Ever since I was little, I was good at school. I couldn’t tell if it was more nature or nurture; both my parents are teachers so I used to joke that I had been lucky to inherit intelligent genes from them, but at the same time growing up in the house of teachers meant that education and studying were vastly encouraged. I knew how to read even before I started the first grade, and it only took off from there: during holidays, I could pick up a book in the morning and finish it in the evening.
I did my homework with gusto, and while my class mates struggled over tests, I actually enjoyed displaying my skills in quizzes and exams. While I studied diligently, it was always easy for me to pick up a book and bury myself in it for an hour or two and come up knowing every detail I needed to pass yet another test with straight A’s. I guess being naturally good at school is almost like being born rich: if your parents are billionaires, you simply can’t understand the struggles of the people outside of your wealthy bubble. I don’t think I was ever smug about my success because it came to me so easily. I took it for granted, maybe. Being good at school was my thing, my special skill. Sure, I didn’t play any sports and I couldn’t sing a tune for the life of me, but I could finish my homework without my parents’ help and that was something.
They said that it would get harder after I finished primary school and moved onto lower secondary school, but it didn’t. They said the same thing when I moved onto upper secondary school but it didn’t. I passed my finals with barely any studying. I was motivated, on top of the world – or the class, at least – and ready to change the world with my knowledge.
At some point during upper secondary school, I had decided I wanted to be a translator. At that point I had already learnt five foreign languages and read enough books to last me a lifetime, and I thought it would be the perfect career for me. I applied to major in English, since English was my strongest subject. I even received a small scholarship for “success in English language” at the graduation ceremony.
I got into the university I wanted on my first try. But suddenly something was wrong: everyone around me was excellent at English, too. All my life I had made being good at school my trademark, but somehow it had become my only special skill, and now I was surrounded by people who were just like me. I had come from the top of my class to being just, well, average. For the first time in my life I actually had to work hard for my success. At first I enjoyed the challenges and the change in my education – finally I was getting taught on the level that was right for me! But as time went by and course work started to pile up, it all became increasingly difficult. It was as if I had been juggling three balls, but suddenly somebody’d thrown in another one, and the ground below my feet had turned into a tightrope.
I pushed forward. I wasn’t scoring top marks on most of my courses, but I was still slightly above average. At some point I realised that I had too much on my plate, that I was picking too many laborious courses at the same time and there was no way I would be able to finish all my assignments, work, sleep and maintain social contacts at the same time, but I couldn’t quit. In my mind it didn’t matter if I couldn’t be the best, if instead I could be the most prolific. I propped my eyes open after midnight, finishing up essays that were due the next noon. I stayed at the uni for eleven hours most days. I stopped going to parties with my friends.
Now that I look back on that time, it terrifies me how much work I was doing just to survive my courses. I still tend to take on more courses than I need to, but I try to be smarter about it now and balance school work with social life. Because the truth is that feeling like I wasn’t good enough at school screwed me over in every way. It seeped into my relationships and made me question whether I was good enough for my friends and weather they actually liked me. It made me panic every time I had to submit a translation because I thought that surely this time they would tell me it was sub par and that they’d never hire me again. It even made me doubt myself on my travels, making it harder to make new friends and open up to new experiences. I’ve spent so much time worrying whether I was enough that I forgot to focus on what it is I already am. It might just be easier to ignore it if others are talking ill of you; but when it’s all in your own head, well, it’s a lot harder to convince yourself that you’re wrong.
I recently dropped out of a course. I have never done that before. It was a course I didn’t really care about and whose topic I thought was boring, which took place early on a Monday morning and which I couldn’t really understand – and, best of all, which I didn’t really even need since I have plenty of credits coming from other courses. Even when I knew that dropping out was the right thing to do since it would make it possible for me to focus on my other, more important courses, the old guilt crept back as I was typing the email that I’d have to send to the teacher. That same feeling of guilt had, in the past, made me take on too much work because it made me feel like I wasn’t doing enough otherwise.
It’s not easy to shut that guilt up. In a way, it’s always there, the little devil on my shoulder that the voice of reason and self-preservation isn’t always able to contain. But in those moments I will just have to remind myself that being good doesn’t mean that you’re good in relation to something. I can be good on my own account, not better in comparison to others. And if I can accept that I can be good on my own terms, that will be enough.
Thanks for reading! Writing this was rather hard for me and publishing it even harder since it’s so personal, but I felt like I wanted to put it out there even when it digressed quite a bit from my usual travel narrative. Have you ever struggled with similar feelings? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.