Mind the Gap: Cultivating an ‘Able To’ vs. a ‘Should Do’ Attitude

On any given Monday or Wednesday evening this past summer, you could find me climbing into my car and releasing a sigh of frustration. The source of my anxiety? An accounting class.

I started business school a few months ago, piling it freely on top of my full-time job and active social life as though my emotional and mental bandwidth knew no bounds. I’d always known I wanted to go to grad school, but I could never quite find the right program or feel inclined to pull the trigger. After a few years of post-undergraduate work, the last 3 years of which brought me to the frenzied rush of Silicon Valley, I finally knew somewhere in my gut that an MBA was the right choice. And as I tend to do when I get to knowing things in my gut, I emotionally committed and barreled in headfirst.

Several of my classes have come fairly easily to me along the way — discussing management theories, analyzing market trends, parsing business ethics cases, etc. And then, there was accounting. As someone who fared well in math classes earlier in life, I entered with naive confidence. The problem with having no qualms with your expectations is it significantly increases the sting of the slap in the face with things don’t turn out quite right.

The numbers wandered on the board, the nuanced equations muddied together in the textbook and my brand-new pencil erasers waned slowly to blackened nubs. The program requires two accounting courses, so the summer term — when I desperately preferred to be out with friends enjoying the late sunsets and Bay Area evenings — found me slogging impatiently through the second installment of this balance-sheet-laden ring of fire.

What I got wrong, looking back, is that I couldn’t accept that accounting simply wasn’t my strength, view it as a necessary evil, grit my teeth and get through it. Instead, I took it out on myself.

Those sighs of frustration in my car after class often turned to tears of disappointment — specifically, disappointment in myself. Why was I struggling so much, when I used to be so good at math? Why is accounting so foreign? Why did so many of my classmates seem to be handling it just fine? Why did my hours (and hours and hours) of studying not pay off in the high grades I wanted? Why couldn’t my brain just keep up?

My friends and family, who must have grown accustomed to my many tales of woe that summer, told me all the things I would have told a friend in my shoes: You’re not dumb just because you don’t get this one thing. Maybe the class doesn’t fit your learning style. I’m sure some of your other classmates feel the same. Some of these people might actually be accountants in real life, or have taken an accounting class earlier in life, and you aren’t and you didn’t. Think of all the subjects you’re good at. This isn’t a competition, anyway.

The words are all true, and, like I said, all things I would tell anyone struggling through a similar situation. So why couldn’t I convincingly say it to myself?

I believe one of the fundamental struggles in life is dealing with the gap between what we are able to do and what we believe we should be doing.

As a student spoiled by high GPAs and courses that came easily to me for most of my life, I had no idea what it would feel like to be the one not keeping up. I saw a bar that I labeled success, somewhere high above my head, and strained my brain and self-confidence to pieces trying in vain to reach it. I criticized myself, doubted myself, berated myself and questioned my intelligence. Maybe I hadn’t actually been good at school earlier in life. Maybe, by some cosmic fluke, I’d tricked all my teachers and skated by without ever stretching my brain or being a good student at all.

But that isn’t right. Because the truth is, those accounting classes said nothing about me — nothing except that I was still willing to get up and show up even when it made me feel two inches tall. I want that degree, and I knew I had to push back at the things pushing down on me to reach my end goal. So, I fought for it.

But what I also need to do, going forward, is fight for myself. I need to put aside the grades and the tests and the dismaying eraser smudges, and put myself first ahead of it all. I need to accept the real truth: that I am smart, and I am a good student, and none of that is the result of tricking anyone or hiding anything at all.

The other truths, which are no small thing, are that a) grad school is inherently more difficult than any other schooling I’ve ever done, and b) I’m doing it on top of a full-time job and many other life obligations. Much like comparing myself to my classmates who asked questions way beyond my level of comprehension, measuring my current student status against my younger self is unfair and imbalanced. Different times, different challenges, different resources, different yardsticks.

You know what they say: you can’t judge a fish by its ability (or rather, inability) to climb a tree. One big challenge of my life is seeing these situations for what they are — knowing when I’m a fish and the challenge is a tree and the people around me are Olympic-level squirrels — and being at peace with that reality.

There’s what I believe I should do, and there’s what I’m able to do. And much like a pedestrian on a busy platform with a high-speed train rushing up, I’m learning to mind the gap.

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