Posted by: unlikelygrad | August 2, 2010

sub-optimal performance?

The very first thing I wrote about my blog was how life events made it hard for me to do well as an undergrad. There’s more to the story than I wrote in that post, however:

  • I went to BigNameU at age 16 1/2. In addition to being somewhat immature, I was hit with wave after wave of severe depression. No surprise that I ended up leaving early.
  • After this, as I’ve mentioned, I transferred and did relatively well in school. Not perfectly, but well enough to make the honors list. I imagine I would have done better if I hadn’t been working full time (yes, while going to school full time) during this era.
  • I don’t get very nauseous when pregnant. But I do get very tired. So for the 9 months preceding Al’s birth I basically slept through all my classes. Again, not conducive to doing my best.
  • And then Al was born and I was juggling first a newborn and then a toddler while I tried to finish my degree. Note that we never put him in daycare…UnlikelyDad was on flex time and we juggled him back and forth. Calling my life during this time period insane would be a serious understatement.

Needless to say, I was first considering grad school, I said to myself, “At last!! I will show the world what I am really capable of!” This time, I told myself, I would be free from all the issues that plagued me during my undergrad career. Well, maybe not the depression, but I had learned to control that pretty well.

During the “trial year” (as UnlikelyDad and I referred to it) when I was taking classes as a non-degree student and doing research for SL this definitely proved to be the case. I like to think I really shone that year. Life was so idyllic. I couldn’t wait to get on to grad school, when my optimal performance would really count.

And then I moved 1,000 miles away, leaving my family behind. They were supposed to follow in just a couple of months, but they didn’t. And they’re still not here.* I spent the first year of grad school crashing repeatedly into the depths of depression, which definitely inhibited my performance.

At first, this made me mad–really, really mad. This was supposed to be my time to shine! The time when I showed the world what I was really capable of! And here I was, crippled by depression again. NO FAIR, I cried.

And then, one day, I realized something. This whole business of being unfettered by outside issues? It was just a mirage. Anyone can perform well in an ideal situation. You only truly learn someone’s capacity to perform when you see them operate under less-than-optimal circumstances.

To show the truth of this principle, I offer the example of a former colleague’s wife, who’s a realtor. She was always a top seller, a go-getter. When the real estate market tanked in Silicon Valley a few years ago, she was still selling more than one house a month. And then, around the time the market bottomed out, she was diagnosed with colon cancer.

This amazing lady never slowed down. She never told her clients of her disease. (She did once have to apologize to a couple when, after leaving a showing, she vomited into a flower bed–she mentioned that she “hadn’t been feeling well” but said no more than that. She was in the middle of chemotherapy at the time.) She maintained her normal activity level, frequently running more than one open house per weekend. And she still sold multiple houses per month.

Now if I’d only told you that she was a rock star realtor, would you have been impressed? Heck no. It’s the fact that she continued to perform under circumstances that would have made other people quit that make you say, DAMN SHE’S GOOD.

So here I am, operating under less than ideal circumstances. Again. I think I’m doing at least as well as most of the other grad students in the department. Not as well as I would like. Not as well as I may be capable of performing. But I think I’m doing well considering what’s going on in my life.

If I succeed it will not be because I am lucky, but because I am willing to stick it out through the roughest of times.


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