As empty nesters, my parents often reminisce fondly about my brother’s and my childhoods. In one story, they recount the differences between us as we each learned to walk. Six years my senior, a poster child for persistence, my brother continued to take two steps before falling, gradually getting better and better until he could walk on those wobbly legs. Legend has it, I walked 26 steps on my first attempt before refusing to try again for the next six months.
Although I have no memory of this, it sounds like me. As is typical of the overachiever burnout, I have a habit of abandoning activities, both big and small, if I am not immediately good at them.
I quit show choir before high school because I couldn’t foresee myself auditioning for and making it into the award-winning competition ensemble. I quit my high school basketball team because I knew I couldn’t simultaneously balance schoolwork and improve enough to see playing time on varsity. I stopped scribbling the abstract drawings I had loved so much as a child because I was frustrated with my perceived inability to make realistic artwork.
Perhaps this is the largest indicator of my narcissism — that I want to excel in everything, and I want to excel immediately. Pair this personality trait with society’s constant rhetoric of marketing yourself — I grew up to wonder if every activity or passion could be material for a college essay, for an extracurricular section, for a potential letter of recommendation.
As a result, I regularly imposed twisted logic on myself: If I can’t be the best at this, then I might as well quit early and cut my losses. This was a result of pessimistic competitiveness, insurmountable pride.
But I think that a lack of hobbies, of an openness to try new things solely for the fun of it, is damaging. In high school, I put so much pressure on myself to specialize that I stopped doing the little things that I genuinely enjoyed.
I’m reaching a point now in which not every aspect of my life needs to be marketable. Hobbies are no longer necessary — there are no more extracurricular sections on applications where I can write a cheeky “I like to go on walks and play guitar.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think my future employers are going to care much whether I can play pop songs on the piano. But now that the burden of having sustained interests beyond academics is much smaller, I see that the necessity is greater and the drawbacks are slim.
That’s why I’m trying to reframe the way I measure productivity. If I’m enjoying myself, then it’s not a waste of time. Not everything in my life has to be about manufacturing a profitable outcome, be it praise, professional development or the chance to make money. Taking the time to be creative or try new activities for no external reason — not to show anyone, not to turn in, not to sell — is my own form of self-care.
In early October, I had a vision of myself roller-skating into the sunset, gracefully spinning and gliding with ease. Perhaps the decision was spurred by the dormant influence of Ellen Page’s performance in “Whip It,” but without considering the bumpy terrain that calls itself the roads of Berkeley, I purchased a used pair of speed skates.
Three months later, I barely know how to turn or stop, and I teeter with a pink helmet across the tennis courts of the Berkeley Rose Garden before wiping out completely on the concrete. I’ll admit this is due in part to my lack of dedication — placed in the context of college life, skating is not necessarily urgent. A year from now, maybe I’ll moonlight in a roller derby league (probably not), or maybe I’ll have already dropped the skates off at a Goodwill. After 20 years of overediting myself, I’m ready to wipe out in public and laugh alone in the meantime.
I’m trying to stop thinking about the end result of everything I do. In the summer, before my apartment had internet, and there really was nothing around for me to occupy myself with, I picked up a sketchbook and some markers and started to draw. I hadn’t done this in earnest since elementary school. Instead of putting myself down for how it looked, I just kept doodling. The stakes were low, anyway. When you’re picking up a new skill, the stakes are always low. Drawing tiny cartoons has been a great way to face my perfectionism head-on. I follow my gel pen in whichever direction it feels like flowing; it’s some divine embrace of the weird, grotesque and imperfect.
Even though I am much closer to the terrifying concept of adulthood than ever before, I don’t feel the same pressures as I did in high school. Taking time to live a more balanced lifestyle means my grades are not as perfect as they used to be. I’m learning to be OK with that. Maybe I don’t look as great on paper, but I’m starting to feel a lot more human.