I Might Never Reach My Adolescent Potential (and That’s OK)

woman sitting on bench

I was supposed to be a success. I was supposed to be the girl who made it big and made everyone proud. I was talented, driven, creative.

Somehow along the way, I turned out disappointing.

Growing up in a tiny Midwestern farming community, I became slightly obsessed with the idea of Getting Out of There. I didn’t know how exactly I was going to do it though, and so I did everything. I sang, danced, wrote, painted, and acted my way through school. I skipped a grade and tested in the ninety-eighth percentile. I sang a solo with the symphony in the closest city and was editor of the school paper.

At some point in the midst of all this, I decided I was going to be a magazine editor, the likes of which Vogue had never seen (ha.) So I went off to college, convinced I was never going back to that tiny town except in a glorious swirl of couture clothes.

I got to college and got lost. I hated all of my journalism classes with a surprising passion. I switched my major three times and decided to focus on my writing, while justifying my English major to myself as being a more universally applicable major. The whole time I kept hearing people say, “Do what you love and you will never work a day in your life.”

Every time someone said that, I wanted to cry.

What did I love to do? I loved to read historical biographies and cuddle with my cat. I loved to bake. I loved movies. I loved art galleries and loitering in museums for hours on end. Which one of those things would I be willing to do and love every day for the rest of my life? *

My problem was that all of the things I had done up until that point were all things that I liked. I enjoyed doing all of them. I was good at so many things, but there wasn’t that one thing that I was blessed with that I obviously was supposed to do. I would trade being good at a lot of things for being great at one thing any day.

I was paralyzed and afraid. Whatever I picked to do with my life had to be amazing, and I had to be amazing at it. I had to live up to all that Talent and Potential. I had to live up to myself. Instead, I ran myself ragged, came down with an extremely serious case of mono, and then, frustrated and terrified, dropped out of college and moved to the big city where my boyfriend at the time lived. One thing led to another, that relationship fell apart slowly, and I worked retail and waitressed to pay the bills and still didn’t have a clue about what I was going to Do With My Life.

Then I met E. He is adorable and makes me laugh until my face hurts, and for some reason he didn’t think I was a complete and utter failure at life because I didn’t have a career. He loves me for me, whether or not I decide what to do with myself. So now, a couple of years later, we have moved together across the country to another big city for his career.

I think it has taken all this time and E’s love for me to accept that I’m not actually a disappointment to anyone but the crazy sixteen-year-old me in my brain. All I really wanted growing up was to move out of Nowheresville and live in a big city, with all the art and culture that a city has to offer. I did that. I made enough money to support myself and to go shopping occasionally and go out with my friends, even though I made that money with dead-end jobs. If I had never dropped out of college and moved, I never would have met E. And I don’t think my mother has ever been as proud of me as when I sent her the collection of my poetry that I am self-publishing with the money I made being a receptionist at an office.

I would like, at some point, to go back to school and finish my degree. I would love to find a job that I look forward to doing every day. Maybe I’ll find it, maybe I won’t. I hope that I can find my niche, to find a place where I value what I do and that it, in turn, is valued. I think the biggest thing I have to remember is that all that Potential I had as a child and as a teenager is not all there was to me. E. fell in love with me after I decided I’d already failed to live up to it. Seeing myself the way that he sees me has helped me come to terms with my own disappointments. It has also helped me to appreciate the things that I have accomplished so far. I am still talented and creative. I still have the potential to do any number of great things. I am not just the sum of my achievements or the list of odd jobs on my resumé. Sometimes you need someone to give you the space and the perspective to see what you can’t. He was that person for me. Whatever I want to do, whenever I figure out what that is, he will be there cheering me on as I make it happen. Then I can tell that sixteen-year-old girl in my brain to shut up about not living up to her.

*I would gladly read biographies every day forever. Does anyone want to pay me to do this?

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  • mep

    From someone who also spent my teen years defined by “I have to get out” and did the requisite 1000 extracurriculars to do so, thank you for this post. I haven’t quite gotten to the point you’ve reached of being able to tell my 16 year old self to shut up, but I’m getting there. Thank you for expressing these feelings so precisely! I really needed this today.

    • meg

      So this conversation is really interesting to me. I really wanted to run this post even though I have lived this, came to this conclusion, and then came to other conclusions. I also spent years fighting to ‘get out.’ And then I did. And then it was ROUGH. I spent a lot of time trying to tell my 16 year old girl to shut up. And I think somewhere along the way I realized I was wrong, and she was really my compass. She didn’t fight that hard for no reason.

      So. I don’t think everyone comes to the same conclusion, but I do think it’s a really interesting conversation to have… and frankly, in this economy, an important one.

      • Maybe the answer is really somewhere in between for some people: fight like hell to get out because being really successful is The Way to do that but once you’re out your options have changed and the ways to achieve your favored options might be more varied then they were when you were “stuck.”

        • meg

          I think what you’re saying here is really smart, and I think often dead on.

          I think to clarify what I’m saying: I actually didn’t have specific career goals at 16 (which makes it easier I think), I just wanted to do something that I was happy with and proud of. I tried to give that up, and tell myself paying the bills with something that looked halfway ok was enough. It really wasn’t for me, it turns out.

          When I was 16, I basically just had to work 14 hour days 6 to 7 days a week, to do well enough to get a scholarship, so I could leave. There wasn’t a specific thing I had to do, or be successful at. So what I learned is simply, I can’t let the girl who put in all that bone crushing hard work down. I had to give up on lots of things, fail a lot, stop fighting for awhile. But I couldn’t actually give up. If she’s worked that hard, I could too.

          Milage may vary :) And I think what you’re saying here is totally correct.

          • Adrini

            When I saw this post I flinched abit. I’ve been dealing with this for the last five years or so.

            My husband met me when I was tail spinning into a total breakdown and for a reason I will never understand stuck around. Almost five years later I’ve gotten help and have largely recovered (you can tape a branch but once broken it is never as strong) and I am massively behind. On the ideas I had for grad school, for kids, for home ownership – all of it. Stuff I know the younger me killed herself to get me to. But maybe that’s the problem.

            If I taken a breath then I might not have broken down. I might be farther ahead. I wouldn’t be facing a life in and out of therapy for the rest of my days.

            So now I work 8 hours a day. Period. If it isn’t done then, it gets done tomorrow. What has to be done today gets done first. If the dishes don’t get done they get done tomorrow. If then. But at some point they will get done.

            I also had to drop out due to the break down and now when applying to finish my last four classes have to explain why I left. Which is SOOOO much fun. But I get it done and once I’ve done all I can I paint or write or watch tv and just try not to worry about it. I do want the same things I did when I was 16 ( she was amazingly correct on a number of things. I don’t think it’s common to look up to a younger self) but I know now that I will get there when I do. There is no “right” way, there is only the way that ends of working for me. That she didn’t know.

  • BB

    Wow. I can definitely relate to you about the pressure to “live up to all of the potential.” I am currently working on a science PhD and yet most days I hate the research and what I am doing and I can’t see myself being a big wig professor at a research university with a world class lab and working my ass off 80+hrs a week… I would so much rather teach and/or (gasp!) teach high school, but the community I am in looks down on anything except pursuing the tenure track job. I hate feeling like I am letting down my (19 year old) self and all of the people who cheered me along the way. People say to do what make you happy, but what makes me happy is gardening, and playing with my kitties, being active outdoors, and spending time with my FH. So for now what I am doing is just a job. Hopefully someday it will get me to a job that I actually love.

    Good luck on your future pursuits, and congrats on realizing just how awesome you are! Thanks for the post!

    • PAW

      I am not sure which science you are in, but there’s been a big discussion going on in the astronomy community lately about expectations, and one part of it is the emerging opinion that professors should be supporting their PhD students in order to help them find jobs THEY want … not necessarily to become professors as well. You can find the ongoing discussion on astrobites. (It goes back to a letter that was sent to grad students at a top university, so there’s a lot of history.)

      Long story short, my point is that you should absolutely ask around and see what other jobs tehre are available for people with your degree! Education and public outreach, museum jobs, etc. etc. And good luck!

      • BB

        Thanks! I will look in to it!

    • Vmed

      I was you three years ago. Since then I left my fancy fellowship funded phd program with a master’s, taught science at a private high school (loved it, woke up every day with purpose), and now I’m a stay at home mom until I start my next gig in a year.

      If we were friends in real life, I’d urge you to seriously consider mastering out before you sink more time/effort into a career you don’t really want, and definitely try the things that might make you happy. Find a classroom to visit, and do science outreach with various age groups of kids.

      The sooner you figure out what to do, the sooner you’re doing it. Grad school certainly doesn’t pay enough to justify doing something you hate. Good luck.

      • Caroline

        This is exactly what I needed to read today. I am weeks away from defending my PhD and loved my grad school experience (for the most part), but have no real interest in going into Academia. I have been looking into high school teaching and am excited by the option, but still pretty down about the whole job search prospect in general. Thanks everyone for the uplifting stories.

      • Hooray for mastering out! I left my phd program almost 10 years ago, and I’ve never regretted it. After I left, I realized how much being in a program that didn’t fit with my values and motivations was really weighing down my view of my self worth. It was a tough decision – as a rare woman in an engineering phd you feel like you have a duty to stay the course – but it was ultimately the right one.

        That said, in the ensuing years and careers I’ve tried on, it’s still a process to find the right thing – and that right thing is a fluid thing. What Ashleyn says here about how discouraging the advice is to do what you love is so spot on for me. Every new job has taught me more about what I like and dislike about work, and has encouraged me to test these hypotheses in the next gig. Don’t be afraid of change.

    • pizzel

      I was in a science PHD and hated it all the time. I left with my masters (long after I should have) and got a job in industry and holy poop it’s amazing. Which isn’t to say that it’s not boring some times because it is, but there’s things like : paid vacation, a grown up wage, decent health insurance, and the top of it all, people are always talking about how great my contributions are that make it INFINITY better then academia.

      If you don’t like it, you don’t have to finish.

      • R

        “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to finish.” THIS.

        Not finishing is SUPER hard for us “success” kids- but choosing not to finish is not the same thing as failing. It can be HARD- but making a choice that will make you happy (now a fully informed one- you KNOW what being in academia means in ways you probably didn’t when you started) is, as far as I’m concerned, a very brave and successful thing to do!

        Besides- five careers, etc. before we die, right? Life is long- no need to settle on the first career you picked if it turns out you hate it…

        • meg

          Just visiting this idea of ‘choosing not to finish’ vs ‘failing.’ I think we give failing a bad rap. I think, probably, the most important thing you can learn as a success kid is how to fail, and fail HARD. Once I failed all over the place at several things… the situation improved. Once I’d failed, I stopped holding myself back, because I wasn’t scared anymore. I’d lived through what I thought was the worst thing (giving up a career I’d worked hard at, trying something new and hating it even more) so I was free.

          • I find this really, really interesting…the idea of failing (and surviving) bringing freedom.

            Besides, it’s what one does after a failure that’s the important part anyways… having the “grit” to keep on going and try new things until you find the path you want to pursue. Interesting stuff!

          • Lauren
          • rys

            The most important class I took in college was a math class called “the art of mathematical thinking” which focused on the awesome parts of math that non-math people rarely get to do (number theory, fractals, etc). But the most important part of the class was the underlying assumption: that mathematicians fail. A lot. All the time time, even. And they learn something and then they start again. As a “success kid,” this was a mind-blowing lesson to learn. I haven’t always been able to apply it perfectly (ha, success kid is still there) but it’s really stayed with me as a life lesson.

          • Claire

            I really needed this today. I’m still grappling with my decision, or non-decision as it were, to not finish my honours thesis in anthropology. I struggled with it waaaay beyond what is acceptable to churn out a thesis and then decided to run away to Mongolia for a while. I’m back home in Australia now, in a new city, and have been looking for work constantly for five months to no avail. All my demons I left behind before I left the country have caught up with me and I’m having to face those ‘failures’ now. But although it’s been tough, I have the full support and love of my fiancé which has made the situation bearable. Thanks for the timely post Ashleyn.

          • Georgina

            Although it may not feel like it at the time, I think that making an active choice not to finish something is a mature an empowering course of action.

            I have chosen not to finish 2 major things so far: My law degree; and the full 2 years of a graduate scheme at a professional services firm. I was performing well in both instances but was mentally and physically unwell both from the pressure and because these paths were not a reflection of my authentic self.

            Your life sounds full of possibility. I understand that must be a little scary and, I hope that with the support of E you are able to embrace these possibilities, and find the thing that makes you truly happy.

          • Julia B.

            Oh thank you for saying this! And for this post!

            I’m a law school graduate and I gave up on my phd half-way in when my professor told me to ask my parents whether they could finance me while I worked full time for the faculty – unpaid and without any social security, forget labour laws…

            And I think that’s the moment I started to realize my WORK is actually woth something – at least to me. And even if I work a dead end job it’s getting paid. I like the appreciation that comes with the fact I get to pay my own bills. And I worked crappy jobs for quite some time after that. But I paid my own bills.

            Now I’m working in marketing at an NGO. It’s nothing like what I thought I would be one day (a diplomat! Saving the world! Ban Kee Mun 2.0! Mother of 11!) and nothing like what my parents thought.

            I am enjoying it. Almost all the time. (it can be rough but it’s usually worth it.) Thanks for saying it out loud: it’s ok if the plan changes. Failure can be just a step in the process. Dead end jobs can be part of a journey.

      • Umpteenth Sarah

        I absolutely HATE the notion that the only “successful” route out of academia is into a tenure-track professor job. Dude. Seriously. You have a PhD — or a masters –, for goodness sake — that’s success enough, in my book, that it doesn’t matter whether you use that PhD to profess to other students, profess to your children, or profess to your industry colleagues. There are some preposterously unhealthy philosophies in most graduate programs in this country.

