Just a few days ago, I graduated from LSU with a B.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing, a minor in Latin, a thesis under my belt, and a 4.0 cumulative GPA. While I am super stoked about finally being finished with my college career and being awarded a shiny medal for my academic achievements, I’ve been thinking a lot about the implications of my accomplishments and the cost of my success.
I Have a Life, I Swear
First of all, when people find out about my GPA, they often assume certain things about me — namely, that I have no social life and am a super boring and uptight person who “missed out” on the best parts of college. That is just not true. Listen: I LOVE partying. I can party with the best of them. I went to frickin LSU, guys. Please invite me to your party. I am a normal human who enjoys social events, and I will not be a buzzkill. [Disclaimer: Now that I’m 22 I have significantly slowed my roll. Shots are a thing of the past, and most nights, I forego the bar scene altogether in favor of pajamas and Netflix.]
Now for the more serious aspect of my argument. It’s scary to me when I realize just how many people think that I’ve never experienced failure. It’s scary how many people have told me things like, “Your life looks so perfect.” It’s scary because it’s so far from the truth.
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Here’s the thing: I am a perfectionist, and like many young women my age, I hide my failures well. I was raised with all of the conflicting expectations that girls in our society know so well: be sexy, but not slutty, smart but not too smart, modest but not too prudish, outgoing but not obnoxious, funny but never vulgar, competitive but never aggressive — lest you be cast off as masculine or (God forbid), “bitchy.”
Looking at my CV, it’s clear to me that my life on paper — while certainly impressive — is a shimmering lie of omission. I don’t say this to trivialize or undermine my accomplishments, but to acknowledge that there are certain things you just can’t put on a resume. In all my years as an overachiever, I have also racked up such impressive credentials as Extreme Self-Loathing: 2004-2012, Obsessive Striving to the Point of Mental and Physical Exhaustion, 1995-present, and a Lingering Sense of Inadequacy/ Crippling Self-Doubt.
Mental illness manifests itself in many ways, and it’s easy to forget that it can bring about great profits as well as great peril. Some of the most successful people I know are also the unhappiest. Everyone wants to be successful, but few people understand that the people who push themselves the hardest are often those individuals who are driven by their own insecurities, and that their accomplishments are (at least in part) the fruits of their anxieties and compulsions. Ask any successful person to divulge their secret, and they will invariably say something like, “I never stopped trying.” What they probably won’t admit is, “I couldn’t stop. Ever.”
The Cost of Success
I’m not trying to say that I’m not proud of what I’ve achieved. I just think that it’s easy to forget that great success comes at a high cost. Perfectionists are never satisfied with what they’ve accomplished; their dissatisfaction is what fuels them to keep going above and beyond. Impossibly high standards, distorted self-image, and unrealistic expectations bring about untold anguish — all masked by an increasingly perfect facade that seems too good to be true, because it is.
I doubt that I’ve said anything here that hasn’t already been said, and I don’t think you’d have to look far to find examples of the phenomenon that I’m describing (think Natalie Portman in Black Swan, Beyonce, etc.). And I could write an entire blog post arguing that while my age group is often described as the “most narcissistic generation,” we’re actually just the most practiced at cultivating self-representations; we’ve learned to showcase only the carefully-constructed versions of ourselves that we want others to see and admire.
I think it’s safe to say that our society worships success, and that our fixation with perfection sets us up for a lifetime of disappointment and unhappiness. As I finally enter into the so-called real world, I’m realizing that I have to change; I have to do the hard work of unlearning what I have learned up until now, or risk being trapped in a life driven by the pursuit of gold stars and praise rather than by the pursuit of my dreams.
So while my friends and family are congratulating me on my shiny impressive medal, I’ll be congratulating myself on deciding to take some time to myself after college, rather than rushing headlong toward the next series of accolades. I think it might be my greatest accomplishment so far. █