If Life Were Like School | Charlene Kwon Coaching

If Life Were Like School

I’d say I’m a solid B student. 

And that’s on my good days. On my regular days, I’m probably doing life at a B-, or a C. It depends on how much sleep I get. 

Have you spent a great portion of your life relying on other peoples’ assessment of you? Did you revel in the shiny gleam of those A’s on your report card, that high peak on the A that makes you feel like you’re on top?

I think this a reality for a lot for first-generation and second-generation women. Our parents have high standards of achievement for us, and we are expected to work hard because, after all, look at how hard they are working for us.

For me, A’s were expected. There was no option not to get A’s. I remember when I got my first B, I ran home to grab my report card out of the mailbox before my mom could see it, and I burned it. I think I was eleven years old.

It seems dramatic now, but that felt like my reality. I was so worried about the repercussions from my parents that I started an elaborate white lie about my academic performance that lasted until I left for college. I never told them my exact grades, but I did tell that I was doing fine, which was true. I would eventually graduate from high school with over a 4.0.

I’ve known first and second-generation A+ people. I knew one guy who was a state-level track athlete and valedictorian. He got to run the Olympic torch in 1996. He was also blessed with the coolest name I had ever heard. I won’t write it down, but maybe having that name was like getting seated in the front row all the time. I just looked him up, he’s definitely still living that A+ life.

One of my closest friends in high school was also an A+ person. If there had been something better than that, then she would have achieved that as well. I remember one night we had a project due the next day and we were working in her dining room and she ran out of glue for the poster board. Using her ingenuity, she quickly realized that she could use cooked rice in place of glue and promptly jumped out of her chair to make it. It was already late, like nine in the evening and I was too tired to witness the process of her making the rice and using it as glue unfold. I packed up my things and went home knowing I was never going to have the same kind of academic commitment that she did. And it was true.

Years later, I learned that she had had a breakdown and didn’t want to pursue research anymore and instead went to culinary school to become a chef. I guess the cooking rice thing was part of her narrative.

When I was a coordinator at Penn, one of my A+ advisees had just received a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Cambridge for her graduate degree. She had a long-term boyfriend who was also incredibly accomplished. I asked her what they were going to do. “We’re going to break up,” she said. “Totally amicable. We both know that our studies come first.” I had nodded in response. A+ people make these kinds of sacrifices. The problem was that it is never known when the sacrifices stop and the joy is finally allowed in.

The point is that I always knew that I would never work that hard for the grade. It just wasn’t in me no matter the fear I felt from my parents. As I grew older, that drive to listen to myself grew stronger and stronger. By the time I got to the part of my PhD program where I had to impress my dissertation committee, I couldn’t be bothered anymore. Why did their opinion matter? Well, I guess it mattered in the gatekeeping world of academia, where you are constantly monitored and assessed, but that’s the precise reason why I left. In my mind I had proven to myself that I could make it that far, the rest was sticky rice that I didn’t care to make.

As an adult, I’m quite proud to be getting a B in life. It feels sustainable. It means I feel good about my decisions at least 80% of the time. It’s doing the hard work when I feel up to it and then remembering that I’m human and I rest (or at least I try).

Come to think of it, I think would be okay giving myself a B+ in life because I’m striving to do what I always wanted to do since I was very young, help others feel better about themselves. That feels like solid B+ work.

How about you? Are you still living according to other people’s standards? Are you striving for that A+ life or would you like to feel more satisfied with a B?

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