        In full disclosure, I left without finishing — although I am actually going to finish, from a distance — to work in my field’s version of “industry,” and although I felt like a high school drop out when I moved, I LOVE my new job, got a huge promotion a year after starting, and can sleep through the night without waking up in a cold sweat.

      • Carrie

        Pizzel, I have a question. Did you get your master’s, then spend more years working on the Ph.D before leaving? If so, did you have any trouble with potential employers viewing that negatively?

        I’m in an engineering Ph.D program. I got a master’s degree a few years ago (it’s fairly common to do an “en route” master’s in this program). When I think about leaving my Ph.D program and getting a job, I worry that employers will look at my resume and see “master’s in 2009, doing Ph.D work until 2013, but no Ph.D” and think “Loser. She clearly failed at her Ph.D work, so she has a track record of failure, so we don’t want her.” So I feel like I DO have to finish or I won’t be able to get a job. I was always planning to take my Ph.D into industry rather than academia — that’s also very common in my field, and doesn’t carry the stigma that it seems to carry in the more basic sciences — so the issue is not the switch to industry. The issue is, will I be able to get a job as an obvious Ph.D dropout? Or will employers just see me as, well, a dropout?

        (Not to mention feeling like I’ve invested so much time, and my husband has invested so much in supprting me through this, I have to make it worth something. And the fact that my husband is expecting me to get a job that can support us both and give us both health insurance so that he can go back to doing photography full-time, and I don’t know if I can do that if I leave with a master’s now.)

        (Clearly I have issues.)

        • I think it really depends on what type of engineering you’re doing. I know in Oil and Gas in Canada, a Master’s is looked on as a little suspect, and I don’t know, between my engg circle and my husband’s, a single person with a (North American) Ph.D degree. They’re considered too expensive and too specialized to do the work that needs doing. So. Your field of study is pretty key in this question.

          • Carrie

            I’m in biomedical engineering in the U.S.

          • Yeah, so the kind where the Ph.D might matter rather more…

        • Stacey

          Have you tried testing your hypotheses? Start sending out resumes now. See what people say. Or work your contacts in your industry and really ask what the prevailing attitude is.

          Maybe you’ll send your resume out, get feedback from a potential employer, and refine your presentation of your PhD situation in a way that will get you a job somewhere else.

          I’m an aerospace engineer and while I know a few PhDs in my field, those that have them have the fewest options – they get hired for their “niche” if that’s what a company needs. So they really need to love what they specialize in. I’m glad that I only have a Master’s and that it’s more general (Engineering Management). I’m also glad that I let my employer pay my tuition through my Master’s program. There are SO many paths from A to B, but the path may not be clear until you do a little testing and be willing to put yourself out there.

          Best of luck to you! We engineering types sure can be tenacious perfectionists!

    • Anna

      Go teach, if that’s what makes you happy.

      I say this as a current high school science teacher who is applying to science PhD programs now. Fortunately, I’m applying to programs with an emphasis on education research where they don’t look at me sideways when I say “Well, I could pursue a career in research. Or I could take a mostly teaching position at a university. Or I could work my way through a full PhD and go back to teaching high school. Any of those could make me happy as long as I am happy with the rest of my life. I have goals, but I’m keeping my options open.” That attitude also helps with the keeping my other half around, too…

      • KEA1

        Fellow scientist here, though I actually did finish my PhD–and am now tenured faculty at a community college. No research requirement (though I actually have an opportunity in my personal time to pursue research too). If you have a master’s degree, at least in my state, you can teach at a CC…and you can teach as an adjunct even if you have a “day job” somewhere else. I would not recommend the life of a “career adjunct,” but if you get an industry job and still get the itch to do some teaching, it’s a *great* way to do it in small, manageable doses. And the students are typically *very* motivated.

        Meanwhile, Ashelyn, I can relate so well to so many of the things you’ve said about pressure for success and determining what you really want to do. Huge congratulations on what you have accomplished and on your vision for what sorts of things to pursue next, and massive best wishes to you and E for a fabulous journey together.

        • BB

          I am curious about what it’s like teaching at a community college and how you got that job, would you be willing to let me pick your brain? My e-mail address is betsellina@yahoo.com

          • KEA1

            BB–sent you a message earlier; in case it’s in spam the domain is (at) bhcc (dot) mass (dot) edu

    • Katy

      Hi BB. Warning: unsolicited advice ahead.

      If you can, stick it out and finish. Your dissertation doesn’t have to be the best ever, just finish. That’s the advice my mom gave me, and I’m so glad I did it. My mom went back to college in her 40s and got a PhD. I saw first hand how differently she was treated with and w/o a PhD (by the exact same people). My mom says, “What do you call the person who finishes last in med school? Doctor.”

      All that time you’re not spending on the “best research ever,” spend it on things that you like. You say you might teach — get a job at the teaching and learning center on campus, run a tutoring program on a campus, or teach at an academic summer camp (your university probably has these programs, and they would be thrilled to have a grad student help for one month in the summer). Or volunteer in an area you care more about.

      I got a fancy science PhD and a fancy consulting job and a fancy finance job. I hated most of it. Now, I teach part-time at a university and have my own consulting practice. Having the PhD opens doors, and I am immediately taken seriously (which doesn’t always happen for this soft-spoken blonde). My consulting clients love knowing that I have an ivy league PhD, even though my current work has nothing to do with my previous research.

      • Heather G

        I think it all depends on what you want to do and whether the pain and suffering now is worth it! I think that there are moments while striving for a goal that we question ourselves and wonder if we’re doing the right thing. But honestly, if I am suffering through something for a majority of the process for the sole purpose of “if I do this, it will lead to X (and happiness, la-la-la!)” that is a huge wake-up call. Sure, there are painful tasks embedded in all things we love, but aiming for enjoying *most* of the process in the here and now is important. There are no guarantees, ever.

        Also, deciding to quit something or “fail” at something can be so empowering.

    • JC

      My fiancee was in this situation, too, except he Mastered Out after only a year and a half in his PhD program. He always knew he wanted to work in industry, not academia, yet that “success” kid in him kept saying “Go for ‘Doctor’, you want to be ‘Doctor'”. It took a LOT of soul searching and a mostly unfortunate circumstance for him to commit to Not Finishing, and honestly he’s never been happier. He has a real person job doing what he loves, he doesn’t have to study at night, and he has free weekends! (Much to my constantly-studying-self’s chagrin). I understand it completely, being a “success” kid myself, but I’m so glad that he was able to choose to Not Finish and save his sanity for the next 4-6 years.

    • Vee

      BB, I’m a cell biology post-doc in the UK and can recommend this book: ‘So what are you going to do with that?’ which looks at applying the skills you learnt in Gradschool to life outside of it. (http://www.amazon.co.uk/What-are-You-Going-That/dp/0226038823/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1349211582&sr=1-2)

      It’s also worth remembering that academia is designed as a pyramid system, not everyone can stay and it isn’t a moral failing to decide to do something else. One of the most valuable things a lab produces is educated people who end up doing other things with their skills!

  • Laura

    Even thought I grew up in a city, it was a city that did not suit me at all. So like you, I wanted nothing more than to get out of there.

    I used to put a ton of pressure on myself too so I can relate to your post. During university I was so desperate to get a Ph.D in English Lit and become a professor. I was desperate to succeed in academia even though I didn’t really even like it all that much, and like you, I seriously burned out. I managed to get a Masters’ but I knew that continuing to a Ph.D was not an option. The only problem was that the Ph.D was my only plan so I wasn’t really sure what to do now that it was over. So I decided to go teach English overseas.

    I’m glad I did that. While I was there I learned that there were so many more ways to live my life and that I could create my own standards for myself. When I look back at my sixteen year old self’s ambitions, they actually seem kind of narrow now, just because I had no idea what was out there. These days I’m a lot more comfortable with evolving in new directions.

    • meg

      This. I said in my first comment that I discovered my 16 year old was my compass… but not because she had All The Right Goals figured out. More because she thought that I should keep going till I got out/ figured it out/ whatever. And I think a key part of figuring things out is often giving up and taking a break first, which is I think part of why I find this post so compelling….

      • Claire

        I think all this discussion highlights just how ridiculous the education system has become to make 16 year old think they have to have it all figured out and that as adults we look back on what our teenage selves dreamed of. Even though direction is important, we need to be developing as people not as careers or job titles.

  • Lauren

    Thank you for this. As I sit here, waiting to go to my second-shift part-time telemarketing job, it’s nice to hear that someone managed to calm the “SUCCEED!” demons, just a bit. I know what I want to do, but my field is outrageously competitive and I – gasp – limited myself by choosing to live at home for a year.

    Congrats on the book, too! That’s one of my dreams as well – not poetry, but still. It’s a big step and all the praise to you!

  • Class of 1980

    I don’t care how I look on paper. Too many do, to their own detriment.

    • One More Sara

      I agree with you, but so many times that’s all we have to represent us. Whether you are applying to college or to a new job, all you can send them is a list of accomplishments. I’ve been fearing re-entering the working world since I stopped going to school and working when I had my son (and moved to another country) and I feel like it is just a big 2 year hole (only on paper!) that I will have to defend. I don’t doubt my decisions at all; I am just so nervous for a stranger to question or judge my decisions.

      • KB

        That gap is terrifying, isn’t it? I can relate in a slightly different context – I work for a HUGE firm and, while the money is good, I find myself daydreaming about all of these side tracks that I could do with my degree. But then I hear people say, “Once you take that fork and jump off the track, you can’t get back on it!” which translates to “You will fail and this comment will haunt you as a big fat told-you-so.” It’s like you have to be 110% sure that you want whatever job it is that you go after and, honestly, I have no idea if I want to do whatever side-track for the rest of my life – but I don’t think I want to do this either. Ugh, so frustrating.

      • Class of 1980

        What I mean is that some people pursue a career to please other people or because what they really like doesn’t have enough prestige. This only hurts them.

        I know a guy who is a geologist. He thought he wanted to work on big oil rigs and he did. The money was great, but he was miserable. He left that field and went into a series of tech jobs that also made him miserable.

        You know what he really loves? He loves to fix things and he loves to pick up electronic items that have been discarded and make them work again. He is constantly fixing things in his friends houses for no money. When he comes to visit, he can’t relax until he’s fixed everything he can find to fix in our house.

        We try to tell him he has a viable business right there, but he never wants to entertain the idea. I finally figured out that he may have an issue with prestige.

        He was laid off of his tech job and now he has been earning money building and fixing things in people’s houses. He only did it out of desperation from being laid off, but now he’s getting referrals. I think the Universe is trying to tell him something.

        He has a business doing something he wants to do anyway, but doesn’t want to see it.

        • One More Sara

          Aaah. In that context, your first comment makes a lot more sense to me. Hopefully your friend accepts what the universe is trying to tell him and embraces his natural talents! Funny how the world works sometimes.

        • Jashshea

          I would, personally, keep him in business. My FIL is the same way and doesn’t see the benefit of “monetizing” his hobby.

        • meg

          Yup. Exactly.

        • KC

          I’d note that sometimes people don’t want to get jobs doing their favorite hobbies because they want to keep liking them rather than messing them up with “I have to” and “invoices” and stuff, so there’s a chance he may really truly just not want a small business like that. (although he may end up with one anyway, which is probably better than being unemployed)

          I’ve done a bunch of wedding cakes for friends; pretty consistently, some collection of random aunts or someone says “Oh, the cake is so (fill in gushingly positive adjective of choice), you should do this full time!” (which is probably sometimes just trying to make conversation. I am not sure.). And really, I like doing it basically once or twice per year, for super-awesome people I love, for free (or cost-of-ingredients). If I had to do it for grumpy people, that would suck; if I had to do it every single weekend during “wedding season”, that would suck; if I had to advertise and take calls all the time and consult and tax-deduct the ingredients and cut down on the real butter and not spend as much time on each one, to come out closer to profitable, that would suck; if I had to charge a living wage for the work/play I put into them, that would suck. I’ll eventually run out of friends-getting-married-off-consistently, and will have to figure out what to do then. But yes, I’m good at it, yes, I enjoy it, and no, I do not want it to be my full-time job.

          (but he may be dealing with prestige issues – I don’t know! And you know him, and would know that sort of thing better. I’m just noting a possible alternative.)

          • Class of 1980

            I totally understand what you are saying. You might find something enjoyable to do a couple of times a year, but exhausting if you did it all the time.

            But … he always repaired things relentlessly during his time off … and did it for free. It’s an obsession with him. It gives him a kick, even if he’s dealing with an object that is isn’t easy to fix. He just digs in his heels harder and gets it done.

            It was only after figuring out some things about his personality that I realized that prestige could be a factor. I think he very much wants to be seen as a white-collar educated person, and may feel that if he turns his interest into a real job, that it’s beneath his educational background.

            But he loves it. He’d still do it if he won the lottery.

          • A Single Sarah for certain values of single

            THIS. My sixteen-year-old-self tried monetizing a hobby and learned I didn’t like it. I still love my hobby, but I’d rather create a gift I think up than a gift that’s requested. The skills I enjoy and the skills I enjoy marketing are not a venn diagram of concentric circles.

          • Kess

            @ Class of 1980

            At least for me, it totally would be a bit of a prestige thing, but also the fact that I just don’t want to run a business! He may really enjoy fixing things but doesn’t want to create a small business. I know that’s where my personal shortcomings are – I am one of those engineers who doesn’t have many soft skills. So maybe that’s a possibility too.

          • After the wedding cake years are over, you can start doing amazing birthday cakes for your favourite kidlets! :)

            But seriously, I agree with every single thing you have said. Some passions are better as hobbies than as careers.

          • Class of 1980


            He does want a business. He keeps saying he never wants to work for anyone again. ;)

  • You sound like me. I was a super student, smart and involved in everything, and planning to do something BIG. Lawyer? Doctor? Pharmacist? But as I went through college, I realized I didn’t really WANT those things, I just thought I was SUPPOSED to want those things. And I don’t know what would be that thing that “never felt like work” to me. So after college, I followed then-boyfriend, now-husband to his awesome-but-stressful job in a field he loves and found a very respectable job for a great company combining my backgrounds in science and publishing.

