By Nikea Ulrich ’17
“Overachiever” is a label I get constantly. The connotation of the term in high school was one of mild disdain, but it has since then, in some respects, morphed into astonishment and appreciation. Truth be told, I don’t know which response I favor. No matter what way you look at it, “overachiever” sets an intrinsic expectation: an expectation for continued success and accomplishment.
This expectation is something I have struggled with for as long as I can remember. Of course, there are different types of expectations: those I place on myself and those that come from others within academia and society as a whole. I am fortunate that others see high potential in me and have so much faith in me; my gratitude goes beyond words. But that is just it: I am uncomfortable shedding light on my inner struggles because I feel like I should always be grateful for the experiences and recognition I have gotten. No one seems to mention the added stress and expectation that comes with notable accolades. Granted, a lot of it comes from my own personal issue of comparing myself to others, of fearing disappointment and failure. I have worried in the past that I wanted to achieve because I felt like I had to achieve. So, how do you get out of the cycle of comparing your success to others when you are one such person to whom others seem to compare themselves?
Take high school, for example. The teacher is handing out the graded tests, the classroom atmosphere is filled equally with relief and dismay, and the first question most students ask their neighbor is: “What did you get?” It’s a simple question, but in my own experience, it’s a loaded one. It didn’t matter how vaguely I answered the question. If someone found out they scored higher than I did, they had somehow “truly succeeded.” Conversely, if I had scored higher, I heard “of course you did” as a retort. Maybe this is commonplace for every valedictorian in high school, but the expectation for always being exceptional has affected and continues to affect me.
Fast forward to college. The resume says Goldwater Scholar, DAAD Undergraduate Scholar and Young Ambassador, Fulbright Fellow, and first author on a research publication, among other things. I have worked my butt off, and I have been fortunate to have the amazing opportunities I have had.
However, it doesn’t mean that they came easy for me. The label “overachiever” makes me cringe inside because in my view, such perception diminishes the work involved during the process. It is as if those accomplishments were going to happen anyway, regardless of what I did, or that they were somehow effortless. This is not true.
I think that sometimes the inherent struggles associated with accomplishment are overlooked and those that have found what people may deem as “great success” don’t share them for fear of showing weakness. Another possibility is that I represent a minority of those who feel this way. But, that doesn’t mean I am weak! In fact, I have started to view things a little differently: is something a true accomplishment if there is no struggle involved? Challenge is an integral part of success! For example, during my study abroad experience in Germany spring of 2016, I took a master’s course through the Max Planck Institute of Terrestrial Microbiology in Marburg. It was a completely new level of academic rigor for me, and I struggled so much that I honestly didn’t think I would make it through the course. But I did, and wow did I learn a lot! I felt so accomplished upon the course’s completion and so proud. In retrospect, the struggle was definitely worth it.
Personally, I love challenges. I love being academically pushed and tested. I seem to thrive off busy schedules and coffee-filled mornings, afternoons, and evenings. Of course, a daily dose of chocolate and a nice run outside are also needed. Work doesn’t always come easy to me, and I don’t always accomplish what I set out to do. I struggle too, and thank goodness for that!
So when does the bar stop rising, when do the expectations plateau? I hope never, so long as the expectations are from within myself and not dictated by others. How much is enough? Well, for me, I know that I will always feel the need to do more and to be more. Imposter syndrome is a common companion, but if anything, I am starting to feel pride in my accomplishments. It comes down to feeling pride in my work rather than in my reputation. Lastly, I have begun to appreciate and understand the advice from Daniell Koepke: “Let go of the judgement you have about what you should be or could be doing, and today, allow yourself to simply be…Quiet the voice telling you to do more and be more, and trust that in this moment, who you are, where you are at, and what you are doing is enough.”1
1Koepke, Daniell. Internal Acceptance Movement. Tumblr, 23 June 2013. Web. 12 Apr. 2017. http://internal-acceptance-movement.tumblr.com/post/53694409003