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Letter to an Overachiever

September 21, 2015


Jennifer Gonzalez

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Ball-Drop-Long

 

Dear Soul Mate,

I call you this because I know you. I know the thoughts that run through your head, because they are mine. And I have been buried lately. I have learned a few lessons, and I thought today would be a good time to share them.

First, you should know that I have only given myself 25 minutes to write this. The technique comes from something called the Pomodoro Method, a way of pushing yourself to move quickly through a task. I would link you to it, but I need to keep writing. Normally when I write a piece, it takes me hours. That’s actually a crock; it takes me days and days. I’m never finished; it’s never good enough. My body aches from sitting in this chair and the clutter in my house piles up around me and my grey roots grow more obvious and my kids call for my attention but the work. THE WORK. It needs my attention even more.

I have set for myself an unwritten rule that I will always, always have fresh content on my site every week. Once a week, never farther apart than that. But if you look at the date of this post, then at the one that came before it, you’ll see that eleven days have gone by since my most recent post. These eleven days have been a kind of torture to me as I watched my self-imposed standard come and go with nothing. I’m in the middle of a project that I know is going to be great…no, I just think it’s going to be great…anyway, it’s taking way more time than I thought it would. So many moving parts that I want to get just right, and I can’t let it go. I can’t call it good enough and move on. But my deadline. I am now my own boss and I am imposing my own deadlines and still I work and think about work all the time.

And I have seen you do the same thing. I have heard your stories about staying up until 2, then getting up again at 4 to continue, and still feeling unsatisfied, like you’re just barely clearing adequate. I have told you to go for mediocre on some things. You have to. You have to make the decision that it can’t all be A plus work.

But even as I say this, I know the truth. I know that in my own mind, I’m thinking, That’s fine for other people, but not for me. Yes, I have had to settle for mediocre when it comes to the domestic arts—my cooking, cleaning, and home décor are not much to write home about. There’s plenty of dog poop in the yard that needs picking up. I need new clothes. Did I mention the grey roots? Lots of stuff needs work. But the work itself? The stuff I’m trying to put out into the world with my name on it? No. That can’t be just good enough. It’s fine for everyone else to be a B-plus student. I’ll encourage that all day, sounding like I really have a balanced perspective on things.

But it’s a lie. So I know. I get it.

But here’s what happened over the last few days: I dropped the ball. My one-week deadline came and went, and as I watched it slip away, seven days turning into eight, then nine and ten, a sense of peace washed over me. Nothing bad happened. My inbox didn’t fill up with questions of “Where’s the new blog post?” or “What happened to you?” or “I’m never reading your stuff again! What a letdown!” Nope. Nothing. The world kept moving, because everyone else is busy too.

I get that some deadlines are firm and some slip-ups have major consequences, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about saying yes to things I could say no to, then insisting I do them all to a certain standard, then kicking myself anyway because ultimately, I still find flaws in the work.

Just last week, my daughter was having trouble with a question on her math homework. She was supposed to come up with a word problem that used concepts she wasn’t too familiar with. She wanted me to help her, but I couldn’t figure it out either. I don’t ever want to help my kids with their homework so much that I’m actually doing it for them, so if a few small nudges don’t get them over the hump, I will typically advise them to leave it and tell their teacher they didn’t understand how to do it. My daughter reacted to this with horror.

NO! she said. I’ll get a bad grade!

So what, I told her. Who cares if you lose a few points?

I knew what she was thinking: I have the highest grade in the class. I get straight A’s. I can’t leave it blank. What would everyone think?

And this is what I told her: If the smartest kid in the class gets an answer wrong or can’t do a problem, you know what that is? It’s a gift to everyone else, honey. You’re letting everyone else know that yes, the problem was indeed way too hard, even for you. You are showing them you’re human. You’re showing them they’re not crazy or stupid. It was a hard problem, too hard maybe. People who create assignments make mistakes, too. But the only way they know it is if most people have trouble with it. If you and I worked on this problem for another 40 minutes and I helped you figure out a way to answer it correctly, then you waltzed into class tomorrow with the only correctly answered problem in the class, that tells the teacher that this problem wasn’t impossible after all. You did it, so why couldn’t everyone else? But if you couldn’t? If even you had trouble with it? That’s a sign that maybe the expectations weren’t realistic. Maybe your teacher would have taken another look at that problem and realized it needed revision.