    I am still there 7.5 years later, and I am happy. It is boring a lot of the time, but it is low stress, I rarely even “work” a full 40 hours, I work from home part of the time, there are great benefits. But most importantly, I have the time and money to pursue things I enjoy outside of work – cooking awesome dinners every night, throwing kickass parties, planning lots o’ fun road trips and vacations. To me, the likely tradeoffs for finding a more “ambitious” career – less free time, less money, less vacation, more stress – aren’t worth it. I love the life I’ve made for myself with my husband, even if it took a few years for me to admit I wasn’t going to be one of those high-powered, super ambitious people, and then a couple more to be OK with it.

    • Emilie

      You’re life sounds awesome. I want to be you.

      • Aww, thanks. I do have quite the awesome life, but I don’t you don’t want to be me. I am sure being you is pretty great, too. ;)

    • sarahmrose

      I feel like people often really undervalue a low-stress lifestyle (including myself sometimes — I’m trying to learn) …kudos to you for figuring it out, even if it took a while.

    • My job is nice and stuff, but it’s totally the perks and cash and two 3 day weekends a month that makes me stay. My job pays for vacations and restaurants and Sephora trips and it lets me clock out at 5:00 and not think about it again until the morning.

      Which frees me up to spend my evenings and weekends doing the stuff I love.

      I love my life, and a part of that is that I enjoy my career, but it’s only a means to an end, not the end itself.

    • I also had all of the “shoulds”. I should pursue further education past my BA and find a career that would be the centre of my life and be both emotionally and intellectually fulfilling and defining. But that’s not me.

      I’m happy with a job that pays my bills, lets me clock out and leave work at work and gives me the freedom to pursue my personal interests in the rest of my time. Work is part of my life, but it is in no way defining to my life. My life is about my family and the people I surround myself with and the hobbies I love that fill my spare time. Those bits are the centre of my life – work just gives me the financial freedom to pursue them.

  • Katrina

    The minute I saw this post, I knew I would relate to it instantly.

    I graduated from college with a Bachelor’s in Music Performance from a school that was in my hometown. So I kept on having that thought of “I HAVE to get out!” After college, a year passed while I worked three jobs and helped support my parents. My-at the time-boyfriend was in Basic Training for the Army; we met in college and dated for three years prior.

    I wasn’t in Graduate school, which is the Thing you do with a music degree, and I was barely singing, so I got depressed. Then when my husband proposed and we married, I flew with him to Texas, where we now live. I work a part time job at a retail store I’ve been with for four years, the same amount of time I’ve been with my husband!

    Just as you felt, I felt like a failure. I wasn’t supposed to be married without nothing to show for my hard work. I was supposed to be successful by 23, or at least on the right track! Everyday I sunk deeper and deeper, feeling like I would be nothing but an Army Wife (not that there is anything wrong with that, it’s just not for me). Then when I expressed to my husband that I felt like I’ve done nothing, he immediately signed me up for an competition website for singers, bought me a piano to practice with, and pushed for me to succeed.

    I’m taking baby steps for now, but I’m definitely not listening to that voice anymore. Thank you for your post, it reminded me of why getting married was such a fabulous idea, especially because of the built in cheerleader that comes with your husband!

    By the way, I would love to read your poetry! Any way I could find it and purchase it?

    Brightest Blessings,

    • meg

      Also, can I throw out there? The timelines society feeds us (hey thanks romantic comedies and sitcoms!) are total nonsense, and really can dig us into an emotional hole. Basically NO ONE is successful by 23. If you can scrape by paying your bills and eating at 23, I kind of figure you won everything. All of the things I thought I would OBVIOUSLY accomplish by 25, I later realized I *maybe* had a chance of accomplishing in my early 30s… at the earliest. After beating myself up at ‘failing’ to accomplish them early, for awhile.

      So yeah. I think we set ourselves up to fail a bit there. Though my hat is more than off to all the super successful 23 year olds. I don’t know how you do it.

      • A Single Sarah for certain values of single

        My 5 year college reunion was good for this. People seemed reasonably successful, but without the super-star success we envisioned 5 years ago. Our success looks like making rent and making dinner. Managing relationships near and far. Living in the moment and, yes, dreaming for the future.

        • meg

          Making rent and making dinner. EXACTLY.

          For what it’s worth, I got my first health insurance through a job for my 25th birthday. I thought I’d WON THE LOTTERY. (Heyyyy arts career in NYC in the middle of the previous recession.)

      • Not Sarah

        But if you look at the flip side of your (first) statement, you make people who were “successful” by 23 feel SO GUILTY. There are so many days that I feel so guilty for my early success and then some days I would feel so jealous of the people who found their partner in college.

        I graduated from college at 21 with two majors, five co-op terms under my belt, and an amazing, well-paying job lined up that I loved (and still do). I find it really hard to be friends with people my age because I just spend the whole time feeling guilty about being successful when they’re not by the crazy world’s definition. I’m absolutely terrible at empathy and…it’s hard. I didn’t want to celebrate my promotion at 22 because I had older friends who still hadn’t achieved the same promotion. I didn’t really want to celebrate my condo purchase at 23 because I didn’t really know anyone who was there yet.

        So…it’s weird being on both sides. I do agree that timelines are terrible. People bug you about being “ahead” on the timeline (early marriage, early family early degree, etc.) just as much as they do about being “behind” on the timeline.

        • meg

          There is ZERO reason that my saying most people are not successful by 23 make anyone who was successful at 23 feel guilty.

          I actually never felt like anyone bothered me about being behind on any timeline. I don’t think I was behind on any timeline. By 23 I’d graduated with prestigious degree, left my very poor home town, and was pursing something I loved in New York City and paying my bills. By that measure I did feel crazy successful, and every bit as successful as friends with steady jobs. I would have liked HEALTH insurance and money to buy new jeans when mine ripped, but I didn’t fundamentally want something I didn’t have (a well paying job, a parter). I just would have been way happier if I knew earlier what was the median achievement level of 23.

          I think for me this comes back to the discussion of how important it is to have friends doing a whole variety of things enriches our lives. At 23 I had friends in shows on Broadway buying condos in NYC. I was thrilled for them! I knew people who were on the covers of magazines, yay, great! My point is those people are the exception, not the rule. And over time it all works out. Being friends with those people and celebrating their achievements at 23 enriched my life then. And things work out over time. I feel as, or differently, successful as loads of them now. (Well, possibly not as the people on magazine covers, but I really don’t want that, so it all works out ;) If I didn’t feel as successful as them now, I might at 40. Time tends to work things out, and envy is the great energy waster.

  • Growing up, I didn’t know the term “success kid.”

    Instead, I was a big fish in a very little pond. And I have STRUGGLED with that my whole life. Even now, sometimes, at 30, married, with a career I love (kinda), and so many good things–I STILL look back at All My Wasted Potential and feel terrible.

    Also? The Good At Many Things Great At None Syndrome? I am so with you, there! A petty problem to have, but it’s caused me so much anguish!

    • Granola

      Oddly enough I felt this way with wedding dresses (and I think the analogy kind of fits, bear with me). I tried on a bunch, and everything looked OK, but nothing looked great. And I really wanted to look GREAT on my wedding day (or rather feel great, which was the issue). Eventually, I went with a sample dress that I liked well enough, that fit like a glove (so it would need much altering) and that my mom and my sister told me looked beautiful. I figured that I could trust them and if I hated it later I could sell it on eBay.

      Well, when I tried it on at again at my first fitting, I LOVED it. And I wonder how much of that I made possible by deciding that “good enough” was OK and then committing to it afterwards, while giving myself an out if I really didn’t like it. Maybe careers and jobs can be like that. There are lots of things that you can do and be good at, but it’s in the commitment that we can find the space to really love something, and if we hate it we can do something else later. Takes a lot of the pressure off.

    • Copper

      I’d never heard of the Good At Many Things Great At None Syndrome, but I know that I have it. I’ve always thought of it as being an A minus student, Intermediate/Advanced (but never quite Advanced) in all my dance classes. I’m trying to reframe it in my mind, trying to think of it as just being an all-around super competent person instead of a specialist.

      • I have to say, in real life? I’ve found it much better to be a Smart Generalist than a Skilled Specialist. Many more doors to choose from.

        (Thus spoke the B student, who is competent at almost everything I try, and truly skilled at none.)

        • What’s sometimes so hard about being the Smart Generalist though is deciding where you want to go with that. When you’re really great at one thing there’s one very obvious door for you (although it’s still possible not to be interested in that door). When you’re good at a lot of things, while there are more options open, it’s hard to decide where to go with things. Having a hundred viable choices often makes it a lot harder to make the decision than just having one or two obvious choices.

          • Copper

            Plus, you’re smart enough to be aware of the top of whatever field you choose, and to know you’re not quiiiiiite there.

    • meg

      Yes. The big fish little pond thing. Mmmm. My parents sort of forced me to go to a college where I would be a medium fish in a very big pond (I mean, literally, those were the words they used). It was hard, but good. I dealt with a lot of pain early, I think ;)

      • Not Sarah

        College was a huge wake-up call for that. Going from being one of the smartest kids in your high school of 700 kids with 5 grades to a university program where everyone was *that* kid was HARD. I’m so glad I dealt with that in college instead of in industry though. I’ve seen interns who didn’t have that learning experience in college (small college after small high school) and it’s way harder to jump through that hoop while working.

  • Lynn

    I am in the midst of this struggle now. I feel like I’m supposed to doing great things; I’m supposed to be good at doing those great things. But I don’t enjoy it.

    And then I wonder if I’m supposed to enjoy it. What is this expectation and fulfillment and pressure that we put on our careers? When and why did that start? And how realistic is it? Did my grandparents, who had a wonderfully loving relationship and were happy with each other, expect the same things from their careers that I somehow expect from mine? Or were their careers (teacher and postman; homemaker and factory supervisor) just a way to provide for living the rest of their lives? Did they even give these thoughts a moment of worry? Do my in-laws, who have a blessed life, feel fulfilled by their jobs? Or is it just something they do to get to where they want to be?

    The life I have outside of what I do is a very, very good life, and there are days that I think that is so much of enough that the rest of it shouldn’t matter a whole lot. Coming to that peace is difficult.

    • Class of 1980

      Well, let’s face it. The whole idea that a job should be interesting and fulfilling is a very upper middle class thing. And the upper middle class is not mainstream America. They are a minority of the total population, though they don’t tend to know it.

      Does anyone really think heavily supervised people doing factory work who have to time their bathroom breaks, have the luxury of interesting and fulfilling work? This is my pet peeve about the shortcomings of early feminism … they never acknowledged that women in lower socioeconomic groups were not likely feeling anxious to go work at some mind-numbing job. Their husbands were already doing that and it wasn’t something to envy.

      When “The Feminine Mystique” was published, Betty Friedan urged women to not look to their husband and family to fulfill them solely and to look for “meaningful work that uses their full mental capacity.”

      Sounds great, but clearly, this was aimed at upper middle class women. Did she really think that ALL men were doing meaningful work that used their full mental capacity? I think people lower on the economic ladder looked to their jobs for survival and hobbies for fulfillment.

      That being said, if you have the privilege of getting an education that opens up options that your relatives may not have had, I do think it’s worth striving to find a line of work that’s at least somewhat fulfilling to you. There is no merit in being unhappy if you have CHOICES. As far as doing great things? Life is too short to worry about doing “great things” that you don’t particularly want to do. Besides, lack of enthusiasm has a way of diminishing what “great things” you can accomplish.

      Personally, I have a business that helps people. I get some degree of satisfaction knowing that, but the field itself isn’t that interesting to me. My interactions with overseas suppliers and managing funds is the most interesting part.

      I really wish I was doing something visually and spatially creative like renovating houses. I’m the daughter of an artist and the grand daughter of a gifted and artistic craftsman. It’s in my genes. But the way I look at it is that I currently have tremendous flexibility and the profits are getting better all the time, which is very important to me.

      I know I’m lucky, so I will stick with this and see if I can eventually branch off into my house-renovating dreams on the side.

      • Emmy

        Your point about the working class and the luxury of an interesting and fulfilling job is very good. I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t considered that fact too much. Thank you for getting me thinking about this!

        • Class of 1980

          Well, you’re not alone. The working class is voiceless in our media. No one thinks of them or speaks for them, yet they are the majority!

          • k

            Absolutely! I grew up on a farm and worked in a cannery for six long summers through high school and college, and I remember my first job out of college, the girl sitting across from me asked, “Is this your first job?” I just kind of blinked at her and said, “Well, it’s my first job where I get to sit down, and wear nice clothes, and go to the bathroom whenever I want.”

      • One More Sara

        This was something that was floating around in my head as well. There are a lot of people out there who are thankful to have any job. The ability to CHOOSE a job that you are at least semi-interested in is a privilege, but we aren’t taught that growing up (or at least I wasn’t. Grew up in the 90s, middle class Christian white girl here). We are taught to do what we love! we can do anything! While those lessons are certainly important to teach, there isn’t much value placed on simply being a hard worker. I think more kids need to be taught that “it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do it well.”

      • meg

        I think yes and no (and SUCH an important conversation). In that, I think there is this crazy upper middle class pressure to have the most emotionally fulfilling careers ever, which is in some ways totally unrealistic. But not growing up in an upper middle class environment, I learned that there is a difference between, doing work you love and loving your work. I grew up surrounded by people that put great pride into the work they did, even if they didn’t love the work itself. They were bus-drivers, or elementary school aides, or gas station managers, or you name it. But they had real pride in what they did, and they did it so well that everyone around them treated them with respect. When I worked for people who put a lot of pride in their work, and I hated the job, it made me do a lot of thinking about putting my priorities in order.

