Monday, June 12, 2006

On Being an Imperfect Girl

Tara Smith at Aetiology comments on over-achieving girls in high school and college. You've seen the type -- the straight-A student who plays tennis, competes in Academic Decathlon, is a student body officer (if not president) and somehow squeezes in volunteer work. I know her but I wasn't her.

In high school, I quickly discovered that cerebral palsy would prevent me from taking the same number of honors and AP classes that my friends were -- I simply couldn't do things fast enough. So I decided to just focus on what interested me. I took a mixture of classes, from AP to regular. I joined the debate team in eleventh grade and was in the ecology club as long as it existed, but mostly I did my own thing. I gardened. I organized an online volunteer pledge drive among fellow Collin Raye fans. I became known as the school's environmental activist. And I got into every college I applied to.

UCLA was more of the same. I was elected co-vice president of the Astrobiology Society but quit CALPIRG after finding no room for creativity. I devoted a lot of time to working for global government and volunteering on Dennis Kucinich's presidential campaign. I took lots of classes outside my major, completed several truly independent research projects, created my own positions at two out of three summer internships and co-founded the UCLA Math and Biology Society. Basically, I kept busy but blazed my own trail.

Result? Despite a less-than-stellar GPA, I got into the Ecology Ph.D. program at the University of Georgia -- my top choice -- and was awarded a very nice fellowship.

Tara Smith writes:
I worry a lot about my daughter... She's already very independent and wants to be the best at whatever she does. I want her to be competitive and to succeed, but I want her to define for herself what 'success' means. I don't want her to be obsessed with perfection and to be overly critical of herself. I don't want her to put what others think of her above what she thinks of herself. I want her to have a realistic view of life and a good work ethic, and not to expect things to be handed to her on a platter. I want her to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, even when things are difficult and stressful. I want her to have some kind of balance between work and play, even if she chooses a challenging career path. In short, I still want her to have it all--but I want to help her keep her perspective and not fall into the 'imbalanced, anxiety-ridden, perfect girl' stereotype 'crumbling under the weight of their own expectations' that Martin describes.

My advice to Tara? Encourage your daughter to choose activities that are either fun, helpful to others, or learning experiences. (Hint: student government is often none of the above.) Teach her to compete with herself more than with others and let her know it's okay not to be perfect. Most importantly, help her find her passions. It's all right to be consumed by your work if you are doing what you love.

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