It took only moments for me to hear myself talking and realize it was a message I needed to hear.

Despite that recognition, it still took another week for me to listen. As I watched my own deadline come and go, I heard myself saying to my daughter, Your failure is a gift to everyone else. But my own ego persisted: Good enough for everyone else, but not me.

And then finally it clicked. As the fear of a missed deadline became a reality, I began to welcome it. What if I posted nothing this week? What if it was three or four days late, or if I skipped an entire week? It might be something I look back on later and think, yep, that was a rough week. That was the week I was working on that Google Drive course and everything else fell apart. The week I realized I had to say No more often, take on less, slow my pace. It all turned out okay.

I only have a minute left, so I’ll close with this: Please drop the ball on something. Just do it. You’ll realize that the world won’t end. Everyone else will make slight adjustments in their expectations of you, and those expectations will be more realistic, and they’ll see that you are human, too, and everything will get better. The sucky thing about being the best at something is that you have to keep being the best or you lose.

It’s keeping the balls in the air that’s the hard part. Dropping them can be strangely incredible.

My time’s up. Love you.

Jenn

 

p.s. After my 25 minutes , I went back and edited and added stuff. Clearly, the move away from perfectionism will be slow and gradual. I just thought you should know that.


 

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60 Comments

  1. Richard Enna says:

    Yes, I admit it, I was wondering when your next post would arrive. After losing my private school teaching job of thirteen years, I decided to pursue certification for a full time position at a public elementary school. The past eight months has been a journey of revelations and discoveries about my teaching abilities and philosophy. Your blog has been an indispensable guide. I look forward to your updates, both on your blog, and on Facebook. Therefore, when time passed without a weekly update, I did begin to wonder, maybe even worry. But, like you said in today’s post, it is good to know that you’re human, and that you make the same mistakes I do.

    But then I discovered that earlier with your brutally honest post about your experience with three angry students. I have hurt my students, too.

    Great work, and thank you.

    • Hi Richard. I can’t decide if knowing you were wondering about the missing post feeds my anxiety further or makes me happy. I think I’ll go with the latter. Thank you!

    • Karin says:

      Like many of the other comments felt like you were writing about me. I am also an NBCT. I am currently working on a Masters degree in gifted education, am part of an Instructional Leadership corp for my state where we as teachers run professional development for teachers. I am on the board of directors for my union, a delegate to my state teachers union, and run trainings for my school district in everything from ELA to science and engineering. And I am currently helping to collect signatures for a recall of one of our school board members. I feel on overload everyday, that I may just crack and have a nervous breakdown. My problem is like yours…I am a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to my work. And like you my home duties suffer, even time with my kids. I’m so thankful that my husband supports all my endeavors and gives me no grief at all for the long hours and many weekends spent working or the countless dollars spent on my classroom and students. I have started to say no to things but I do feel guilty about it. I want to help everyone and be there to support them. The most disappointing part of this job for educators like us, the over achievers, is not beingre supported by others. I have some colleagues that tell me how much they appreciate everything I do, but others that say negative things and put me down for all the extra work. Sometimes that is the most over whelming part of this job, more so than the lesson planning, grading and such. I am thankful to read this blog and your others. To know there are perfectionists like myself trying to do it all while still saying somewhat sane is comforting. I commend you for all that you! Keep moving forward!

      • Hi Karin,

        I can so relate to that feeling of working so hard and still not being enough for some people. I’m finding that there is something liberating about knowing those people will always be negative; almost like a free pass to do what you want, because you will never please them. Here’s something else I’m starting to figure out: If you are always everyone’s go-to person because you get things done, they will KEEP COMING TO YOU TO GET THINGS DONE. That’s not good. Being a slacker in some key areas of your life means someone else gets to shine, and you’re off the hook. So here’s the question for you: What can you slack on?

    • Tracey McCartney says:

      Haha! I appreciate this article, and especially love the P.S. I totally get where you’re coming from, as I’m the same way. 🙂

    • Casey says:

      Words to live by 🙂
      Thanks!

