When you are able to coast through school, neither flunking nor flying, there is a risk of never reaching your potential…and never being truly satisfied.
I was a “B” student at a high-performing all-girls grammar school. If I was particularly inspired, I’d produce some great A-grade work. Alternatively, if I felt intimidated, I’d bury my head in the sand and scrape a C or a D. I had a good social life, no behavior problems, got on well with teachers and rarely gave them any cause to single me out, for negative or positive reasons. My only rebellion was a term of not doing any homework, and this was quickly solved by being scrutinized more closely for a few weeks. In my best subjects my teachers would share their frustration at my stubborn – yet polite – refusal to push myself to the next level where they believed I should be. I valued my education, I liked my school, I wasn’t lazy, and I knew how important it all was. Nevertheless, I consciously chose to coast, and never really stopped coasting for another 20 years.
If I’m being watched, I freeze. I was always destined for an A in art/design, but having to produce something in a set time on a set day paralyzed me. I stubbornly coasted to a C, to the surprise of my friends and the frustration of my art teacher. I was not surprised at all. I felt absolutely fine about it. At university, I produced good work, enjoyed my course, had a lot of fun, worked at bars, and sometimes wrote essays worth the highest marks. I aimed for a passing grade, got it, and was perfectly happy with that.
Parents’ evenings had a recurring theme, from primary school onwards: “A pleasure to have in the class, bright but lacks confidence in her own ability.” Workplace appraisals have always had a certain deja vu. Managers over the years would suggest I should be more ambitious, I was not fulfilling my potential, that I should be aiming higher. I would politely decline opportunities so that I could continue to coast. I go through phases of trying new things, and always do well enough for friends to suggest going pro: baking, illustrating, makeup, hair, writing, Zumba, counseling. But something has always stopped me: I can’t be ‘brilliant’ on demand or under the weight of any expectations.
Now we seem to have a culture that celebrates success, excess, and perfection. We are told what success looks and feels like, and it’s inflexible, narrow, unrealistic, and largely unobtainable. We are conditioned to believe that we have flaws that must be fixed, and when we think we’ve fixed ourselves enough we’re told there’s something new that is now a flaw to loathe. We accept that it’s normal to be constantly striving for something, constantly pushing ourselves, constantly achieving. We’ve forgotten about simply being.
We believe that success at school looks like A grades and popularity. Success at home, depending on your life stage, looks like a buzzing social life, a beautiful home, travel, fun, finding a soul mate, being a bride, having (cute, laid-back, healthy) babies, being fit-looking… Success at work looks like making lots of money, believing, achieving, finding your life’s purpose, hustling, not quitting, winning awards and accolades, finding meaning in everything you do, being promoted, gaining more qualifications, taking on more responsibility, pushing pushing pushing.
But, much like I dig my heels in and resist jumping on any bandwagons that pass (I’ve never read or watched Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings, or Fifty Shades, and as soon as something is ‘trendy’ I avoid it!), I think we need to stop and ask ourselves – is that really how I would define success FOR ME? Do I really want to look back on a lifetime of working to society’s measures of success? And then perhaps we should wipe the slate clean and begin to define what success means to us, as individuals.
For me, success at school looks like taking opportunities, learning how to think critically (not what to think), and expanding one’s mind in all directions. I coasted at school because I had a lot of stuff going on outside of school and within myself. School for me was a comfortable place to be – mostly free of conflict and danger – where I could slip under the radar, avoid too much pressure and stress, submit to the rules and preserve my emotional and intellectual energy to be used where it was needed elsewhere.
For me personally, success at home looks like a family who openly demonstrate their love for each other, who act as a team, and who feel absolutely uninhibited in a house that is a haven, somewhere we can each be free of the stresses of the world and rest in the bubble we’ve created. It looks like a family who challenge each other, hold each other accountable, hear each other, and stand beside each other by default. It looks like each of us feeling we have the space, time, and privacy that we need, and it looks like the eternal dance of the jostling wants and needs and strengths and limitations of each person.
For me personally, success at work has – up to now – looked very similar to that of school. Choose a path that is easy to navigate, challenges me just enough to motivate, sometimes provides bursts of inspiration, but doesn’t stretch me too much or test my abilities too often. Avoid conflict, aim for good or excellent, but never perfect. Never over-promise. Manage expectations and ensure people underestimate rather than overestimate me. Leave people pleasantly surprised rather than bitterly disappointed. Work smart, and go home. Switch on and off.
And it’s work out fine for me. I don’t regret my lifetime of coasting; I recognize it as a privilege, and in hindsight it was very much what I needed to do at the time. I may not have set the world on fire or made loads of money, but I have developed strong boundaries and a solid sense of self-preservation. I am not a workaholic, and I’ve left (mostly) good impressions along the way.
Reflecting recently, I have realized that my avoidance of ‘success’, my lack of ambition, and my stubborn resistance of anything that might push, challenge, stretch or test me all come from a fear of burnout. I fear not having enough emotional energy left to battle my daily demons. I fear the weight of expectations – to have to repeat my effort again and again because I’ve shown brilliance once. I fear having to produce brilliant things because I’ve been paid to, rather than because I want to. I fear the block that appears as soon as I feel I have to be brilliant, just as I did with my A level art. I fear getting people’s hopes up, only to disappoint them when I cannot maintain standards. I don’t want to run at 100% all the time. I am successful according to MY definitions, and I think that’s fine.
To the girls who are scared of success, who are coasting, holding themselves back, hiding the full extent of their potential, I say this: you are enough. Define your own set of values, and create your own unique definition of success. Make it flexible, make it realistic, make it obtainable, and let it change and grow with you. Don’t apologize. Maintain your boundaries. You know yourself better than you think. Know your worth. Don’t hold yourself up against anyone else’s definition of success – and don’t judge anyone else against yours. Build each other up; a flame loses nothing from lighting another candle. Blow your own trumpet. Find your voice and use it. Never speak to yourself more harshly than you speak to your best friend. Have integrity, and aim for peace of mind above all else.
You’ve got this.
Kelly is a 38-year-old, British working mother, married with two young sons. She isn’t a blogger, but sometimes has something to say out loud, usually on the subject of maternal mental health, intersectional feminism, social justice and raising kind, tolerant, strong, feminist boys. You can find her on LinkedIn & Tumblr.