There is a part of every conversation I have with someone new that I dread. It goes a little something like this:
“Tell me about yourself.”
“Well, I recently graduated from Stanford.”
One eyebrow raises. “Oh, what was your major?”
“Do I look that young? Um, well, I graduated from law school . . . and I got a PhD.”
Both eyebrows raise. “Wow. A bit of an overachiever are we?” Nervous laughter.
Then I drop the bomb. “Really? But I hadn’t even told you that I have three kids.”
And brains explode and heads shake. And judgment crashes down.
It would be hard for me to overestimate the number of times I’ve had this exact conversation, even in the five short months since I graduated. It happens like clockwork at the critical part of an introduction when two people decide that a conversation is worth continuing, and such, it needs to get more personal.
I HATE this part of the conversation.
I am not an overachiever.
An overachiever is someone who performs better than expected, who has surpassed expectations. The implication is that one has worked excessively hard, perhaps trying to overcompensate for some failing or weakness or low self-esteem. Overachievers, so it’s said, work themselves into sickness, have crazy perfectionistic tendencies, and are never happy with what they have. And, most ironically for me, overachievers’ “motivations for, well, over-achieving, often stem from the need to avoid negative judgment.”
I can’t say whether this applies to someone or not. But it surely does not apply to me.
I was raised to believe that being highly educated was something to be proud of. I remember vividly the day I got into my first choice college with a full scholarship and how my mom and I danced and screamed and yelled when that thick envelope finally came in the mail. I was the pride of my family that day, and the day four years later when I graduated.
I don’t have unrealistic expectations. I expect that I can do anything I want. So I do. (It’s not my fault you expected a little black girl from Philly to not do what I’ve done. Not my fault at all.)
I don’t have low self-esteem. I like me.
I’m ecstatic with what I have. I don’t NEED more. Sometimes I WANT more. But I don’t need it. And that’s okay.
The truth is, I love school, and still do. I achieve at school because I love being at school. I’m at my happiest on a college campus, surrounded by learning and thinking and growing. The lifestyle of studying what I want when I want and being surrounded by other folks who want to do the same? Yes, that is heaven on earth to me. And I’ve known this about myself for a really long time.
Yet over the years, and with each degree, this awkward conversation has me feeling more and more embarrassed about my accomplishments, despite the fact that they are moving me closer and closer to the life I want to provide for my children. Now, I often feel the need to explain myself to people — people I don’t even know — as if I’ve done something wrong. So, I try to downplay what I’ve done, otherwise, I feel the negative judgment coming my way.
I’m explaining it to y’all right now. That’s how uncomfortable I am. That’s how much I think folks are judging me for doing well.
But I am not ashamed of myself. On the contrary — I know exactly why I’ve taken each step, and I have a plan and a goal. Furthermore, I know I didn’t start out of the womb saying I’m going to have four degrees and a husband and three kids before I was 35. I simply didn’t. That’s just what happened.
It didn’t fall into my lap, of course. I worked for these things. But I never had a sense that I was pushing myself beyond my capabilities, at least not any more than any other doctoral student (for we all doubted ourselves and our abilities during the dissertation phase.) I’ve never gone into anything believing any less than 100% that I could do it.
I’ve struggled at times. I have issues. I have bipolar disorder. It has made everything hard. Physically, emotionally, spiritually. But at my core, this — the degrees, the family, the accomplishments — is what I do.
But it’s not who I am. I achieve, but I am not an overachiever. I achieve just enough for me.
I’m just doing me. Now you go do you.