        So yeah, I was born with an ambitious streak (curse?) so I ended up pushing sort of hard. But I did learn early that the real goal is to put pride into what you do. And that’s made things I’ve had to do, like being a secretary, pretty manageable. And it made knowing that if I do something, and fail, and end up as a secretary again, I’ll be just fine. Because if you can do whatever work comes your way with pride, you’ll be ok.

      • I love, love, love this comment. It reminds me of this recent post from Clutch Magazine:


        • sarahmrose

          Just went and read it…great article.

    • Megan (from Nova Scotia)

      This is something I think about a lot too. I think that if you have that job you love, then more power to you. If you have that opportunity, than it’s awesome. But. *But*…something that pays the bills and supports your family-that’s something to be proud of. What did my dad say one time? “Sometimes you do the work you have to in order to feed your family, and that’s nothing to turn your nose up at” He enjoyed parts of his job, but it wasn’t the one he really wanted and planned for.

      I hear ‘find a job you love’ so often, it makes me throw up just a little (at times). I say you are a lucky person if you find that, or create that, for yourself. I just don’t think it’s necessary. I don’t intend to build my life around my work-it’s going to be the thing I do to support the other things I want out of life. I’m not saying you should never reach for something better-because you should, if you want it. But I hate hearing standup people I love sounding ashamed of their work because they don’t feel they are living up to their ‘potential’.

      • Class of 1980

        Survival indeed.

        I mentioned my business above. It has parts I like and parts I don’t, but few businesses have the flexibility I enjoy along with the ability to make lots of money.

        What I didn’t mention is why the money is so important to me.

        My mom and step-dad lost all their retirement money, thanks to a stupid financial planner who just didn’t do their job. I am currently helping them out financially, and I expect that responsibility will only grow over time. So, you can bet I’m not going to throw all this away.

      • meg

        THIS. This is what I was saying in the comment above.

        That isn’t to say that I think you shouldn’t push yourself harder (if and when you can) if you feel that you’re not living up to your potential, but that shouldn’t stop you from taking pride in your work. AKA, I grew up knowing lots of people who took huge amount of pride in their jobs, but still went to night school when their kids were old enough, because they knew they could do better. Those things are not mutually exclusive. And for them ‘doing better’ wasn’t necessarily building their life around their work, but furthering their education so they could make more money to feed their families, and/ or get to do work that was more interesting.

        • Class of 1980

          Yeah, I think we need to have our feet grounded in reality, without forgetting to look up for what opportunities we can take advantage of.

          Sometimes even small increments make our lives better than you’d think they could.

        • Copper

          Also, your ideas about what constitutes success may change. There may be circumstances they react to. I remember a client of mine told me, he started out as a theater major, but then the draft hit (Vietnam), and arts majors were not protected. So he switched to the only major that would take him, to avoid going to war, and has worked in the totally un-creative industry that he was qualified to join when he came out for the last 40 years. He is now very successful in that field, and totally dedicated to it. Yet, he never wanted to pursue that career in the first place.

          So, when I feel undue pressure to make the right choice, the best choice, to do the absolute best possible thing with my talents, I remember him. He never got to follow his dreams, instead he made the best of the situation he was in, and he’s a happy man. That gives me hope.

    • In my case, I did a job that I hated for about seven years, but it ultimately got me to a job I like a bit more. I certainly think in this economy, trying to find a job you absolutely love can be a bit of a luxury. And if it’s your end goal, it does take a lot of work to get there, but it can also require a bit of luck — which is why it’s so dangerous to tie your self worth to it.

      • Copper

        I’ve been trying to explain this to people lately. I got myself a job that could *become* good, someday. But it isn’t good yet. So I’m hating it when people ask how work’s going, because they know I’m ambitious and they expect, I don’t know, puppies and rainbows in the answer, and I just don’t have a puppies and rainbows sort of answer to give right now. So I’ve been trying to explain that I look at this job as an investment, I bought in low so that I can sell high, but I’m still in the low part. And they automatically expect that I’m looking for work! So every time, I have to explain that it would be stupid and would make the past year a waste of my time to quit before it pays out (not literally, but in creative and advancement terms).

        • I want to exactly your investment analogy a hundred times. It’s hard to slug away at a job that’s decent but not great, but has the potential for some really good payoff. But it’s an investment into your career with that company (or in that industry, or just in general). It’s painful though trying to explain those career choices to people who are expecting the “great” part from your career *now*.

  • PAW

    I was very much like you, Ashleyn, driven to succeed — in my case, the belief was that it was Not Good Enough to live and enjoy life. I needed to achieve something extraordinary, do something that would alter the course of human existence in a huge and positive way, something like getting long-distance human space travel and offworld settlement really established and off the ground because … oh, wow, bad pun.

    Now I’m not so sure. It turns out that I really enjoy my life. I like coming home at night and cooking with my husband, eating dinner together, working on my creative writing in front of a fire. I didn’t expect a marriage this soon in my life, and I could not visualize what it would mean to me, or what it would be like. It turns out that I really love it — and so, instead of spending my time desperately scrabbling to Achieve Things, I am taking a few moments to enjoy myself. We’ll see where it leads!

    Ashleyn, I am so glad that you found E, and I hope your work provides you with exactly what you need! (Sometimes, that’s a certain stifling feeling that really feeds the creative writing … )

    • Class of 1980

      I think you can alter the world in unexpected and subtle ways too. It’s not always the big splash that makes the biggest changes.

      • meg


        Changing the world is just changing things for one person, right? Any teacher will tell you that. (Clearly my parents are teachers.)

  • Thanks for this… I too was the perfect student who would go far away and succeed. I did get the degrees, 2 in fact, and I live far away, in the country where boyfriend-now husband already had a job. Now I feel stuck because I am having so much trouble finding a job in my area, and though I have worked the dead-end jobs I won’t feel any job is “worth” it unless I am doing anything medical or social. But I am also slowly discovering there is more to life, that I am not only defined by my university degrees, that happiness can be found elsewhere… I love baking, reading a thick book with a big cup of tea, going to museums, travel, walks in the park, exploring cities…

  • Jen

    Just remember…
    “The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40 year olds I know still don’t.”

  • I kind of had a knee jerk reaction at the moment where you said that it was E’s love that helped you realize your worth. I read, you only found self-worth once a worthwhile guy fulfilled some kind of hole in your soul.

    WAIT WAIT don’t holler.

    Like I said, it was a reaction. I thought about it. Duh, what she is saying isn’t that… it’s about how we find ourselves seeing ourselves through our partners’ eyes. And sometimes that is a very beautiful and graceful thing. :) Right? Did I do it right?

    What is it with success kids wanting to get out of the Midwest? I was the same way. Had.to.go. But the only school “worth” my degree was about 30 minutes from home. And then I subsequently got a job at the same university. So, other than some internships here and there, I have never lived anywhere but home. I am a lame townie. For, essentially, my whole life. Talk about a downer when I had a life crisis last year. But over the years I’ve started figuring out how to justify that… and, yes, my husband has been a rock foundation for that justification. My dreams of making it big in Virginia or wherever have shriveled ‘way to simply being a married couple of some influence and steadfastness in this community here. I jokingly call it “aiming for mediocrity.” But it’s true. Once I let go of this call to the bigger American dream, I have been able to live a somewhat better life.

    Not sure if that has to do with the topic? Oh well.

    • Jashshea

      I love everything about this! I grew up near a large city well known for the many wonderful colleges and universities and so I stayed for college. And stayed for much of my 20s. I escaped townie-ness out of sheer practicality – I got a job offer 1000 miles away that was almost 2x my salary at home with a really clear career path.

      LTS – There’s nothing wrong with leaving or staying. Just make sure you’re at peace with the decisions you make and the impacts those decisions have on you.

    • It’s not just the midwest. I grew up in Seattle and just wanted to get the fuck out. (It wasn’t so much that I didn’t like Tacoma/Seattle/the NW but more that my family never wanted to GO anywhere.) I didn’t apply to college anywhere west of the Mississippi.

      • Not Sarah

        I grew up in the suburbs of Vancouver, BC and *so* needed out of there. Yet my dad has lived in that same city his whole life. Funny thing is, I ended up sort-of-back by getting a job in Seattle after I graduated from university back east. I’m so glad I left for college and then came back post-college. And now? I don’t see a reason to ever leave Seattle. I guess there’s more of my dad in me than I thought :)

        • I always thought I’d do what you did…take off, see the world, move back home. Um. Yeah. About that. Still trying to figure out how to break to my mom the “I’m quitting my job and moving in to a van” thing.

          • Not Sarah

            Good luck with that! I hope it goes okay :) I mean, it’s not like they can really force you to do something anymore, right? Moving in to a van sounds like exactly one of those crazy cool things that I would never actually do… I mean, a van with a stove is pretty awesome!!!

    • If Chicago suburbs could have townies, I would be one. Despite being so close to a huge, interesting, vibrant, multi-cultural city, I’ve managed to stay put in my wanna-be small town. Born here, raised here, went away to college for one year and then transferred to the college here, worked here, moved to the city for one year but then came back, got married here, and now living here. I love this town, I loved living in the city even more, but…I still want to “get out”. Go somewhere new.

      I think perhaps being landlocked and taunted with images of, you know, geography makes the Midwest feel eminently escapable. Give me some huge trees and rocky shorelines, let me live near some sandy beaches, give me a view of snowcapped mountains when I look out my window. Or something. Even Chicago feels so “middle of nowhere” sometimes. Though it is nice to be able to see weather coming for miles.

      • Sara

        I’m with you on this one. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, now live about twenty minutes from there in a different suburb and have some strange ache to ‘get the hell out’ on a regular basis. I think the idea of being a ‘townie’ is scary even when the area I live in is just as full as possibilities as the city. My friends and I joke we live in the largest small town in America, because we see people we went to high school all the time. And there’s nothing wrong with that – but but but, I want to see a hill or a beach once in a while. I have a friend that has never seen an ocean, because he’s never been farther than six hours away from here. I keep telling him the beach at Lake Michigan does not count as a beach!

        • I live in a city of +1 million people, and can’t walk through Ikea without running in to someone I recognize. I think some places are just “smaller” than others.

          I like it.

          • Not Sarah

            Sometimes it’s just your social circles that are small too. I moved to another country and ran into someone who lived on my floor in first year working at my company. Your industry tends to be a small world too, which is super crazy!

  • Amber

    Such a great post – the part that really resonates with me is “I was good at so many things, but there wasn’t that one thing that I was blessed with that I obviously was supposed to do. I would trade being good at a lot of things for being great at one thing any day.”

    I also went to college to get out of my small town, and majored in journalism, eventually switching my major to history, and then deciding I should go to law school. Law school was awful, I dropped out, finally went back to school to get my MA and PhD in history (and I might actually be done someday, if I ever finish my dissertation!), moved across the country to be with someone, and ended up in a place I never thought I’d be and that would make my sixteen-year-old self cringe and cluck disapprovingly. I haven’t found that other person who makes me feel like it’s okay that I’m not doing exactly what I thought I should, but I actually think maybe I’m getting there by myself, if slowly.

    Thanks for your post – I was having a hard time getting motivated this morning, and now I realize that it’s a gift to have a talent you focus on, even if it’s not the only thing you can (or could, or should, or would) do.

  • JT

    This post hit home for me. I just finished the expensive and long process of applying to medical school only to realize (or finally acknowledge?) that being a doctor is NOT the right career for me. I was so focused on finding a job that would be impressive and challenging that I lost sight of what I need from a job to be happy. And who, exactly, was I trying to impress? I think it would be my 21-year-old self… my 16-year-old self had much more sense, but seems to have gotten lost along the way. I am grateful that I realized the mistake I was making before spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and nearly a decade of my life training for a career that I feel would have left me struggling to live in a way that allows me to be happy. It’s an adjustment, taking myself out of the race (with myself?) for achievement to slow down and enjoy the life I have right now, but I am so much happier already.

    • Ana

      Yes! I work with college juniors/seniors preparing for health professional school and I wish some of them would cone to this realization earlier. It makes me think of my 70-year-old stepdad, who spent his life as an oral surgeon basically out of gratitude to his (rich) uncle who paid for all his schooling. His uncle has long since died but he worked that career all the way to retirement and now he spends his time gardening and building fountains and playing golf. He should have been a landscape architect or a landscaper…but he didn’t realize that until it was too late.

  • Amy

    Oh man, did this ever ring true. I grew up the Theater Kid. I had poise, drive and just enough talent for everyone to say “that girl’s gonna make it.” I made it through high school, into a kickass theater BFA program, followed a horrid boyfriend to a big city where I started rehearsing 4 weeks after I graduated college and holy moly, was I EVER burnt out. I quit theater, which I had loved for 15 years, but the thought of tracking props for another show made me want to cry. I just wanted a job that challenged me, that I liked going to, that gave me time in the evenings and weekends to be with my friends and family. Cut to 5 years out of college my big fancy theater job: Executive Assistant. And you know what? It’s awesome. My coworkers are great, I work for a performing arts nonprofit, and I get to leave at 5 every day and go home to make dinner and snuggle with my husband. Do people still think I left my potential behind? Maybe. Does my husband see me as anything but kickass and a earner for our household and supportive partner? Nope! Life’s good, even in the quiet Executive Assistant lane.

  • Bonnie B

    BA in Graphic Design, 4 years experience as a call-center rep in government travel.

    This post resonated with me, and a lot of other people it seems. I just want to be happy/fulfilled in what I do. I don’t need to make boatloads of money, only enough to feel like I’m living, not just surviving. Going back to school for the heck of it would also be nice.

    • Jen

      I also have a degree in Graphic Design! Been working at a hospital cafeteria 3 years. It’s not even a job I can feel happy about paying bills with like this post describes. Because there’s so much bad management and other soul crushing aspects. I would be so happy just working entry level in my field.

