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The pressure to be perfect

Remember last week when I said there are still stories that can make me click through and read every word?

Well, I came across one tonight. It’s not some earth shattering insightful article. But it was something I could totaly relate to: the pressure high schoolers feel to be perfect. The NYTimes article is called “For Girls, It’s Be Yourself, and Be Perfect, Too. It’s long — six pages, plus some interesting multimedia and leftovers — but it struck a chord with me.

I was reading the article thinking, “oh my God, I was that girl.” I saw myself in a lot of these kids. But they’re more grounded about it. Still, I saw the same struggles I faced, the same pressures and worries. But it wasn’t society telling me how smart or involved I should be. It was me — bearer of unrealistic expectations.

(I should warn you, this is really not journalism related. It’s pretty off-topic, except that it was sparked by reading that story. So go read that, and leave me to muse to no audience.)

It really hasn’t been that long since I was in their seats. Since I was “that girl.” I took every single AP course my high school offered. I had the highest ACT score in my graduating class. I was a three-year varsity athlete and president or an officer in more than a handful of clubs. I didn’t do it for my college resume. I turned down more than I took on, including running for class president when half my classmates approached me with disdain about the lack of choices because they all thought I was going to run. I never apologized that I didn’t want to plan prom.

I look at myself today as a recovering over-achiever. My high school classmates senior year voted me “most intelligent,” and rather than relish it, I then felt slighted that I also wasn’t “most likely to succeed.” Today, who cares? I am doing exactly what I said I would do, and I love it.

I’ve always tried too hard and been too hard on myself. A 3.9 is nice, but it’s not worth mentioning unless it’s at least a 4.0. I overcame my addiction to perfection the same semester I almost broke down in the newspaper adviser’s office because I couldn’t meet a deadline and juggle the 30 hours I worked weekly with the other five courses and half-dozen activities I’d taken on. That was the same semester I realized journalism was definitely what I wanted to do with my life. It was also the last time I said “yes” for the sake for pleasing someone else and the last time I cried in public. Not a coincidence. I realized then, for the first time after the adviser told me, I didn’t have to be perfect. Nobody but me cared if I was.

I feel up to this point in life, I’ve done everything I said I wanted to be doing and way, way more. Screw most likely to succeed. (She, by the way, changed her major several times, has a kid, and won’t be graduating anytime soon. She might have even dropped out by now. I’m just throwing that out there.) I’m about six months ahead of my life schedule, actually. And relative to college graduation, I landed a job, in my field, which I really enjoy, exactly when I planned to on my life goals timeline. I moved away from home and out of Ohio, major life number two (after No. 1 – college). And I learned not to look to exteral people, labels, grades, whatever, for a definition of success or happiness.

When I was applying to colleges, everyone wanted to know if I’d apply to an Ivy. I didn’t tell anyone but my counselors where I was applying or what I’d be majoring in. I didn’t want their approval, or more likely, their disapproval. They all said I should go to Harvard. I would have hated Harvard. Same thing when I was applying for jobs. They all think I should work for the New York Times. Well, that’s great. Maybe in a few decades. Maybe NYTimes.com. But right now, where I am in my life, the Journal & Courier is pretty much exactly what I was looking for. It’s what I need. It’s not the Columbus Dispatch or anywhere near the Washington Post. That’s kind of the point. And, if I never make it to a place like that, what I’ve learned about myself by getting over being an overachiever is that’s totally fine with me. I’m happy as long as I enjoy what I do and never feel like I’ve settled.

But, I do still want to Africa.

One Response to “The pressure to be perfect”

  1. Dana Says:

    Awesome–I read through the whole thing. Hi, my name is Dana, and I too am a recovering over-achiever.
    I had a 4.1 GPA in high school and still only placed 20th in my class. That’s enough to make a perfectionist’s head blow up.
    I think the best thing that could have happened to me was getting a B in a class my first semester at Kent. The pressure was immediately off. While my grades were high throughout the rest of college, I didn’t hyperventilate every semester wondering if this would be the semester to tarnish my GPA.
    So glad there are others who understand. =)