  2. Umm….hello?! You in there. Ms. Gonzalez? How on earth did you get into my head? Oh, yes, of course: through the many stress-induced cracks in my skull. Overachievers, unite.

    I am a 13-year ELA teacher (NBCT like you – yeah! 🙂 on a one-year leave of absence in hopes that this time away will tug me back from the edge of burnout. I desperately want to return to teaching, but 13 years of earnest intention have failed to offer me a satisfactory answer to this question: How can we reconcile “just barely clearing adequate” with the overwhelming demands of education and more importantly, the critical needs of each student?

    I look forward to reading more and exploring your site.

  3. I read all of your posts religiously, and devour them the second I receive them.
    I don’t notice your publishing schedule. I did not know that you dropped the ball. Only you knew that. I did not care.
    I love the posts, I hope they keep going, but I won’t set my watch by them. And I hope you’re okay with that, because I say it with love and respect from one teacher/parent to another.

  4. I feel like you wrote this blog specifically for me! I can definitely empathize with the taking on too much and feeling like everything I do needs to be perfect! I love the example that you gave with your daughter – thank you! As I was reading it, I found myself thinking that I would tell my child the exact same thing; yet, like you, I hold myself to a different standard. I teach second grade and I tell my students all of the time that it is okay to make mistakes. That is how we learn. Yet I can’t stand it when I make a mistake. I am guilty of the staying up until 2 in the morning on a work night working on grad school work because I didn’t have my assignment quite right. I would never expect my students to put themselves through this.
    Why do we even bother with a “C” grade in classrooms? “C” is suppose to be average, but it’s not good enough. We have to get an “A,” or at least a “B.” What’s wrong with being average? And what message are we sending to our children that average is not good enough?!? I guess I am just beating myself up right now for being one of the many “overachievers” that you are referring to. If I expect perfectionism out of myself, I need to learn how to say that magic word “no.”

    • Hey Jen. The funny thing about perfectionists is that we’re so good at beating ourselves up, we’ll even beat ourselves up about being perfectionists, and criticize our ability to slack off. It’s horrible! I hope this is able to help you choose a few areas in your life to be completely average at, and enjoy that feeling.

  5. Amy Martinello says:

    YES YES YES!!!!!! You wrote this for me! My goal this year is NOT to be a “Yes” girl! Unfortunately I have spread myself pretty thin and have been placed on many committees at my school this year. However, on the bright side, this has forced me to say no to many other “opportunities” I would otherwise have said yes to. It has also forced me to defend and stand up for myself when I am being forced into a corner. No, I will not take home more work for my own classroom so that I can waste my precious time doing these menial tasks. No, I will not meet with you an hour and a half after school giving up time with my own family. No, I do not believe we need to submit these students to even one more standardized test. I can’t agree. I can’t stay. I do not have time to baby-sit your more-than-capable student who chooses not to persevere. I have almost 30 students in each of my classes. I need my time to be respected as well! Yes! I needed to hear your words tonight! THANK YOU!

    • I once heard some good advice on saying No without being a jerk. You just say “I’m sorry, my schedule won’t allow it right now.” And that’s it. Then be quiet and don’t offer any more explanation. It’s like rappelling: It’s really scary to take the first step over the edge of the cliff, but once you’re over it, it gets a whole lot easier. I hope you are able to say it a lot more from now on!

  6. THANK YOU! All I can say….

  7. I remember the first time I gave myself permission to miss a deadline. It was for a class final in an endorsement program I was in. The words were not flowing and I refused to turn in sub-par work, so I called the professor to plea insanity. It was really empowering. The earth continued to spin, the sun came up the next day, and I was at peace. Everyone, especially perfectionists, should try it.

    • You know, I have been thinking since I wrote this about the more “serious” deadlines, things that have more significant consequences than being late on a blog post. Like not turning in work for a class and ending up with a lower grade because of it. Or someone who is pursuing something like National Boards or a PhD and not being able to keep up with everything on the timeline they originally set for themselves. The consequences for those definitely seem more devastating, but even those I think can be liberating once you start to let go of the idea you have of yourself, the “smartest kid in the class” or its equivalent…to decide you’re going to be mediocre this time around. It’s humbling and makes us more compassionate toward other people. Thanks for sharing this, Pam.