      • Bonnie B

        I don’t really feel happy with my job. I struggle with that I want to do, I don’t even know if it’s graphic design anymore. Been looking at landscape architecture classes recently.

        I wish you luck in finding something in the field!

  • KB

    “The whole time I kept hearing people say, ‘Do what you love and you will never work a day in your life.’ Every time someone said that, I wanted to cry.”

    I want to “Exactly!” this part six billion times. I HATE it when people say that you should do what you love because I have no effing clue what that is. I think this expectation that you should be in love with your job sets people up for failure because it’s wrapped up in the “you can be anything you want to be” sentiment. And the problem with that is that you then put yourself into so many different scenarios and you don’t realize until you’re IN the job that, oh wait, I actually don’t want to do this for the rest of my life – and, especially in this economy, you can’t necessarily leapfrog from job to job without consequences. But how are you supposed to find what you love if you don’t try things? Also, the whole find-your-passion thing is annoying when it’s foisted on people who are perfectly happy having a job that’s not tied to their identity – it’s something you do in order to support yourself in your REAL life.

    • M

      I think the reason “Do what you love!” is so hard for “us”(you know, us former high-achievers) is that nobody ever asked us what we loved, so we have no effin’ clue.

      Growing up, the whole reason I was the “good one”, the “smart one” was that I always did what people wanted me to do. I followed every rule, cleared every hurdle, and stayed on-track (until I didn’t). What I loved in life, what I lived for, was the sense of security and worthiness and loveability that came from being *perfectly good all the time*.

      And now I’m (we’re) older and people say, “Do what you love!” like it’s a liberation, and it feels like the worst imaginable bait-and-switch. Because I spent so many years hollowing myself out so I could be good, obedient, pliant, perfect, and now – ! What, I’m supposed to have free will and desires? What, full stop.

      It’s a particularly nasty trap, because it feels like success and in the end it sets you up for failure.

      • KB

        M, can I just delete my comment and post your’s in its place? Because that is EXACTLY what I think, it’s such a bait-and-switch. People praise you for the things that you’re good at and automatically assume that you love them – when in reality you love the praise that comes with it. And by the time you grow up and mature, you realize that those two aren’t the same thing – and then you feel like you should have KNOWN better when you were younger, which is totally and completely silly. I now wish that I could rewind time and go back to college and try every single thing that I know NOW that I may want to do instead of just committing myself to the things I was good at.

        • M

          “and then you feel like you should have KNOWN better when you were younger, which is totally and completely silly.”

          Ex-actly! Yes! And then you feel ashamed for not having known better, when really, you were just doing what worked best for you at that time.

          In my case, there were very negative consequences for not being “perfect”… so I recognize that I did what I did because it allowed me deal with the environment I had. Indeed, I was really successful at it. It’s just that now, I have a different environment, and it’s time to learn a different way*.

          This whole post and its accompanying comments have been so good for me. When I first read the post, I was a little angry, because the whole topic of self-acceptance and self-love is really hard for me (“You can’t make me love myself! I’m going to continue kicking the crap out of myself because I deserve it!”).

          And then I started reading the comments… and there are so many people here who have felt the same thing, who were super-high-achievers until they weren’t, who struggle around defining themselves by their selves, and not by their accomplishments.

          It’s a long road, but it’s really good to know I’m not alone.

          *and you know what? That, right there, is my little baby step towards self-acceptance. Small, but mighty.

          • Joy

            This was my growing up experience exactly! Being an achiever because the negative consequences were too much to bear. And when I got to college (the one I was *supposed* to go to with the *major* I was supposed to have) and (sort of) out of that terrible environment and into one where I had to think for myself? Um, yeah. I flunked out. And then I went to another college farther away and flunked out again. Not because I couldn’t do it. But because I had *no idea* how to be a person on my own or what the hell I enjoyed doing. All I knew was that I needed to be successful to please the powers that be, not myself. I’m still working on it.

        • margo

          This is why I HATE when adults see a kid do something, like write a poem, paint a picture or build an impressive lego structure and then say, “Oh SHE is going to be a poet! painter! engineer!”

          I am going to try very hard never to coach my kids’ accomplishments in “This is what they’ll be when they grow up.”

          I feel like it puts too much pressure on kids to BE SOMETHING as an adult, as opposed to just being SOMEONE. I think it’s rare for the kids of Boomers to be able to take joy in a hobby because ambition has been drilled in to our heads.

          • Claire

            YES! I wish I could talk to my parents about these anxieties but they’re the people who put them in my head to begin with (even though I know they meant well…)

          • “Oh SHE is going to be a poet! painter! engineer!”
            Kudos for even suggesting a girl become an engineer if she shows technical skills. I agree you shouldn’t pressure a kid in a particular direction, but sometimes it’s nice to let them know how broad their options can be once they start looking.

      • KEA1

        M, are you me? %)

        Edited–whoops on too-early submission–because I actually *did* know that I had goals, ambitions, and interests, and was pretty much actively told that I had no right to have any of my own. Granted, that made it easier when I was told “do what you love,” but really, your comment is *so* my experience.

  • Oh, wow. Thank you for writing this. I didn’t realize others felt this way (kinda silly of me, right?). How deeply I can relate to the idea of having to live up to my own potential and feeling utterly devastated that I’m “not doing it.”

    The past few months have been pretty dark for me job-wise, financially, and self-esteem-wise, and I kept hearing this ugly voice saying “You’ve ruined yourself.” Basically saying, “You’ve let your potential down.” But that isn’t really true, is it. Not for you and not for me. I have a wonderful relationship with a man I love, and we’re raising a beautiful child together, and we have a happy life, even if it’s not Full Of Incredible Achievements.

  • OMG, this hits home for me in so many ways. I grew up thinking I would be Somebody Important because I was Different. I would be the best selling author, the this or that and I would Change the World For the Better. And guess what? It didn’t happen. I started an accidental career in fundraising that will hopefully end up with me working as a manager of a non-profit in a few years. What’s important for me now is providing a good income to support my family and giving me free time to pursue my studies and the things I enjoy. And I still have so much guilt because 18 year old me would be so surprised by it all. It’s been hard for me to come to terms with the fact that I don’t enjoy writing fiction nearly as much as I used to (and that I’m not particularly good at it). But it’s part of who I am now and not accepting that means not accepting myself.

  • Raising my hand as a Midwestern-raised lady with “The Good At Many Things Great At None Syndrome.” The thing that got me out of that mental rut was unemployment about 3 years out of college. I really, really, felt down and out when I found myself with no “real job” for that very long year. To top it off, I had studied for a career that would guarantee a “real job” and had not had a single fulfilling job since graduating. I picked up restaurant work to make ends meet, but yeah, I was depressed.

    Somewhere along the way I read (cheesy as this sounds) “What Color is Your Parachute?” and started to rethink my approach to work. The thing that really struck me was this exercise where you think about your values, not what “job” you want. I had been so focused on the “what am I good at,” so I was going in circles. (Going in circles is clearly what I’m good at in life ;-))

    Eventually, I got a lucky break and took on a temp job that was not what I wanted to do, but gave me a chance to be (over-)challenged again. I plowed through my anxiety about it not being “The Job,” and now, 14 months later, I’m thankful to say I’ve forged a path for myself doing what I actually value at work. Fingers crossed I don’t jinx it!

  • This post brought tears to my eyes this morning. I can so relate to most everything, from the varied interests, to the dead-end jobs, to friends and family who help us see where our true value lies. In 2010 I finished graduate school sure I didn’t want a career in my field, spent the summer volunteering on farms, then ended up working at a restaurant and bookstore in my hometown over Christmas while my husband looked for jobs in his field (because he actually knew what he wanted to do). Talk about humbling. I’m fairly certain I saw every single person I knew from high school (and their parents). Luckily, I have the most supportive husband and family who never saw me as “failing to live up to my potential”; it was me that needed the convincing. Why is it that we put such pressure on ourselves to look successful to others instead of doing what brings us joy?

  • Kate

    Thank you so much for this post. I have always been the over-achieving straight-A student…and now I am an office assistant/receptionist in a department outside of my field, while most of my friends are working in their chosen fields (and several of them are currently in med school). I am always so ashamed of what I do and feel like I am wasting my potential (and I don’t like my job on a day-to-day basis either). This made me feel so much better though and I want to start reclaiming my life, but I just do not know when I will ever have the time. How do people do it? After I get home from work I only have four hours before bedtime, which is usually eaten up by chores, errands, cooking dinner, etc (I live with two other 20-something roommates I met via craigslist and have no kids or husband, but I am the only one who cleans). I also have no energy from dealing with other people’s BS all day and all I want to do is curl up and read. I have pretty much no friends here (moved to a big city to be closer to boyfriend and also had “get out of here” syndrome) and have lost touch with most of my friends from high school and college…and I don’t really feel like calling them because they’re all so busy and I am embarrassed by my lack of a life. What would I even talk about? And it kind of hurts my feelings that none of them reach out to me either…not even by text or facebook. Weekends are great and usually spent having fun with my boyfriend (he works crazy hours and lives in the burbs so I can’t see him during the week), but they go by so quickly. I get really down a lot–I thought your twenties were supposed to be the best years of your life, but I am wishing them away. I have no friends, no money, no children, no husband, and my crappy little apartment doesn’t really feel like home. I just feel so lost. Someone please tell me your 20s were like this and that it gets better?

    • Ale

      It definitely gets better. Everything in life is changing all the time, so don’t think you’ll be in this situation forever. It sounds like you have good things happening too. Your job may be tiring and unfulfilling, but you can use that experience to move onto something better later. There’s always a way to “sell your experience” in a positive way. Don’t get too down on yourself or you’ll miss seeing the better things you have. It’ll get better :)

    • It does get better. Your twenties can be really hard. I think it’s hard to learn how to manage the normal life skills it takes to exist…I really wish I had had a class in high school about how to handle living an adult life (everything from budgets to savings to handling home tasks, etc) would have been helpful because that stuff is stuff I’ve gotten better at over time. Though the daily existance tasks do still take up more time than I wish, I do find that life has settled down more and there is time to pursue my passion (which is not my day job) and still have time with my husband. Though life did get way easier when we got married and moved in to one apartment and combined out money. Living on two incomes in one apartment in a smaller city is much easier than my previous single life on little pay in the big city. That was exhausting and a whole lot of work just to scrape by…

      Anyhow, it gets better. Hang in there!

      • Kate

        Thank you for the encouragement Ale and Jenny. I am going to try to have a more positive outlook and remember it won’t be like this for long (and like the country song, maybe some day I will even miss these days–at that point I will probably have forgotten what it is like to live through a record hot summer without AC I hope).

  • Oh, I was that kid too, with all of the potential and supposed to do big things to make everybody proud. Since probably kindergarten all I’d wanted to be was a teacher, but I got the message that I needed to do Bigger Things with all of my potential, so I majored in business and planned to go to law school. Then I ran up against calculus, changed my major to political science and still planned on law school. I ended up going to grad school in DC, dropping out after a semester and a half and working at an education-focused non-profit. I spent the next decade in a series of education-related jobs when I could get them, temp jobs when I couldn’t, before finally getting my teacher certification. Unsurprisingly, I love being a teacher!

    Life would have been so much easier if I’d majored in education the first go-round, but I’m not sure I’d change it. I had a lot of interesting experiences in my long and winding road of jobs-not-career. A co-worker once told me, “A writer doesn’t procrastinate; he gathers life experience.” Which is a terrible thing to believe, because of course checking Facebook when I should be writing is just plain old procrastination. But I did get a lot of life experience out of having lots of random jobs that gives me things to write about and also helps me empathize with a lot more people than I otherwise would be able to. I’ve been unemployed and underemployed. I’ve been uninsured, even while working 60 or 70 hours a week.

    And I think if I’d gone straight into teaching, I’d have had a harder time explaining to my fiance why this really is exactly what I want to be doing. I didn’t settle for it. He comes from a culture where achieving is incredibly important and he’s expected to always be looking to move up to the next bigger or more important position. The idea that I don’t want to be a principal or superintendent or Secretary of Education didn’t make sense to him. It took a lot of explaining that what matters to me is my students’ achievements and that I’m more effective at and get more satisfaction out of helping students on an individual basis than trying to make big picture policy or curriculum changes to help lots of kids.

    Basically, I had to put the whole issue of my potential out of my head and figure out what job would be at the intersection of what I like to do and am good at with what would do the most good for the world. For me, that’s teaching kids with special needs how to read. At least until someone is willing to pay me to read memoirs and collections of essays.

    • I am always amazed at how well previous job and life experience has come in handy. Like: at university, I used to work as concert security for shows on campus – setting up, working shows, ID checking, dealing with drunks and clean up, plus developing a pretty good feel for events and how things should go. First job out of school? Working in the executive office of an oil company, where I had to organize and work drunken staff parties. I needed to do the set up, work the shows, check the (company) ID, deal with drunks, and make sure the event was running smoothly. It was the most literal use of my skills and experience, but it could not have been in more different jobs and industries.

      Very little is ever wasted, life experience wise.

  • Amber

    Your comment about loitering in museums for hours made me think, have you ever thought about working in the museum field? With all of your many interests, it could be a good match. I grew up gung ho and set on being a professional actress. When I realized that wasn’t quite the right path for me…I wanted to be settled, and not move around a lot and have a family, etc. not that I couldn’t have those things if I stuck with that life…but, I decided I wanted a more stable career, and working in museums has been that! My ultimate goal is to develop educational theatre programming for science museums, but I’ve got to get through grad school first. Anyway, just planting seed. It’s a wonderful field that potentially could let you read biographies all the time. All the best to you in your adventure!

    • Elizabeth

      Loitering in museums is how I ended up an archivist (working in a museum). It is a career I love dearly, but, just a heads-up, it is VERY difficult to get a job in the museum/archives/library fields. Even if you get a job it will pay next to nothing and may be grant funded and only last the grant cycle. Many of my grad school cohort has been out of work for 2-3 years at this point and we went to the #2 school for archives and records management…

      Just make sure you LOVE it before you do it–the frustration can be really demoralizing.

