I was a ‘high achieving’ student. I made the grades. I clearly remember a day in summer school when I was 6 or 7 at Escondido Elementary School. I stood at my teacher’s desk with anticipation waiting for her to grade my handwriting assignment with one of her infamous stamps. I’ll never forget how my arm shook as I handed her my paper. I really wanted the stamp with the smiley face with the crown – the ultimate achievement in that class.
Thirty or so years later, it makes me sad recalling that memory, for having attached my self-esteem to a crowned smiley face, a grade. I wanted to please my teacher, my father, the world. I had a collection of accolades and no self-esteem.
Achieving is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. It’s just a question of what is the context of any given achievement? What is driving the achievement? What are we working so hard to achieve and why?
I do believe in giving our best effort, pushing ourselves to flex our intellectual and emotional muscles to learn new things, to expand our horizons and possibilities. I’m all for intellectual rigor, as long as the process of learning doesn’t become achievement for achievement’s sake. I say this because in college I was stunned to find students unabashedly grade grubbing, asking professors for a grade just because they needed a certain grade to do xyz, as if the actual learning part of their education was secondary.
Though the feeling, the anxiety to ‘make the grade’ rears its anxious head in me every now and then, how I define achievement for myself has changed dramatically. And every now and then, I remind myself, my achievement is defined and driven internally, at long last, as it relates to me, not what others desire of me. I was fortunate early on in school to have mentors who gently nudged me back on my path when I’d head down some supposed ‘esteemed’ path that wasn’t me at all, that, had I pursued it, would have left me emotionally dead-ended and unhappy. Thirty some years later, achievement feels like a different kind of contentment in acquainting myself with my own dreams, desires, and centered in my own skin. How powerful it would have been for me to grasp this when I was a child.