Where I’m from, there is no “good enough”. You’re either great, bordering on perfection or you’re just mediocre. Virtually unseen.
Growing up, this idea was reinforced at home, at my over-achieving academic elitist high school, and among my friends. What I’ve come to understand is that it wasn’t the places and people in my life that fed this message, but insidious imperialist and capitalist values that were — and are — running the show. In America, if something is available to you, you should take it and not think twice about the consequences.
To believe that “good enough” can ever be “great” means that you lack ambition — have sold yourself short.
For years, when I told people that I was a teacher, one of the most common questions I received was, “What do you eventually see yourself doing?” To me this question implied that being a public school teacher was insufficient. I interpreted it that way either because the asker thought it on some level or because my conditioning in life had done its job and some part of myself believed it too. Regardless, there was something about that question that insulted an already de-professionalized profession where I was working a necessary 60-70 hours a week to do right by my students. It reinforced the notion that to be a teacher was settling for “good enough” and that to be “great” I had to be and do more.
Rather than communicate any of this, of course, I answered the question anyway and told people that I eventually wanted to be a professor in a Masters program. This was a satisfying answer for me and for them. And it wasn’t a lie. For years, I saw myself on a 10-15 year track to that goal.
Last week, I received an offer to teach a course as an Assistant Professor. And even though I’d just made a career switch and am in recovery from old habits that have been dying hard, a familiar mixed tape pushed Play. I began to imagine the narrative of success as a professor that was etched into my mind before I considered if it was still something I wanted.
My friend Kailla snapped me out of it when she asked, “So, is that something you still feel the urge to do?”
That word — an ‘urge’. A want. A longing. When she asked me this way, the mixed tape stopped and flipped over. For the first time, I heard a quiet part in me voice a simple, ‘no’.
That same weekend visiting my parents in Eugene, I went on a hike with my husband and little brother. We were discussing the position at the college and my husband asked, “What would you be giving up to take that on?”
Answer: Sleeping. Exercising and training. Writing. Learning the ropes of a new career. Yoga. Reading books. Hanging with friends. Kayaking and hiking. Phone calls to family. Time to live the life I’ve been working hard to live.
I realized I wanted all of those things more than I wanted to pursue “greatness” defined by values that aren’t serving me. I had been asking myself the wrong questions and am grateful to the people in my life who are helping me ask the right ones.
Don’t get me wrong, I still believe in working hard and kicking ass. I just want to redefine “greatness” on my own terms and quit compromising and confusing happiness for traditional definitions of success.
When I got back to my parents’ house, I sent an email to the college saying thanks but no thanks.
That night my dad said, “So, tell me about your days now that you’re in a new job.”
As I described a life that I hope will honor a work, life balance, he started to tear up. He could see and hear that I was happy. I know this look from my dad — pride.
I felt seen.
And he didn’t ask what I eventually see myself doing.