I’ve written a lot about failure. I don’t write much about success. I have trouble with success because I am always on edge, waiting for the other show to drop, but the success to be undercut and undermined someway. somehow, by someone. Sometimes that someone is me, more often than not, it is someone else.
Academia warps your sense of self and what you see as a success. I was for a long time a “failure”: teaching off the tenure-track on at a rural, regional comprehensive in the South. I had the experience at the MLA where someone was coming up to me, saw my institutional affiliation, and quickly turned and scurried away in the opposite direction. I never published in the “right” places. I didn’t research the “right” topics. I cared too much about teaching.
Everything that made me a “failure” as an academic helped me move into faculty development and instructional design, set me up to be successful. But, once again, academia still finds a way to warp your sense of success and failure. I did the job well, but not well enough, or rather, not staff-like enough. It didn’t matter how successfully I was with my output, my process was faulty, something that I struggled to understand.
This is the time of the year where I typically feel the most successful; this is when we work more intensely with faculty as they prepare for the upcoming semester. This particular year, I’m feel exhausted but particularly proud of the work that I have done over the summer along with all of my colleagues. We killed it. I killed it.
And then I am reminded that often when I feel like I’m killing it, someone, well, kills that feeling. I am always looking to grow in my job, to earn more responsibilities, and when I am feeling this successful, I tend to feel empowered to approach my supervisor about increasing or shifting my responsibilities. And previously, anytime I tried to initiate this discussion, it ends with me in tears.
People were always a) surprised that I was even asking and b) finding me lacking. Now, I’m not saying that I was good at asking – ADHD makes me a blurter, so I just cut to the chase, which can come off as blunt and even arrogant. I could point to very positive performance reviews, but there was always something wrong with me and what I had accomplished, something lacking that meant that my successes weren’t really mine or earned.
The most frustrating part was that there was very little guidance about what I needed to do to improve, to overcome whatever shortcomings were identified. But the answer always tended to boil down to, be less you. It was less about what I did and more about who I was. Being diagnosed with ADHD helped me better understand people’s reactions to me, but didn’t assuage the feeling that I needed to fundamentally change who I was in order to finally be successful.
How could I embrace my neurodivergent self but still be successful in a neurotypical world?
The fates conspired this strange summer to present me with an opportunity to have the very conversation I had come to dread the most: my path forward in my career. I had received nothing but positive feedback both internally and externally, but my brain wouldn’t let me accept what they were saying – the other show was going to drop, and this conversation was going to be that shoe, dropped on my head.
I set the meeting and then felt sick for the entire week. When it was suggested the meeting be postponed, I panicked and I hope gently suggested that I thought it would be important to keep the meeting. What I didn’t say was that it was because I couldn’t spend another week spinning worst-case scenarios in my head.
Of course, the meeting went great. Intellectually, I knew and trusted my supervisor, but the message and expectations I had long internalized would not let my rational self win out and not panic. I don’t yet know what will materialize from our conversation (because, let’s face it, COVID!), but it was productive, supportive, collaborative, and generative. I left have a clear sense of what I needed to do next, as well as feeling supported and heard.
For once, I didn’t leave feeling like a failure.
I don’t think people understand just how much power they have over their colleagues (or people they supervise) to help them see their work as being a success or failure. I acutely know the difference one person can make on someone’s sense of self, and so I try whenever possible to be generative and positive when working together or talking about the work they (or we) are doing. It is possible to have both high standards and practice kindness and generosity towards the people you work with.
But even more importantly, for me personally, is trying to get my head around what it means to be successful now. How can success start to feel like something good rather than something foreboding? How can I slow down and appreciate my successes, rather than quickly trying to find the next thing to do so I can keep proving to…myself? The haters? My colleagues? that it wasn’t just some fluke and that I am, in fact, good at my job?
People with ADHD are often (mistakenly) called lazy by those around them. I was no exception. I internalized that message, and so when I did fail, I just assumed it was because I was lazy, that I didn’t work hard enough, so I would dig in a work harder. Do more. Of course, then, the work suffers because I was trying to do too much, but all I could think of what that I didn’t want people to think I was lazy, to think that my failure was some sort of character flaw. We over-perform, in the hopes that one kind, encouraging word of recognition will erase the stigma of being “lazy.”
Couple that with gendered expectations around ambition, self-esteem, self-promotion: women must not exhibit too much ambition, too much confidence in herself, or be too forward about her strengths and successes. Instead of confident, we are arrogant. Instead of ambitious, we are greedy. We are told to make ourselves small in order to fit into the world that wasn’t made for us.
Obviously, all of this will not be undone without work, and yeah, therapy. But at least I can start to feel like success isn’t such a bad thing.