Redefining My (Lack of) Success

Illustration / Ashley Slade

A loud knock on our classroom door caught us off guard one day. Before the doorknob turned, my entire third-grade class had already spun around to see who it was. An unknown teacher popped her head inside, sharing a knowing smile with my teacher. The unknown teacher pulled out a handful of students for the rest of the class period, and judging by their faces, they were expecting her as well. A classmate spoke up for the rest of the class by asking our teacher why they were excused from class.

“They’re in the gifted and talented program,” my teacher answered.

I can recall a dozen overachievers that I went to school with, but one elementary school classmate in particular always stood out to me. I’ll call her Emily. I remember her as a tiny girl with a surprisingly mature demeanor for a child. She was in the gifted and talented program because many people questioned if she was human at all. Not only was she naturally above average at everything she tried but she also made it look easy.

Although Emily was gifted and talented, she never bragged about herself. She remained grounded and that made it harder for me to dislike her. In fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone disliking her since people were always drawn to her like a giant magnet. Teachers and parents — including my mom — praised her for impeccable attendance and grades, while my peers competed to sit with her at lunch or have her join their sports team in PE class. Though I did not know Emily as a friend, I lived through her reign for enough years to understand what others saw in her. Mostly, it was the things we wished we could see in ourselves.

At the time, I was the athletically-challenged kid who would always get picked last by team captains in P.E. class. I was the student who teachers swore had ADD because I did anything but pay attention to their lessons. I was known as ‘the quiet girl with glasses’ whose commonly mispronounced last name made my teachers and peers feel uncomfortable. This was my identity for several years. By 5th grade, people knew what to expect from me while Emily continued to exceed the expectations of others year after year.

I’m not sure why it was hard for me to prove I could do more than what others expected from me, all I knew was that I felt like people were right about me all along. If I was capable of doing anything then why did it feel like I would never measure up?

Fast forward and I’m fighting the same thought from creeping back into my mind as I edge closer to my mid-twenties. While Emily and I have since gone our separate ways, I can’t seem to escape the same insecurity and pressure I felt years ago. I feel it when I read about a startup CEO around my age raking in millions despite being a college dropout. I feel it when I see a job promotion or wedding engagement announced on social media. I feel it most when people from my graduating class talk about how much they love their jobs and how it never feels like they’re working.

Why do we strive to be young and successful when it’s a standard that only keeps getting impossible to reach?

It’s easy to blame it on the media, as some might do, but the fact of the matter is that we have no one to blame for these expectations but ourselves. If you’re getting caught up with what others are doing with their lives then you’re always going to feel like you’re lagging a few steps behind. The real problem with this is that you’re losing sight of what you’re really after, which is the one thing stopping you from succeeding, ironically.

Success is a meaningless word when it’s defined by anyone but yourself. This is something I learned after living in Austin, Texas for about a year. When I moved out of my home in Virginia, I still didn’t have a concrete idea about what I wanted to do with my life. I only knew that if I moved and started my career in another city then I would eventually find my way. I ended up scrambling for answers instead.

Two less-than-ideal jobs and several rounds of interviews later, I felt anxious about saving money and hopeless about finding my dream job. Did I even have a dream job? Did I have the right experience for it? Should I be doing more with my life? There comes a point when you feel like you’ll never amount to anything even though you know it’s not true. I had to take a step back and ask myself if being a failure to others mattered more than being a failure to myself.

Answering that question took my life in a different direction, like how I took my life in a different direction when I decided to move to Austin.

Driving across state lines and settling into a new city used to be my far-fetched dream. It also terrified me because I didn’t think I could go through with it, but I did it and now I can’t imagine going back to the same person I used to be when I left Virginia.

I may not have it all, but a strong backbone is the best place for me to start.

The last time I saw Emily was during my junior year of high school. It was a brief moment in my former history teacher’s classroom after school, but I still replay it in my head sometimes.

Though we went to the same high school, it was the first time I’d seen her since 7th grade. Our high school was massive but this year we both had the same history teacher even though Emily was in her advanced level class and I was in her general class.

Although I loved my history teacher, I tried to avoid seeing her after school since her classroom filled up like a zoo. I only planned to stop by to make a few corrections on an assignment and then leave shortly afterward. I claimed a seat by the door and noticed Emily hunched over at a desk on the far side of the room.

I recognized her immediately; she looked more or less the same as she always did, only with shorter hair and a prep school blazer. Her eyes were glued to a textbook, using her pencil to help scan through the text on each page. Whatever answer she was looking for seemed to be under her nose, but it was taking a long while to find it.

I dropped my gaze to the assignment in front of me, picking up a pen with one hand and propping a textbook open with the other. At first, I couldn’t help but sneak a few glances in her direction to check if she had made any progress. Each time I looked up she was either biting her fingernail, flipping the same page back and forth, or raising a hand to get my teacher’s attention. This wasn’t how I remembered Emily at all. Was I confusing her for someone else?

I exhaled before looking back down at my unfinished work. Despite feeling exhausted, I sat up straight and continued working until I was done. A few minutes later, I closed my textbook shut with a satisfying thud, confirming I was done for the day. I turned in my corrections before leaving and never looked back to see if Emily found that answer.

Originally published at on October 15, 2016.