      • Amber

        I’m definitely not in the museum field for the money, haha! But then again, going from acting to museum work where I actually get paid, and as an actress no less!! It’s a pretty sweet deal for me. :-) I agree with you though, going into the museum field does require a lot of passion and perseverance. Though it may not be the most lucrative field, it’s very rewarding!

  • Meghan

    Wow! I had no idea there were so many people in the mediocrity boat with me. Ashleyn, thank you for writing this. You and I could share your first two paragraphs word for word. . I wasn’t quite so wise as you were, and I stayed in school. Now I’m not who I thought I would be, and I have a mountain of debt. But I do have an amazing partner just like your “E”. Thank you for the reminder that I should try to see myself a little bit through his eyes.

  • Thank you. I definitely relate to this.
    Jobs where you get to read all day – look at publishing and apply there. You may need to work your way up, but it might be a good fit. Similarly production companies with reading scripts.
    I do want to add that I also hate it when people say “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life” because I don’t think it’s ever fully true.
    Yes, there are people fortunate enough to earn a living doing something they love and are passionate about, but there are still parts of any job that will feel like work, there are days where it will ALL feel like work.
    Also, I’ve known people who love cooking, have gone through and become professional chefs – and quit it all after all that training and grunt work and “success” because doing it every day, even when they had a tremendous amount of say in how and what, sucked the fun out of it for them. They would rather cook amazing meals for themselves and their families than to feel like they had to everyday for strangers because it was their job. Sometimes, just putting the label “work” on it makes it less fun…
    Sometimes having a job that allows you to do what you love on the side could be better than a career of passion, and we (in general society, not here on APW where pretty much all sides get looked at eventually!) don’t really talk about that side without putting labels like “settling” on to it.

    • Same caveat as museum studies. Publishing is an incredibly competitive field that is literally shrinking by the day. Editorial in particular is brutal to get into, then the hours are bad, the pay is terrible, one job doesn’t mean you’ll get another and there is little to no job stability. It’s also very location specific, based almost entirely in New York, and entry level pay will not even cover your rent. I think if you know you want to be n editor, that you want to shape manuscripts and work with authors and see your name in acknowledgements and find the gems in the piles of terrible manuscripts, you should try. But it is definitely not getting paid to read biographies all day.

      What you could look into is being a biography reviewer as a side project.

  • Hugs and love from a fellow Success Kid who stepped off the rails. Like um, handed in a resignation yesterday at a “good job” (aka at a workplace I hate making good money with responsibility) in my degree field to do…well, I’m not sure yet. Step 1 is move into a van.

    Anyway, I love love love this. So much. Thank you for sharing. It’s one of those things that we don’t talk about enough but it makes a world of difference to know that you’re not alone.

  • Ciara

    I am not a wife yet, but I 100% understand what you mean!

    I had such a long list of expectations when I was younger. One of them was to become a CPA before I got married. Another was to not get married until I turned 30 (I am one of those), and another was to have many children in my 30’s.

    As luck would have it I will be 28 when we get married. I have yet to pass a part of the CPA exam (add wedding stress). And I have an issue that causes infertility so we have been told to have children ASAP. All of these things seemed to come to fruition at once. We got engaged, I failed my first part of the CPA exam, planned my wedding and have been dealing with the medical thing which causes constant pain in the past few months.

    My mom put it best when I failed the first test. She said good, you needed a reality check. She keeps telling me that I need to lower my expectations and focus on things one thing at a time. I on the other hand was devastated bordering a mental breakdown. My plan was not coming through. It took some soul searching to realize that the only person who cared about the plan was me. My hubby to be couldn’t care less that I am not a CPA AND he is unbelievably supportive and VERY excited that we will be starting a family soon. It can be strange how we ‘live in our heads’ sometimes!! Maybe it takes the ‘E’s and my HTB’s of the world to help us breakaway from that :-).

    PS – My dad pretty much talked me out of dropping out of school just about every day of my college career. I am an accountant which is unbelievably try but I shouldn’t complain because it is a stable job. I would love a job where I could get paid to read too!!

  • Alvi the Small

    Word. It is incredibly uplifting to hear from everyone else who is in/has been in the same boat, and to think that while 16 year old self is worried about what everyone else thinks, everyone else is actually in the same boat with you. Or most of them, anyhow.

    What I finally came to was that I could either a) wait for a benefactor to miraculously appear and pay for my crazy art ideas, or b) be my own benefactor. So now, the Underacheiving Job is a pretty good fit – I like it well enough, I work for nice people, and it leaves me with enough time in the evenings/weekends to pursue my own crazy art ideas. Something that never would have been possible with my 16 year old self’s vision of running a lab and coming in on weekends to make sure my cultures were still growing, or being on call all night at the hospital.

    And then I realized that the people who didn’t understand that, who still gave me crap about going back to medical school (garrr) or getting my PhD or whatever, were people who had bought into the idea that Your Work is Your Life, and weren’t fulfilled with either one. And then it made it a lot easier to nod politely instead of kicking people in the shins.

    • That exactly button wasn’t big enough.


    • Being my own benefactor. That’s brilliant.

  • I love my job. Fiercely. I work every. single. day. I work hard. It’s excruciating sometimes. It’s draining. I’m not happy every minute of every day. I’m sometimes miserable, sometimes I want to cry, sometimes I am frustrated, sometimes I just don’t know what to do. But when 4:30 or 5:00 or sometimes 6:00 hits, I change my shoes, pack up my bags, and head out, and when I walk home I feel satisfied with work well done, with what I did that day that helped somebody, with the work that I’m doing. Not always happy. But satisfied.

    I spent two years unemployed and underemployed. I went through the same journeys and justifications a lot of commenters here have gone through – and it can be really hard, and really easy, to conclude that you do not need a career to fulfill you, that you don’t need to be earning money or Doing Something Big or living up to your Potential. And to some extent that was true, but when I got this job, and I started working again, working really hard, at something I’m good at, I saw that to a degree, I was fooling myself. I was happy when I was working as an asssistant and making a life with my husband, but I’m so much happier now that I really do feel like I’m living up to my potential, and my marriage is even better now too, for some completely inexplicable reason. So don’t write off your Potential entirely, and don’t write off your future because your present is pretty darn good.

    • KH_Tas

      Yes. I’m not there yet, but for me, I know, that a satisfying job is something that is very important to me, and even though there is a lot to be happy about in my current underemployed state, that once I am working hard again, that things will be much better.

  • Jessi03

    I feel like I could have written this. Thank you so much, and glad it sounds like you’re in such a healthy and wonderful place!

  • I love this post so much, it hits home in so many different ways. I just read Maddie’s opening of it to my dear husband, who is exactly like E. and proclaimed that I haven’t reached inner peace but hope to one day. His reply was your current inner peace is more like an inner “#($#* yeaaaaahh!”). Maybe one day I will find peace and be ok with myself.

  • Oh I almost could have written this. I have always been told about my Talent and Potential, and everyone always wants me to be something better. My parents wanted me to be a doctor and when I told them a flat no (I faint at the sight of blood) they settled on pharmacist. Well I didn’t want to do that either. Then in college my professors were adamant that I get a PhD in chemistry and do groundbreaking research, but I didn’t want to do that either. I settled with a bachelor’s degree and a career in quality control at a pharmaceutical company. My boss says I have more potential than this job will give me credit for. One of the other departments wants me to join them because I’m “too smart for QC.”

    Honestly, I just want to be a middle school teacher. I want to foster and nurture young minds to not be afraid of math and science. And lucky for me my FH and his family are the few people in my world that think that is wonderful. Everyone else insists that “those that can’t do, teach” and that teaching is a waste of my Talent and Potential. It makes me sad that people see me that way, but I’m so fortunate to have a partner that thinks I’m awesome no matter what :)

    • Class of 1980

      No. I think you have it all figured out. Go and teach.

    • Not Sarah

      If you want to teach, you are exactly the person who should be a teacher. We need so many more of you out there :)

    • Heather

      You should teach. I say this because I will never forget how many great teachers I had over the years- teachers that inspired me to want to learn more. I was terrible at math in middle and high school and it made me so insecure but I had great math teachers who tutored me and encouraged me. Thanks to their help, I did OK in math but what I most remember is that they did not give up on me and it made me work harder. Teaching is such an important profession that is so often devalued but our young people need great teachers who are passionate about what they do. And good teachers deserve the recognition and compensation for their hard work and dedication. I think culturally we are doing our children a disservice by not valuing our teachers more.

  • Marisa-Andrea

    Interesting. I felt this way a great deal of my twenties in one form or another. Feeling like a disappointment at times and a failure at others that is. Graduating from law school during the worst job market for attorneys didn’t help. But I don’t know. When I entered my thirties I kind of chucked all of that to the wayside. I realized that I didn’t feel the way I did because my sixteen year old had it wrong and looked at the world through a lens of naïveté about what being an adult and being successful was all about. She was right actually. I was the one who tried to fit myself into a mold that didn’t fit. In fact I had to tap into that sixteen year old to remember oh yeah, this is what I’m about, this is what I love and what I want to do. Sixteen year old me was a ten times more fearless and courageous than much of my adult self. Sometimes I need hear to speak a little louder

    • meg

      Yes. This.

      Marisa-Andrea and I were actually friends at 16 too, fact. I can tell you that her 16 year old had it right, for sure. Sometimes our younger selves are SMART.

  • Adi

    As a child who grew up in talented & gifted programs who was always told she could be anything, I had to comment on this post. I’m a nanny. I make a decent living that commands zero respect in our community, and have been told over and over again how I’ve failed to live up to my potential. Hilariously, I am much happier than anyone I know who has “succeeded” in living up to theirs. You know what potential I had? It was to be a good person. I’m still smart. I still learn. Better, I teach others what I’ve learned, pass on books and facts and interesting bits of trivia. I’m saddened by “making it” having to mean being extraordinary. Are those of us who aren’t famous, aren’t rich, aren’t at the top of our fields failing? Is the fact that I work to live rather than live to work so wrong? I want to stand up for those of us who are seen as boring and without ambition. One of the things my husband loves most about me is my ambition–not to climb to the top, but to be my best self. I am constantly searching for ways I can be better, and not a single one involves fame or fortune.

    • “One of the things my husband loves most about me is my ambition–not to climb to the top, but to be my best self.”

      This is a lesson I didn’t know I needed to learn. Thank you for verbalizing it.

    • Louise

      Just had to say I was a nanny for a few years after college and I got so tired of people saying, “oh, so you’re a student?” Nope, a nanny. With a degree. mind blowing. It was a great job, but for me it couldn’t last. But The world needs smart nannies! As a teacher now, I am so grateful to my students’ nannies! Well, the good ones at least…

  • This is why I come back to APW every day, these are the posts that reach out and touch my soul. This is a post that looked me square in the eye and said “you are not a failure, you are not alone.”

    Yet feeling like a failure can still be so isolating. Even though I can read Ashleyn’s words and feel a sort of kinship, that voice in my head (shut UP YoungerCathi!) still goes “eh…you’re still failing worse, you know.”

    I’ve typed and erased this comment half a dozen times, because it’s all coming out as one huge pity party, as I’m currently in the throes of major job angst so this is all very real and painful at the moment. I’m ragingly jealous of my fellow “good at much, great at nothing specific” women who have partners who have found their footing. I can’t point at my husband and go “we are focusing on him. He has a career he loves that pays him well and gets us benefits”, because he doesn’t. My full-time bartending is what’s keeping a roof over our heads, gas in our cars, healthcare cards in our wallets, and food on our table. He’s supposed to be the one pursuing his dreams of being a Theologian–getting lost in old texts, collecting degrees, sipping tea with like minded fellows and not worrying about paying the bills. Bill paying is supposed to be my domain. I’m supposed to be moving up and up so when we have kids he can stay at home with them, but I’m not moving up. I’m not moving anywhere.

    I just feel so stuck–I’m 5 years out of undergrad, my only work experience is bartending, and while everyone who knows me, including my bosses, thinks I’m sooo great and sooo smart and sooo should be doing something more challenging–what? What am I supposed to be doing? What do I like enough to pursue more education for? What am I passionate enough about to do an internship for and then toil up the ladder? If you know, I’d love for you to tell me, because I have no clue.

    • Mallory Susan

      I can definitely relate to your last paragraph. I cringe when people say anything like that to me. Yes, I know I need more challenge but I don’t know where to find that. If only there was a magic button to push to tell you what to pursue. Sigh.

      • Right??? While I know it’s a huge blessing to be respected and for people to recognize potential inside of you, after a while I just want to poke them in their faces for being unhelpful.

        What am I good at? Pretty much anything I set my mind to. What am I passionate about? Watching Gilmore Girls while sipping endless coffee and talking about life with my sister, mostly.

        I suspect that if my husband were more driven/bringing-home-the-bacony, I’d feel better about bartending (I do love it) and watching Gilmore Girls in my spare time, but who knows. Being a gifted kid with great potential seems to die pretty hard.

        • Kate

          Copper boom!
          Babette ate oatmeal.
          Hay there!

          I wish there was such a thing as a career as a Gilmore Girls enthusiast.

    • Adi

      As I said, I’m a nanny. My husband is an office grunt. There is no room for advancement at either of our jobs. I make more than he does, but I’m the one who wants to stay home with the kids. Predicament? Yes. Am I worried? Yeah, a bit. But putting pressure on ourselves to do the impossible (neither of us have degrees and I’m this economy we are NOT finding better jobs!) doesn’t help anything. My advice (unsolicited, I know, ignore me if you like!!) is to just be open. Interesting opportunities ARE out there if you’re unsatisfied, and they may be few and far between, but there’s no point in bullying yourself to do better. You’ll just end up feeling guilty and resentful. So keep looking, but please to remember that you’re doing a good job NOW, and f*** anyone who says that’s not good enough.