  8. Kris Boydstun says:

    Wow! I dropped the ball today. I had to facilitate a meeting without my prerequisite agenda coming out on Friday! I was embarrassed I didn’t have it done. I even had to write it by hand because I wrote it during an assembly–the meeting was right after the kids left. I quickly copied it 10 times, and set it down in the middle of the table. Everyone was gracious, but I hated that I didn’t do what we had “agreed” upon. What happened? The meeting proceeded, stuff was decided, the meeting ended. The world did not collapse. I really need to let balls drop more often. Thank you a million times for this post. I shall practice ball dropping for the rest of the year! It’s going to take a lot of practice to do it without guilt!

    • Oh! 10 copies of a handwritten agenda. That’s fantastic. I’m glad you did that. You just put a little less pressure on everyone else. Keep practicing!

  9. I love this. Although a professional slacker (I’m not even going to check and see if I spelled professional correctly,) I do tend to fuss over blog posts – wanting them perfect… which they can’t be because the next day I’m sure I’ll change my mind and disagree with myself anyway. So I just don’t blog- I only guess blog. I love this post. It reminded me of this song. Please sing along when you’re feeling over-stressed. Love your work 🙂 Les https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fLkTrLvIb3g

  10. I adore your honesty~ ESPECIALLY in the post script! 🙂

    • Yeah, I didn’t add anything new past the original end point, but I definitely went back in and tweaked, and the more tweaking I did past the 25-minute mark, the more I knew I was going to have to fess up. I’m glad you appreciated that one.

  11. Hola Jennifer
    Winston Churchill once said ” The difficult we will do at once, the impossible may take a little longer”.

  12. Sherri Oliver says:

    I love your blog and the authenticity with which you write! Thank you for your honesty. I too needed to hear this and the timing was perfect! A few days earlier, the impact wouldn’t have been so profound! I really appreciate you and the work that you do!

    • I’m so glad to hear it, Sherri. I’m curious about what happened over those few days, but my guess is that you must have had your own meltdown of sorts. You’re making me very glad I decided to write this!

  13. erica says:

    Oh my, I needed that. I have been struggling with this very thing and deliberately dropped the ball last week because I was so overloaded. Thanks for sharing!

  14. Meredith says:

    I took a sick day yesterday, so that I could grade papers and write letters of recommendation because I couldn’t both teach my classes and do other parts of my job. I’ve had these papers for a week and can’t get them graded and returned, and I wake up at night thinking about them. It’s now it’s Saturday, and I’m at work. And I’m trying to create the perfect lesson on creating complex sentences and punctuating them properly, but to do that, I would need to create some fresh new handouts instead of using the old ones I already have. So I just want to tell you, Jen, that today, as I look at this pile of papers and this stack of letters I need to write and these lessons I need to plan about Romeo and Juliet and transcendentalism (and I think about my children at home with their dad and wish I were there with them) that I really, really needed this. In fact, this post was so good it made me tear up a little.

    • Hi Meredith,
      It must be the time of year; I think everyone is just getting buried right now, so we all need to just back up and take a breath. I am so glad this helped. Thank you for writing and telling me about your Saturday. I’ve definitely been there.

  15. Joy Ferguson says:

    I read your blog regularly and really enjoy it! I don’t notice if it is “late” and hope you feel entitled to take breaks from time to time. 🙂
    I give myself a hard time too, and sometimes rush to send out something that ends up making me cringe afterwards. It is such a balancing act of priorities!

    • Joy, I’m thrilled that you didn’t notice! I hate when I rush things and regret it later; that’s why I think it’s important to limit the “things” in the first place, so you can keep the quality up. Thanks for taking the time to write.

  16. Josie says:

    I really needed this. I’m a 4th year teacher who has just transitioned from private middle school (for the past three years) to public high school, and I’ve been tearing myself apart trying to get a handle on my very different students and my very different content with a very different level of bureaucracy and oversite which determine my “effectiveness ” as a teacher. I’m six weeks in, and contemplating whether or not teaching is even really my calling anymore. I feel like a first year all over again, and I’m beating myself up over not being as good this year at I was last. Intellectually I recognize that changing to a new school and a new grade level is hard and requires a significant grace period, but the perfectionist in me is screaming, “you’re not good enough.” Thank you for this reminder. Thank you for the permission to allow myself some mediocrity at least for a while. I still need to internalize that permission, but it helps to hear it.

