Why I Have Mixed Feelings About My College 4.0

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.]

My University Medal. Not sure if I went after this distinction because I'm a perfectionist, or because I am just super attracted to shiny objects.
My University Medal. Not sure if I went after this distinction because I’m a perfectionist, or because I am just super attracted to shiny objects.

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.

* * * 

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 have failed in many ways that others overlook, because my failures often serve to make me the ideal student, employee, and friend. I am a fantastic people-pleaser, and I am willing to put your needs before my own. And while I have gotten better at accepting my own flaws and allowing myself to slow down once in a while, I am constantly surrounded and saddened by the reflections of myself I see in my high-achieving, increasingly unhappy peers.

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.  █

Published by Elizabeth Clausen

writer/person. I delight in terrible puns.

7 thoughts on “Why I Have Mixed Feelings About My College 4.0

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment! 🙂 It really means a lot, and I’m glad that you found some meaning in what I wrote.

  1. this reminds me a less depressing piece pierce anthony wrote:

    “One thing you who had secure or happy childhoods should understand about those of us who did not, we who control our feelings, who avoid conflicts at all costs or seem to seek them, who are hypersensitive, self-critical, compulsive, workaholic, and above all survivors, we’re not that way from perversity. And we cannot just relax and let it go. We’ve learned to cope in ways you never had to.”

    I heard it on a this american life episode where a kid tries to run away to meet his favorite author

    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/470/transcript

    1. Read the entire transcript — very interesting stuff. And what a fantastic quote. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Congratulations and best wishes for a well-deserved and what I hope will be an enjoyable break! I hope you also stop worrying about what other people think. Our world needs people like you who do strive for perfection, but who also recognize that most of the things in life are “perfectly” imperfect. I hope you will focus on the gifts you have been given and the good that you can do with them—turning your focus outward rather than inward. Best wishes for continued success, however YOU choose to define it.

    1. Thank you for the kind words! 🙂 I agree that most things in life are perfectly imperfect and I try to constantly remind myself that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”

  3. You explained this so beautifully, Elizabeth!

    I’m in the same boat– a college student with a 4.0, lots of academic and extracurricular awards… and what I’m sure is some sort of emotional complex. I haven’t found a way to express this, but here you did:

    “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.'”

    Thank you. Really, thank you.

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