      • Oftentimes, being given permission to be okay where I’m at, is super powerful. There’s a lot of external pressure (I’m looking at you, dad) to be unhappy with what I’m doing, since it’s not “good enough”. Thank you :)

    • KEA1

      One of the things I hated most about growing up was that I accomplished a LOT. And what kind of recognition did I get? That I had POTENTIAL. Maybe I did, but you know what? I had just *done* *things*. Won awards. Achieved. I did not appreciate one bit that people all but refused to congratulate me for what I had *actually* *done*, and instead focued on what I “could” do, as if what I had just done didn’t matter. I’m very careful now as an adult to address accomplishments as accomplishments, and to address any “potential” separately.

  • Mallory Susan

    This post is truly amazing. I feel this way all the time and being that I’m still relatively young (turning 23 this month!), I always tell myself I still have time to “make something of myself.” I, like Ashelyn, skipped a grade, scored in a high percentile, maintained great grades in high school and college, and was always told how bright and mature I was for my age (graduated high school at 16, college at 20) and now here I am. I’m working as a nanny after getting a BS in political science. I berate myself all the time for failing to follow through on my time line of pursuing grad school straight away and having a career by now. I finally have an idea of what I would like to pursue, but you know what scares me the most out of all of this and literally keeps me from wanting to go back to school to pursue said idea? I’m worried about not finding a job, a career really, once I go to and subsequently graduate, with my masters degree. That would be the ultimate straw that broke the camel’s back, and I don’t know if I could deal with it. However, I’m going to try call on this post’s words when I start to worry and remember that failure is not determined by what job you have (or even if you have one!), but by how much you enjoy your life as a whole. I love my life right now despite all of the things my high school self would have thought it was lacking.

  • CAM

    I have no idea how I’ve gone my whole life without knowing the term “success kid” considering that I am a textbook case!

    This article is me. I grew up in Podunk, CA and moved to the Big City for college. I switched my major more times than I can count and tried things on all ends of the spectrum (Arabic to Pre-Med to English to Psychology, anyone?). Everyone always told me to just do what I felt passionate about, including (especially) my SO who has known since he was 5 what he wanted to do and is now doing it, and could not love it more. Only one problem: I love reading presidential biographies, watching football, cooking, going to the movies, and hanging out with my SO. None of those are really viable career options (at least, not to my inner Success Kid).

    So, shock, I followed in my father’s (and grandfather’s) footsteps and went to law school. I kind of hate it. But, I am really good at it, and have sunk tons of money into it already and can’t really see quitting it to do… what exactly? Read presidential biographies professionally? (Like the article author, if anyone has opportunities in reading biographies professionally, please! Let me know!)

    So now I’m facing down a 5-10 year plan that involves me doing something that I am not super excited about, but am super good at and will make me a super amount of money. I feel obligated to see it through. Please, someone, write a post about it being OK to fail and how to tell our inner 16-year-olds that! Because being a Success Kid is not just about your career, or your studies; it’s about being Perfect At Everything, including your relationship with your SO, your wedding, and your life in general. It’s exhausting (and unhealthy) putting yourself up on a pedestal for Every Single Thing you do.

    So, article author, I actually envy you and the courage you had to quit something you knew wasn’t right for you. No matter what your inner 16-year-old says, I think you are on exactly the right track, and I wish I had the same cojones required to make such a big change and do what I wanted to do, rather than what I thought I should do. Good for you.

    • Your feelings about doing something you’re good at/will make money at, but don’t necessarily like, and therefore feeling like you’re failing is SO INTERESTING to me.

      I was a Success Kid who ended up following her heart, and I’m sitting here feeling like a failure for liking my job (bartending), but not making oodles of money and not having a really good 10 year plan (because please, everyone knows you age out of bartending unless you’re a snarky Irish man). I often daydream about being more practical right out of high school and pursuing something in the math field. I was very, very good at math, and it probably would have led me to a real career with real money. I’ve secretly suspected I’d be happier with that.

      But perhaps not. Perhaps not.

    • Kate

      “Because being a Success Kid is not just about your career, or your studies; it’s about being Perfect At Everything”

      So so SO true. And it’s all pressure you put on yourself (or at least it is for me). And do you find if you feel that you can’t do something perfectly, why should you bother doing it at all? In this sense I think perfectionism and procrastination go hand in hand.

      • Joy

        It sounds like us Success Kids need a support group. And the first activity will involve learning to give ourselves a break when we’re not living up to the Potential for which we force ourselves to strive. Second will be to just focus on being thankful, and grateful, and being good people. In fact, I like this idea a lot. Any ideas how to make a career out of it?

  • Not Sarah

    I was good at many things. I was good at science, at writing, at history, at programming, at math, and at sports (somewhat). I did a joint major in college (Computer Science and French). I honestly found the Computer Science courses pretty easy until fourth year, but the French courses were more thought-provoking. It confused so many people when I dropped third-year Concurrency for African and Caribbean French literature, but I didn’t need the CS credit and the latter was fascinating and involved reading books and analyzing them!

    I figured out though that if I had multiple career choices that all fascinated me (which I did), I should pick the one I knew I liked and that paid better, since I was lucky to have a choice. Here are the things I considered doing as I was graduating from college:
    1) Work as a software developer
    2)Stay in school and get a BA in translation, work for the federal government or something cool
    3) Get a second Bachelor’s degree in Education and teach French and Computer Science and maybe Math
    4) Go to grad school for computer science
    5) Go to grad school for linguistics
    6) Go to grad school for French something

    #1 was the most location flexible of all of them. #2 would have kept me in the province I was in. I didn’t really like kids, so #3 wasn’t the greatest option, but I do always have it as a second career backup if I change my mind on liking kids. #4/5/6 didn’t have any programs that interested me at schools in cities/states/provinces/countries I wanted to really live in long-term. But I had a job offer for #1, for somewhere that I wanted to live and it paid great money. I’m glad I went that route now, about three years later, but I was definitely paralyzed with the decision for a really long time.

    I remember when I too got mono. That was probably one of the hardest times of my life because I felt like a complete failure, even though I only lost a term of school and wasn’t really behind. But how was I to know that would happen then? In some ways, getting mono was The Best Thing ever, because then I might still be with that guy I shouldn’t have dated, still living in my college town, not in my awesome now city with my awesome now boyfriend.

    Gah, I almost feel like I shouldn’t post this, but I was a success kid too. And it sucked whenever something went wrong, I felt like I was failing myself and failing my parents. It was hard. I felt like if I got a 60%, I was failing my parents and myself. I felt like taking the French major was failing myself, even though it was just for fun and I got my job with my other major. But what if it had gone the other way? What if I had switched the order of my majors like I wanted to do so many times in third and fourth year? I worried so much that my parents wouldn’t understand, that they would disown me. I’ve watched my parents not deal very well at all with my sister’s lack of success in their mind and it breaks my heart because it’s straining their relationship with her.

  • This is something I’ve thought about a LOT lately, and I’ve realized…it’s possible to be passionate about your life without being passionate about your job. In fact, it might be better. As long as your job pays enough to get by, isn’t soul-crushing, and gives you the time/mental energy to do the things you DO love, that, to me, is a good job. And sometimes there just isn’t going to be a job for the thing you love! And that’s OK! But having a job you are super passionate can be consuming and exhausting and while that’s OK for some people, it’s not the only way to do things. I think it’s especially important in this economy to stop beating ourselves up for not having our perfect dream jobs (or for not even knowing what our dream job IS — new technology brings new jobs we could never predict in high school on career day) and just ask ourselves if our whole life makes us, for the most part feel happy and whole. The more my life as a whole feels right, the less I worry about my resume. (Though I still worry about my resume at least once a week.)

    • Kate

      Good point, Rachel! Maybe someday 10-3 will become the new norm so that we all have plenty of time to pursue the things we love. I find 8-5 to be a bit too much.

  • Ashleyn

    I just want to say thanks to everyone commenting – it really does mean so much to know that others have experienced this same feeling/struggle, and that none of us are alone in that.

  • Sara

    “I was good at so many things, but there wasn’t that one thing that I was blessed with that I obviously was supposed to do. I would trade being good at a lot of things for being great at one thing any day.”

    This is something I struggle with. As I search for a job that I can feel fulfilled at, I make lists of things I’m good at and try to see what jobs fit into those. And this pretty much sums up how I feel all the time. I’m pretty good at a bunch of things – none of which magically adds up to a job. I keep doing it thinking one day I’ll suddenly look at the list and go “ah math, spreadsheets and calculators! I’ll be an accountant!” (I am good at none of those things. And I’m pretty sure there’s more to being an accountant than that.)

  • Totally agree with the hate for the phrase “Do what you love and you will never work a day in your life.” Because honestly, for a lot of (if not most) people that’s not an option. Most of us have to get random jobs to pay the rent. We get laid off. We don’t get into the school of our dreams or have to stay in a particular place due to family responsibilities. We have to work. But that doesn’t mean all our value should be placed on what our resume says. So much of who we are has absolutely nothing to do with our status in life. From this post, it sounds like Ashleyn is more than living up to herself and will continue to do so in the years to come.

  • Jessica

    My FH is amazing. I don’t say that in a, “oh, he’s so wonderful and perfect” schoolgirlish way but in a, “holy crap, he makes my accomplishments seem like nothing” statement. FH is from extremely humble beginnings. He founded the first in a series of successful companies by 16, was an All American swimmer for a prestigious Chicago university, is a classically trained pianist, still has the physique of his professional bodybuilding days, and is a mathematical genius (literally).

    Then there is me. I’m intelligent, athletic, musical, pretty, and educated… but not to the extent of him.. Plus the only job I could find as an attorney after I graduated and passed the bar last summer was in his company (not a huge ego boost)

    FH would be the first to tell you how smart, beautiful, and wonderful I am, but I still feel like I’m trying to find my way. Sometimes I feel like I’m letting go of my potential to fit myself into what I view as my role, being Mrs. V first and other things second.

    Like others have said, this isn’t a pity party. I am very aware of how incredibly fortunate I am, but even the most fortunate have doubts and questions.

  • Sarah

    I was a success kid and now I work in a field that is pretty focused on identifying the next generation of leaders. That means I’ve won a number of awards for my potential. As I move through my 30s, it can be tough. The start up I created hit a rough economy and in many ways had achieved what I set out to do so I decided to put it on hiatus for the most part. This meant a pay cut for me and that I am down to half time directing the other parts of the organization. One thing that really helped was a coach I worked with a couple years ago who helped me see that I have a long career ahead of me and that if I burn myself out now through working too much or just by beating myself up, that doesn’t help me or the community at all. I do think that sometimes we success kids can be very impatient and that we don’t have to do it all at once and that it might not look the way that we thought it would at 16 or even 25. I periodically say to my husband, “I used to be promising.” He hates when I talk like that and he is incredibly supportive. I have learned a lot from him about overcoming my success kid tendencies. Another thing that helps me is to try not to define myself through my career as much.

  • Natalia

    I don’t ever really comment, but it’s always nice to know that I’m not alone.

    I managed to graduate college, but did so at an inopportune time and, when no job prospects emerged, wound up moving back home (which I never intended to do; it really is kind of in the asscrack of nowhere…in the midwest) to help my family care for my recently disabled brother.

    My fiance fell in love with me after all of this happened and has stuck by me through numerous changes in life plans and failed job prospects. I’m still putting it all in perspective, and I don’t think I could do it without him.

  • Megan

    tears in my eyes as I read this. How APW manages to read my mind…I don’t know. But this very issue has plunged me into yet another deep depression, and this article has reached down and pulled me out of it.
    “I am not just the sum of my achievements or the list of odd jobs on my resume”. I will repeat this every day. This is my affirmation. Thank you, a thousand times.

    • Ashleyn

      You just brought tears to my eyes! I’m so touched that I’d be able to help in any way. Thank you.

  • secret reader

    I grew up liking and being good at a stupid variety of things. My problem was that I lacked confidence in those abilities, and I was overwhelmed at the prospect of choosing just one. Some doors closed because I was too scared (undergrad conservatory auditions made me want to throw up), and others I talked myself out of because I thought I “wasn’t really an X, I just liked doing it.” buuuuulllsh*t!

    Turns out, the career I’m going with (at least for now) was one I slowly decided on by not closing doors. It is one I stuck with because I found the environment friendly and supportive. And because I finally grew up enough to take people seriously when they offered encouragement, and weren’t just “being nice” to me. Also turns out, it’s a career I began preparing for with one of those extracurriculars from high school, but it’s one that I had written off with the “I like it, but I’m not an X” justification.

    I love my job, and it is one of my greatest satisfactions, but it also took me a long time to get to that place. It’s not as if I woke up every day from age 16 with a burning passion for this career, and others told me no, but I fought tooth and nail so here I am. I think we need to widen our “tough girl” narrative to include these slower epiphanies. For me, it was continuing to say yes because I liked it well enough, and then making a few big leaps of faith and trusting that I probably WOULD like this career (future tense) while being dissatisfied with crappy jobs, until I made enough big leaps that this is Really My Job, and I love it.

    We should encourage people more to dive in, and then evaluate from inside the job (or at least inside a job in the industry), rather than expecting that passionate people will be struck, as if by lightning, with a vision of the perfect career. doesn’t make me any less driven *now* just because it took me a while to understand how much I want this.

    I think this is particularly important for industries where “passion” is seen as vital. You can still be successful in those fields without having one of those cute stories where you go misty-eyed and explain how, at age 10, you displayed a fierce desire to do whatever, and it’s never left. I’m lookin at you, arts careers and science careers!

    also, screw you traditional “tough girl” narratives. thanks to all that strong mentoring and encouragement and support, I now get to kick butt in a male-dominated field where I really do need to be “tough” and I am. and I get to do it while wearing skirts. or pink t-shirts when I have to go camping for work.

