance of being happy wherever you land.

    By Blogger Psych Post Doc, at 4/17/10, 9:52 AM  

  • I agree with Psych Post Doc, I think this is an excellent way of being. You are less stressed than most, which means you are probably able to do better work since you aren't overwhelmed by anxiety. And good solid work leads to good solid jobs.

    My favorite part of your post though, was this: "we would stay after school writing poems and drinking coffee."

    That sounds absolutely delightful! =)

    By Blogger Mamabeek, at 4/21/10, 11:03 PM  

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