Smart kids get good grades. Good grades get you into good colleges. Going to a good college gets you a good job when you graduate. Getting a good job gets you a good career. Getting a good career gets you a good life.
Sound familiar? We’re pretty much all taught to think this way in the US. And if you’re a bright kid, you’ve probably internalized this mentality and formed your life plan around it. You set goals constantly, have a straight and narrow path that is both comforting and stress-inducing to follow. You know exactly how to get what you want from life.
The Problem of Perfection
The main problem with this mentality is that it breeds perfectionism. As a kid and teen, I was definitely subject to that, and I still am now (though I’m working on it). You learn to think that your best isn’t good enough, that you always have to be striving for more. And you know objectively that perfection is impossible and that it’s harmful to do the most and be the best whenever you can. And yet—our systems don’t change. Competitive colleges stay competitive. Their faculty still push you to your limits, urge you to take plunges towards greatness.
Sometimes you need a mentor to push you to do your best. And sometimes you need to ignore them and protect yourself.
Sometimes, you need to just go with your gut. For me, not doing that led to the biggest mistake I’ve ever made.
How I Made My Mistake
In my last semester of college, I decided to go after this competitive job opportunity. The prestige of being able to hold said competitive position, plus the fact that it was considered an “honorable” job helping people in need, made me so hungry to have it. It checked off every box I needed it to in order to follow the timeline for a good life that I shared above. My professor mentors were proud of me for going after it. It was perfect.
I contacted the organization’s representative and we met before interviews started so I could learn more. As soon as I could, I submitted my application. I got an interview and felt really confident in my performance.
A few weeks later, I remember I was sitting in my apartment and my phone rang about 15 minutes before my first class of the day. I guessed what it was about, so I answered it quickly. I was offered the job. What a sigh of relief. What a rush of elation. But here’s the catch–it would require me to relocate to a remote part of the state that was at least 2.5 hours away from all of my friends and family, and I would be the first person from my program to ever work there. I would be responsible for kickstarting our impact in that location. My excitement at receiving the offer turned into fear and dread instantaneously.
The conversation went longer than expected, and I had to start gathering my things and heading to class while I was still on the phone with the director. I told them I had to go to class, and as I hung up and stood in front of the building where my classroom was, I started to cry. I turned around and went back to my apartment.
I don’t remember what happened when I told my parents. I probably feigned some excitement and tried desperately to convince myself that this was what I wanted. If you’ve ever watched Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, remember when Rebecca says “This is what happy looks like”? That was me. That’s what I was telling myself.
I figured that if I told myself enough times, my accepting the offer would start to feel ok. I did this for the next 4 months or so as I moved toward graduation. I couldn’t let anyone but my family and Jake know that I was nervous. I was doing the right thing.
I went through the month-long training for the job and moved up to my hermitage late in the summer. I was already miserable, so I had no idea that it would get worse. The next three months were filled with tear-filled calls to Jake every night, pangs of anxiety every morning, and fear at work. I fell into a deeper depression than I had ever experienced and couldn’t bring myself to eat more than about 400 calories a day. I had no appetite. I just didn’t want to go on.
I started wasting away. I lost 25 lbs. in two months, and emotionally, I was a shell of myself. The only thing that brought me something close to happiness was when my family or Jake would visit. Every weekend that someone wasn’t visiting me, I was driving the 2.5 hours down to be with Jake. And on Sunday evenings when I had to leave, I’d cry all the way home.
Once the holidays came, I was at a breaking point. Jake and I were on the train home from our Thanksgiving visit to his mom when I made the decision to tell the director that I needed to quit. I explained that my mental and physical health were in great danger, and I’ll never forget what the director said once I was done pleading my case.
“Well, this is disappointing.”
I’m at the nadir of my existence, doing the one thing I could manage to do to save my own life, and it was—disappointing.
I wish I could tell you that I felt anger when the director said that. But I didn’t. I felt shame. I felt so much shame. It wasn’t until I was in therapy a year later when I finally became angry. In fact, I was enraged. I yelled and swore and felt such hate for the evil that was wrapped in that one casual statement. The courage it took for me to leave that job and save myself was disappointing? No. No, your disappointment is completely unacceptable. You don’t get to be disappointed. Because I deserve life more than you deserve to have the perfect team doing perfect things to create a perfect world. Sorry, not sorry to be a blip on your perfect record. I hope you learned something. I sure as hell did.
After this, I took months to recover emotionally. I laid low. Then I got another job that I hated but that I needed to pay the bills. It brought me back into a bad place because I was so disappointed (there’s that word again) in myself for not doing better. I felt shame catching up with people and telling them what I was doing. And these were not random people—they were family and friends. Yes, readers, those people said things that made me feel bad about myself. Why? Because they expected more from me. They were disappointed in me too.
How couldn’t they be? The entire time I had known them, I’d shown as few weaknesses as possible. I was a golden child, a great student, an overachiever. My mediocrity was worrisome. What happened to her? What went wrong?
The holidays rolled around, and I found myself in the same situation all over again. Jake had to physically drag me out of bed every morning. I started going to therapy, and that’s when I had that a-ha moment of rage I mentioned. It inspired me to quit that second job, and I took another few months to recover.
What I Learned and How It Saved Me
In those months, I thought and cried and prayed and thought and cried and prayed. What had to change? Something had to stop this hellish pattern.
I resumed my job search, and instead of looking for positions that would lead to a lucrative career, I looked for jobs that interested me and played to my strengths. Two weeks before my and Jake’s wedding, I was offered a position for a job that I liked the sound of but I wasn’t sure what it would do for my career.
We got married, and two weeks after that, I started that job. And as other things in my life started to fall into place, I realized that I already had a good life. It was right in front of me.
There was no secret trick, no trophy you had to steal, you just had to learn that contentment is the closest to perfect that you can get.
I didn’t care about what my plans for the future were, I just enjoyed every moment of being married to Jake, living in a lovely house, and having a job that I liked going to every morning.
I don’t try to impress people anymore. I don’t care about my former mentors’ opinions. I have no interest in grad school. I don’t make long-term career plans. I don’t engage with people who like to brag about what they’re accomplishing. I’m just living my life, and I can’t tell you how right it has felt.
I Hope This Helps Someone
I genuinely hope that this story can help someone stop the harmful cycle that they may be experiencing. You don’t have to strive for greatness. You don’t have to dream about being featured in your college’s newsletter. You don’t have to long to make the most money out of all your friends. You don’t have to have the biggest news of success to share at a family reunion. You just have to live.
And no one can be disappointed in you for taking care of yourself, so don’t ever let them.