  • question for all of y’all above who are talking about failure being necessary before success…can you define what you mean by failure?

    I’ve always been the success kid and to be honest, I’ve lived a charmed life. School has always come super easily to me, and I’ve had access to a great education and my parents have put me through college and all that. I also won the romantic lottery and get to marry a wonderful guy who also happens to be the first guy I ever went on a date with. I’ve never dealt with heartbreak, failure, true loss of any kind.

    Now I’m preparing to graduate with no clue what I want to do and not the slightest fck left to give about school, so its feeling like that despite what I always thought I would or should do, pursuing a graduate degree is not for me for the forseeable future. ANd I’m terrified. and I keep getting that advice–you need to fail. But what does that mean? how hard? Is it just trying a career and not liking it? or like trying to start a business and having it go under and losing everything and going into debt and dissapointing my family who have done so much to get me where I am and ahhhhhh. cause I don’t think I could handle that yet.

    Failure is scary. And I can accept the fact that I don’t have to get everything right right away, but I’m not prepared for the notion that if I want to get it right someday, I first have to get it every possible type of wrong.

    • Not Sarah

      I think it’s letting yourself fail and learning how to fail. Letting yourself try a career and see if you like it. If you don’t, that’s okay! You can try to find another one, find a different niche or company within that one, etc. It’s also learning what you do like about it even though you hated it enough to want to try something else.

      One of my co-op jobs, I absolutely hated the city I lived in, so I ended up getting a part-time job on the weekends for some more social time since I had no friends. It somewhat worked. I learned from that that the city/having people around is really important to me.

      I hated the work I did on one of my co-op terms, but the people made me get up and want to go to work every day. I had a job that was ridiculously boring, but at least we worked our 8 hours and went home and collected our paychecks and the people were okay.

      Failure is scary and I don’t think I’ll ever be good at it. I’ve felt mostly like I’ve failed at relationships so far, but I’ve succeed at career and money. So hopefully one day those will turn around? My now-boyfriend is pretty awesome, so maybe I won’t fail at this relationship.

  • Zoe

    I don’t know if anyone is still reading or not, bu do other people have concerns about the term “success kid.” I know it’s intended to be used ironically, but it seems sort of self-congratulatory. And likely, being a “success kid” is more about (I know not in EVERY case), having parents who went to college, who have high expectations for you, etc, rather than necessarily something internal to the kid. And I think even though we’re talking about it’s downsides a bit, overall this is being glorified, people are claiming it as a badge of honor. Yes, it’s great to have ambition and goals and to work hard, but it’s not the only way to be…. Does it mean that other kids, those who didn’t get gold stars on every spelling quiz, were NOT success kids?

    • Amy March

      I really can’t stand the term at all but I haven’t been able to put my finger on why. This may be it.

      • Joy

        I just found this post today, so yes, still reading. I use the term “success kid” sarcastically. For many of us, it’s a label we were given as children, a result of societal pressures, especially from the family and academic side of things. I use it not to glorify what I accomplished as a kid, but to undermine the, sometimes brutal, thinking that pushing your kids to be successful by society’s narrow terms makes most of us feel less than successful as adults when we don’t fit those terms anymore. Usually we feel less than a valuable person, even. I would trade my label as a “success kid” in a heartbeat if it means I could’ve grown up valuing the work part, the surviving and providing part of work, rather than the recognition and praise and feelings of needing to “make it” in society.

    • Maddie

      Interestingly, I think you might be talking about something different here. (Maybe “successful kids” rather than “success kids”?) Because I do think that there are certainly people who come from college-educated families who feel the pressure to succeed and live up to their family’s standards. Maybe they are success kids too? I’m not sure.

      But what I think is at the core of most of the “success kid” talks is actually something totally different. For a lot of us, it’s about coming from somewhere slightly lower on the totem pole and wanting to get up and out. And most of that IS internal. For me, for example, I was never the class president, or valedictorian. My parents were kind of college educated (my mom got her degree during my sophomore year of high school, because she had me in high school herself), and the pressure was always about doing better than they did, not living up to their standards (actually I was told repeatedly to please NOT by their example). So it was never about gold stars, or feeling good about myself and always about seeing success as the ONLY way to get out of town and into something better.

      And a lot of us do wear it as a badge of honor because, well, I’m a little proud of the teenager who was ballsy enough to think that she could get out there and make something of herself. I mean, I was CRAZY for being so ambitious. But I think that’s part of it too. I see it the same way as the former party kid who realizes that there is more to life than partying, but still wears their crazy party days as a badge of honor. It’s not so much about what you’ve accomplished, but showing off what you’ve learned.

      Also, I just really like the success kid meme. :) http://www.quickmeme.com/Success-Kid/

  • Sarah

    Oh my goodness. I haven’t been on this site for ages, and just sort of stumbled here this morning while sipping coffee. This post was so timely for me. I am struggling with the whole “feeling like a failure” thing. I’m a former English major who dropped out last year. I’ve moved back in with my folks. (eek!) And I feel like a loser. All the people I graduated high school with are married with kids, or are graduate students, or have great jobs (or all of the above). And I feel like a bum.
    There’s so much pressure with the get THE job routine. But I have no idea what I want to do with my life. I’m an only child and I was a honor grad who was voted “most likely to be interviewed by Jon Stewart”. Haha!
    I feel like I’ve been a disappointment to everyone who ever believed in me. I’m getting huge negative reactions when I confess that, at 25, I have not completed my B.A. “College Drop-out” feels like a synonym for loser. My parents don’t even seem to care anymore. “You don’t have to like your job, it just has to pay the bills.” (Code for “You’re a burden; you’re supposed to be married and giving us grandbabies by now. Get out.”)

    It’s nice to hear that there’s some hope for those of us who don’t “check all the boxes” on the way to adulthood.

  • SF

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing this story. It sounds so similar to what I am living that it’s almost laughable. Ever the “success kid” through schooling, since then I have been confronted with the continual question of “Well, if you could do anything, what would it be?” that I have started to believe that there is sincerely something wrong with me since I DON’T KNOW– beyond A’s list of loved activities, which are also some of my personal favorites. :) I haven’t reached that place of contentment with who I am but it is so encouraging to know that I am not the only one who has faced this problem and even more encouraging that answers are available. Again, thank you so much. My day and outlook on life already feel brighter!

  • Heather

    I have been so busy between work and school this week, that I did not get to read this post and some of the comments until now. I started reading it on the bus ride home and couldn’t wait to get a chance to come back to it when I was snuggled at home in front of my computer.
    Ashleyn, thank you for your honesty and sharing your experience. This part of your post really spoke to me :
    “I was paralyzed and afraid. Whatever I picked to do with my life had to be amazing, and I had to be amazing at it. I had to live up to all that Talent and Potential. I had to live up to myself. Instead, I ran myself ragged…”
    I have been there before and I promised I would never run myself ragged like that again. But here I am living that experience again and it is really overwhelming.
    I have been working since I was 15 because I had to, not only to help myself but to help my family. Working is all I know and it is how I define my independence and my stability. I am trying to do it all but at what cost? I have this amazing supportive partner but I barely have time for him or myself for that matter.
    In an effort to not unload all my thoughts in the comment section, I will just say: the community I am struggling to find offline, I am able to find here on APW. Thank you for that. It is so comforting to know that there are other women dealing with the same issues. With that said, I realize I need to go fill out the survey and participate more.

  • I needed this today and seeing all these comments really makes me feel like I’m not alone. I’m the queen of lurking; I hardly every comment, though I often want to. Today I felt I needed to raise my voice and let everyone else know that they aren’t alone either. That’s mainly what APW helps me understand every day.

    I have no idea what I’m supposed to do with my life and I’m not okay with it yet…and while it’s not my ideal place to be, at least I know where I am and I have a number of plans and places to go. I think that makes a world of difference on the good days and it makes everything harder on the bad days.

    Thanks APW for helping a girl take a step forward, even if I’m not going anywhere at the moment.

  • I recently wrote a parable self-published in e-book format on this very topic! Its one I feel very strongly about. At the risk of sounding too much like spam, the parable explores the theme of potential – how that potential is perceived by a boy and others around him.

    Its called “The Country King” and can be found right here: http://www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/3293747

  • I have to relinquish my lurker status to comment. It has struck a chord with me and many others (which is a bit comforting!)

    I’m not saddled with the added pressure of performing well in many subjects – complete art nerd over here! Unfortunately, Math and Science are not my thing. But I too have felt like I am letting myself down, not living up to my potential.

    As a teenager, I believed that it would be best if I left my small, economically-depressed town in WV. Yet as an adult, I find that I love being near my family in this tiny town and believe that my state is a beautiful place to live. Today, I am reluctant to leave (even if it were financially possible). At the same time, it’s hard to escape negative stereotypes about my state and sometimes wonder if it holds me back, having my residence on my resume.

    Also, as an undergrad visual art major, I always assumed I would go on to earn an MFA. It is the Thing. To. Do. I started having doubts after I completed my BA and BFA. Staring at my large student loan bills and realizing that probably the only good reason to earn an MFA is to
    become a professor (which I had no interest in) plus our tanking economy were big contributors in my decision to not continue my education. It was incredibly difficult to let that goal go, and it was hard for all the wrong reasons (namely letting go of the prestige
    an MFA brings in my field.) So I decided to work a day job to pay the bills and skip out on graduate school, to the disappointment of many.

    As I approach my 30th birthday, I am attempting to get over the fact that I must lead a double life as a part-time secretary, part-time fine artist. I agonize over time spent away from my work, doing grunt work for others. My business is slowly growing every day. Meanwhile I daydream about being able to one day dedicate myself to my art 100% and finally be able to realize that potential.

    Time seems to slowly be healing these feelings of inadequacy and I hope to be able to recognize the growth that I have experienced as a person and the growth in my work. I will celebrate that, and for once, give myself some credit. And if I never reach my “full time
    artist” goal, I am becoming ok with that, too. I am more than my “career”. So thank you, Ashleyn, for starting this conversation – it’s a great one to have. I can tell we are all grateful to feel a bit less alone.

  • Melissa

    I feel like you wrote my life story. Thank you for sharing yours, it really touched me. I often feel like a “failure” because I don’t have a “real” high-paying career. But I am happy with what I’m doing now, and it pays the bills decently enough. I’m engaged to a wonderful guy with a “career” that doesn’t pay much either. That doesn’t matter to us though. Just having a day off together is a reward, and life together is anticipated eagerly.

  • JC

    Wow, this is me. Total overachiever at high school, got to university with no real idea of what I wanted to do with my life, so majored in something I was good at but not all that interested in. I graduated and went into a job which matched my degree and hated it, so resigned and spent the next ten years drifting in “dead-end” jobs (except now I look back and call them adventures and life experiences), in the course of which I met the love of my life and realised that I didn’t have to live up to my potential, I just had to be happy.

    So now I’m working in a job that’s still of the dead-end variety, but lets me work with a fabulous group of people, so I love it. And I’ve gone back to university part-time and am studying a subject I love (but has zero chance of leading to a good job at the end of it). I’m never going to be rich, but I’m completely happy.

  • Magda

    I’m another who feels that this is a pretty accurate description of my feelings about my career path (or lack thereof). I grew up wanting to be everything from a veterinarian to a doctor to a detective to a psychologist. In college I fancied myself a budding biogeographer, and majored in geography to prove it. Four years later I still like plants and maps and things, but I’m back in school, at a community college getting certified in massage therapy.

    I’ve gotten a lot of “Why don’t you use your geography degree?”-type questions. The answer is that I tried, but the job market really sucks, and there are really not any entry-level geography jobs outside of big cities. This brings me to another difficult question people ask, “Are you happy that you followed your fiance to a small college town instead of staying in your hometown, a big city?” Yes, I did follow my partner out to the middle of nowhere in the Midwest, and yes, that might mean that I gave up some job opportunities that could have lead me down a career path in the field I majored in. But I subscribe to the notion that some have mentioned here that being content with life overall is more important than being content in a job, and I don’t think I could ever be as happy as I am now if I couldn’t live with my partner. My partner feels guilty every time I complain about where we live, but the reality is I wouldn’t change anything if I could go back and make the decision again, and I hate long-distance, so that would have been out of the question.

    I did try to get my masters in geography at the local university, but a semester into the program I realized I hated it and that the professors were really self-interested and that I disagreed with everyone in the department about some canonical human geography theory (the local university doesn’t even have anyone who specializes in biogeography, so I couldn’t do that anyway). I bit the bullet and quit, and it was such a relief. Sometimes I think I’d like to go back and get a PhD in geography, but that costs a lot of money, and many universities are very short on funding for grad students, so I try to keep my view realistic about the prospect of ever having an academic job. The realities of research in universities (that it is often a big circle-jerk) also snapped me out of my more romantic notions about an academic career.

    My partner is a PhD student in math, so he was very supportive of my decision, having an inside view of how ridiculous academia can be. He also supported my decision to get certified in massage therapy, which is great, because it’s definitely not easy to field all the questions about why I’m not trying to live up to that fantastic potential we all seem to have but not be able to achieve. I’ve realized that it’s not worth agonizing over all the might-have-beens with regards to career, and that it’s perfectly okay to say “Hey, I think I’ll spend several years of my life doing massage because I like people and helping them, and I like the prospect of making over $30 an hour for helping people!” even if I do have an undergrad degree or all that “potential” waiting to be used.

    And really, who’s to say that my potential is not well-spent right where I am now? Maybe someday I will become a physical therapist or do something completely unrelated to what I’m doing now, but that’s something I’ll tackle when I get there. I’m finally learning to be okay with where I am and who I choose to be at the moment. In a few years that will involve having kids and being a stay-at-home mom for a while, but none of this has to negate the notion that I am smart and capable of doing many interesting things. There’s no reason I can’t fulfill that “potential” in everything I do, including massage, parenting, and just being myself.