    • Josie, it sounds like a challenging transition! If you click on “Resources” up there, then go to “Books,” you’ll find a book called Awakened. I strongly suggest you get a copy for yourself. It’s such good training for changing your self-talk to a voice that’s a lot more realistic and logical. I still go to it all the time when I need a mental re-set.
      One of my best friends actually quit a teaching job after just two days on the job, and to this day I blame her perfectionism. She just couldn’t handle the pressure. Since then I have realized that having perfectionistic tendencies is a liability for a teacher…there are SO. MANY. WAYS. TO. FAIL. Therefore, people who are better able to shrug things off now and then have the resilience to survive. I hope you can get there.

  17. Chiquita Adams says:

    Thank you so much! I, too, constantly feel the weight of this unnamed, mammoth pressure to meet deadlines and live up to unrealistic expectations for myself. And, God forbid, if I don’t meet them, I feel terrible…. sigh. Such is life. And as I grow and learn and become a better me, I continue to forgive myself and understand that NO ONE can be everything for everybody, all the time — except Jesus. Thank you for your candor and brutal honesty. It truly is invaluable to me. Keep doing what you do! You’re awesome!

  18. Carol says:

    I enjoyed reading your post. It reminded me of this Stephen Covey quote.

    “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage…pleasantly, smilingly, non-apologetically…to say ‘no’ to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside.”

  19. Donny Martel says:

    Sometimes we need to stop and listen to the crickets and smell the roses … never feel guilty. Love your writings. Thank you.

  20. Fabiana says:

    I’m a perfectionist, control freak and overwhelmed teacher in Brazil, thinking about quitting… These words were everything I needed to read. I just need to drop the ball, trust that everythig is going to be allright, and say NO more often. Thank you so much for your words, I love your blog and your posts, even if you post new things once a week, I’ll still read them! Love from a passionate Brazilian teacher!

  21. Fabiana says:

    I meant once a MONTH in the previous comment, sorry! 🙂

  22. Joanie P. says:

    We need to have boundaries in our professional and personal lives in order to keep ourselves balanced and at our best. Perfectionism does not allow us to be our best, and leads to burn-out. What a great letter this is to those of us who can relate so well. Thank you!
    P.S.- Any time you want or need to take a break, please do. I, for one, will be proud of you for that.

  23. MaryAnn says:

    Should you ever find yourself on the southwest coast of Florida, I will drop all kinds of balls and take you out for milkshakes or margaritas or both. I needed to hear this tonight. Big thanks, and a big hug.

  24. Denise says:

    Thanks for opening up. It helped me feel relieved, now empowered, about my own brand of “Over Achiever-ness” that I tend to let weigh me down. But no longer! Finally, I give you permission NOT to respond to my post!

  25. Really awesome post! Thank you for myself AND the students with whom I’ll share it.

  26. Andrea Ferguson says:

    LOVE this article! Just what I needed to read as we press on looking forward to Thanksgiving Break!

  27. Umaan says:

    Dear Writer,

    I have went from this stage to clinical depression to a stage where I would miss deadlines and not work for them. Dealing with depression though have made me go easy on things. But guess what? Evem the going easy upsets me. In the last session with the therapist I told her I want to go back to by old self. I think I am not achieving anything.

    Learning to say no. Learning to be satisfied with the mediocre – it is a challenge! We the Over-achievers and Perfectionists choose the difficult for ourselves even when there is an easy way out!!

    Thanks for writing this out. A reminder to myslelf! It is okay to be mediocre 🙂

    • Hi Umaan. You know, I never really put this inside the context of clinical depression. I guess it could be a slippery slope if you start to let so many things fall between the cracks that it becomes a way of life, and you then feel like you’re doing nothing at all. Such a hard balance to strike.

  28. Lindsey Pence says:

    Thank you so much….even now, two years later, this article still has meaning, and is one I share with students I serve who don’t know how to say “No” or require perfection….and one I resonate with most deeply.

    Thank you for being the you that would share your thoughts with the world so we too can learn from them.

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