Sunday, September 29, 2013

How We Define Ambition

My mom once asked me why I rated myself so low on "achievement-striving" in a personality test. I replied "Because I'm not ambitious." My mom thought I was very ambitious and couldn't understand why I didn't see myself that way.  Since the beginning of college, I always considered myself to be unambitious:

- I never took 5 classes instead of the standard 4, like most of my classmates did.
- I had only one major, when most of my classmates had double majors and minors.
- I didn't have AP credits like everyone else did.
- I would never do more schoolwork than was required.
- I consider a B to be a perfectly good grade, and an A is something to celebrate, but most people I know consider A's to be standard.
- I think breaking 600 on the SATs is something to throw a party over, but my college friends think 600 is average.
- I never want to be really busy or be involved in a lot of things. What I consider busy is what my Colby classmates consider doing nothing.
- I never want to have a leadership role when I'm in a club.
- I would not take a job that required a lot of overtime or a long commute.
- I'm one of very few of my peers who is not willing to relocate in order to take a job, or even live away from home for just a summer because of an internship.
- I want to be a in a pressure-free, warm and fuzzy atmosphere. If someone tells me that I need to be thick-skinned to work at their company, I don't consider the job.
- If I had the ability to keep moving up and be the CEO of my company, I don't think I would. At some point I would stop moving up because it would interfere with my personal life.

Hmm. The way we define ambition is a little strange. The dictionary definition of "ambition" is: an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, and the willingness to strive for its attainment. The key phrase here is "some type of achievement." That could be anything, but all the examples I listed relate to school and jobs. All those things I just listed say NOTHING about my ambition - they say something about my priorities.

Don't get me started on priority lists...I don't think it's right to teach kids how to make priority lists in school if you're going to tell them what order to put things in. To this day, I cringe at the phrase, "priority list," because for me, making a priority list for school has always meant putting the things that matter LEAST to me at the top and moving everything that's really at the top of my list down. But priority lists and goal-setting steps are techniques that I've stolen from the educational system to serve my own non-educational purpose :-)

