Friday, April 06, 2007

Success and Achievement

On the NYTimes.com today, columnist Judith Warner, who I often think does a whole lot of complaining for a woman with such a comfortable life, wrote a piece in response to an earlier Times article about "amazing girls." Warner makes several points with which I disagree, but the most interesting is that by setting up such high benchmarks for success early on in life, girls are destined to crash when "achievement" isn't "rewarded."


Warner writes: "Many, I think, never figure out how to handle the emptiness that comes when the rush of achievement fades away, or the loneliness — the sense of invisibility — when no one is there to hand out yet another "A." The fact is: when you are narrowly programmed to achieve, you are like a windup toy with only one movement in its repertoire. You're fine when you're wound up; but wind you down, and you grind to a halt."

My first reaction to her is "that's not true!" but is it?

I spent my high school years being as busy as I could possibly be because I wanted to go to Harvard. Later on my heart became set on Princeton, but the goal was basically the same. Five AP classes, captain of the tennis team, lead in the school play, Mock Trial, academic team, science club, Governor's School of the Sciences (back when I thought I wanted to be a Physicist...). You name it, I did it. And I probably ran it at some point too.

What was my reward? Well, Dartmouth. Our wee college on the hill with it's frat parties, beer bongs and ridiculous set of course requirements that tried to make us as well-rounded as humanly possible. And we had to pass a swim test.

Don't think I'm knocking Dartmouth. It was a wonderful school where I received a top knotch education and I wouldn't trade a day of what came before or after.

But when I got out of the Ivy League bubble and moved to Boston to find a job, the crash was swift, and I fell hard. In interview after interview people assumed I was a certain way because of what my resume read. As I got rejected from jobs, I became meeker in my interviews. Quiet. Terrified.

One day, a recruiter I'd been working with called me up and asked what kept going wrong. I said the woman who had interviewed me sat me down and said "I know you think you're too good for filing and copying, but that's a lot of what this job entails."

First sentence out of her mouth.

After being rejected from five jobs, how was I supposed to respond to that? I was afraid of losing yet another prospect, and I tried to be pleasant, but she interpreted my fear of saying the wrong thing as aloofness.

I finally wound up in a temp job at that company that lead to a year as the assistant to the director of marketing. Yes, it was miserable. Yes, I mailed, filed and photocopied. I hated every single day of it.

But it did teach me that graduating from an Ivy League school wasn't a Golden Ticket. Adults weren't lining up to throw opportunities at my feet. I had worked to get to college, and after college had to work even harder to find my place in an even bigger pond - that "whole world" place they don't tell you about when you're a kid.

So maybe Warner is right, and falling on your face early might be the best thing that can happen to a girl.

Now, as I count the days to my 30th birthday, I look back over my marketing days. My time in graduate school "studying" journalism. My scrappy years as a cub reporter for a 16,000 circulation daily newspaper where I found myself writing about whether or not Steve LeBel could build a giant shed in his yard (the planning board said yes. his neighbor cried.) and wondering how, for having finally found a job in "my field" that I loved, I was so damned poor. I had made more money temping. But without that newspaper job, perhaps the real-world equivalent of taking AP classes to get ahead, I wouldn't be sitting here now - not writing an article about custom-made gaming computers for a magazine.

Along the way, there have been some bumps in the road (mountains maybe...). My best friend passed away almost two years ago. I've struggled with depression and self-doubt. I've had some doozies on the relationship front. But I made it through, and in doing so, I've had to redefine what it means for me to be successful.

I may not be the CEO of anything. I'm not interested right now in being Anything-in-Chief. I'm not breaking any glass ceilings. I'm not in charge of much.

But I have a lovely cat, amazing friends, stellar sisters and a sense of peace and confidence that I can get through just about anything that I hadn't imagined possible back when I was 21.

My definition of success in the world has morphed along the way - from needing to put myself in the best college the world had to offer, to a steady staff job at a magazine that lets me do what I do best - write sentences - and get paid for it. Not bad. And that's good enough.

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