-In high school, theatre was my priority.  I never missed play rehearsal for anything and I spent a lot of time practicing on my own. I used to write pages and pages of character development stuff in my journals. I always knew my character's entire life history, no matter how small the part was. 
-I would practice singing in the shower. If I needed to learn the lyrics to a song or my lines in a play, I'd put the script in a plastic bag and stick it to the shower walls. I would actively work on songs just for practice even when I wasn't going to sing them in a show.
- When I started dance class in high school, I was determined to catch up and be just as good as my classmates who had done dance since they were two. Over the summer, I practiced all of the moves across the floor each night and did all our stretches. I drew a protractor on the wall with masking tape to keep track of how high I was kicking my legs. 
-I used to have a hard time doing cold readings at auditions because I have trouble reading stuff out loud if I haven't practiced. So I decided to practice random cold readings over the summer. When I was reading a book, I would read one paragraph out loud for practice. It payed off that fall when I got a good part in the play.
- I got the lead role in a play freshman year of college, and I was essentially practicing all the time. I had 300 lines, and every single night I sat by the door (where I wouldn't disturb anyone) and read the entire script from start to finish, reading my own lines out loud. After a while I'd cover my lines and see how much I knew, and I'd focus more on the scenes that I didn't know. I made use of all the free time I had - anytime I was walking alone, I was practicing my lines out loud. If I ate dinner alone, I was rehearsing the play in my head. I practiced so much that I could almost recite the entire play from memory. The day that we were supposed to be off-book, I got almost every single line right, and I was basically the only person who had prepared that well.
I invented my character's entire life story, and I had filled in all the gaps of the play. Like, if a week had passed between two scenes, I thought about what had gone on during that week. I had a strong sense of everything that had happened from the start of the play to the end, including things that weren't actually in the script. Since my character was a college student, I could practice being her whenever I wanted. I would dress like her and act like her - even when I spoke to other people as myself in the dining halls, I would try to sound like my character would and do all of her mannerisms.
- Whenever I got a new journal, I would always flip through it and estimate the halfway point, and the one-quarter and three-quarter points. That way when I started writing, I would always know where I was. I would make it my goal to finish my journal  and be on the next one by the end of school vacation. This didn't mean much since my journals were all different lengths and I hadn't actually counted the pages, but I liked that feeling of it being a goal, and I liked to estimate the average number of journals I wrote per year and try to bring up that average.
-I have always daydreamed during school, but in high school I began actively daydreaming. I would decide to make use of my time and work out the plot of my latest story during the school day.
- I always had very long lists of summer goals in high school - the priority was always practicing singing, dancing, and acting, my next priority was stuff I wanted to write in my journals, then other personal goals like decorating my bedroom, a list of books I wanted to read and movies I wanted to watch, and things like going to the beach. I usually reached almost all of them.
- At some point in college I began typing my study guides instead of writing them by hand, even though typing took longer for me. Why? Because I never took typing class, and my slow pace was making it really annoying to write stories for fiction-writing class. If I wanted to be a serious writer, I needed to be able to type, so I used my other schoolwork as an opportunity to practice even though it took longer.
- I started working on my first novel as soon as I decided that I wanted to write one. It wasn't something that lingered like, "I should really get around to that someday." I finished within a year and a half, and most of the time I was writing it while I was a full-time student. At some point I printed out what I had of my novel and put it in a binder. When I was bogged down with schoolwork and feeling bad, I would take my printed copy to the dining hall and edit. Of course, I wasn't done writing the story yet, and most of those minor edits became irrelevant when I went back and cut entire pages, but doing this kept my mind focused on the story so that when I did have time to write over school vacations, I would be ready to go.
- I spent all of college feeling like I couldn't talk about the things that mattered to me, and I had so much stuff I wanted to say. Less than a month out of college, I started this blog to talk about everything that I had been wanting to say. And when I felt like I still hadn't said all I had to say, I wrote The Unencrypted Truth, which has been a goal for a long time.
- When it comes to the things I've just mentioned, I'm always looking to achieve more and get better. When people would compliment me on how many journals I had written, I'd be thinking that I wanted to write faster. I always felt like I could practice even more for shows. When I finished my novel, I was already thinking about my next one being better, and about writing it at a faster pace. When I see how many blog posts I've written, I'm proud of it, but I'm hoping that I continue to increase my pace. It's not to say that I'm unsatisfied, because I do feel very satisfied and fulfilled by everything I'm doing. I just don't feel complacent. I love to go out and celebrate after I've done something I'm proud of and ride on the glory, but when that's over, I'm always thinking, "Now what?" I'm always looking for the next exciting project.

So...I guess I'm a little confused about why I call myself unambitious. I guess it's hard to feel ambitious when I don't care much about what everyone else tells me to be ambitious about. It's hard to feel ambitious when I come from a school where people wanted to be good at everything they did, and I only have a few things I really want to excel at.

My parents have always been very supportive of me and have valued what I was doing. They have always loved to read my stories and have been to all of my shows even when I was four hours away at college. But there's this weird thing about ambition...
- My mom always thought it was weird that I would mark the halfway points in my journals and set goals to finish them. She thought journals were just for writing when you have something to write about, that finishing shouldn't be a goal.
-I became really defensive about all my theatre goals in high school, since everyone told me that school was more important. When I set a goal of practicing singing, dancing, and acting each for 30 minutes a day, for a total of 90 minutes a day (I never managed to follow through with this one), my mom said that I was going to burn out and make myself sick, and why didn't I just practice when I was in the mood to practice? Hmm, let me think...what would happen if I only studied when I felt like studying? I was spending 6 hours at school, at least 3-4 hours a night doing homework, but I shouldn't spend 90 minutes on what I really cared about because I might make myself sick? Yes, I was pushing to do something that would be really hard for me to do, but that was only because I felt like my goals were in direct competition with school.
- When I set writing goals for my novel that I couldn't reach (I hadn't figured out what would be reasonable based on my normal writing pace), my mom advised me to decide how much time to spend writing each day rather than a word count. I know she was trying to be helpful, and I could probably do this once I have a better idea of my normal pace, but if I did this with a school paper, it might not get done. I don't understand why I should treat my more important writing differently.
-When I told my mom that I was unhappy in college because I couldn't get into any plays and dance wasn't consuming enough of my time, she said why didn't I go walking or go swimming or do social ballroom dance or a number of other things that were just for fun and didn't involve an end goal. I told her that I wasn't satisfied just doing stuff like that and that it's not the same as being in a show and working hard towards a final performance and constantly daydreaming about how awesome it's going to be. My mom couldn't understand this and said that I should be able to feel satisfied just doing other stuff.

Everyone complains that our millennial generation is so lazy and unambitious, like we all just want to sit around eating free pizza all day. But then you have people like me who are always working towards goals, who would never be satisfied to just sit and eat pizza all day even if that were an option. Did you ever stop and think that some of us just don't want to do what YOU tell us to do? I got all these achievement awards in high school for being ambitious, for going above and beyond, for being the kind of person who wants to work towards goals and get better, but then when I'm unhappy in a situation where I can't pursue those goals, I get criticized for the very quality that got me into Colby College in the first place!!! It's like, I'm only supposed to be ambitious when it's convenient for you and the goals that you want me to achieve, but the rest of the time I should be happy just going for a walk?

I will never value what you tell me to value. I will never put my priorities in someone else's order. But I will always be ambitious.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Fireworks

I've recently been listening to Katy Perry's "Firework" song, and while the song makes me feel really good inside, and while I have related to a lot of the non-chorus lines (the "Do you ever feel?" parts), there's something in that message that I don't agree with. Don't get me wrong here - I do believe that everyone has amazing qualities to share with the world, like fireworks inside. But, as I mentioned in The Uncrypted Truth, I am wary of songs that tell people to just go out there and be your awesome self. Yes, that is a great thing to do. But I feel like it puts too much focus on people feeling unaccepted rather than the people who are not accepting them. There's a tone indicating that people are just holding back because of their own insecurities, not because they know for a fact that people won't accept them. This might be good message for certain people, but the truth is, there are lots of people who would be kicked out of their homes or be in some kind of really bad situation if they came out as who they really are, and songs like this give the message of "it's not real, it's all in your head, get over yourself."

A lot of people think that I'm reserved and holding back just because I'm introverted, but really, I don't try to hide much. When I entered college, I was really out there showing off my real self to everyone, and I got cut down time and time again. So no, I was not holding back the firework show - I was being a firework, and people didn't like it. All of these "encouraging" songs may feel good now, but when I was really feeling bad, they made me feel so much worse.

But there's more to this message: Our entire culture is focused on self-defense, and while that is very important, we need to stop treating attacks like they're inevitable. When I first arrived on my college campus and we discussed sexual assault, everyone told us not to walk alone at night, not to take open drinks, keep an eye on each other at parties, and so forth. Not ONCE did anyone say, "Don't sexually assault other people." Not once did anyone talk about affirmative consent. We were told to protect ourselves rather than prevent assaults from happening.

One time during senior year, a first-year friend asked me to fill out a survey where I would give advice to new students. I wrote things like, "Don't be afraid to change dorms if you need to," "Don't be afraid to walk away from people if you don't feel good around them," "Don't feel pressured to do things you don't want to do." It was hard - I was holding back a lot. A part of me wanted to just say, "Run away and never come back!" But then, I wasn't talking to my younger self. The majority of students liked it there. The majority of students probably wouldn't need the advice I gave them. I thought there was no advice I had to give to people who were already happy at Colby. But then I realized what I did wrong. I was just like someone who advises people not to walk alone at night, who tells people not to feel bad when other people treat them badly. But the best advice I could have given would have been, "Don't look down on people who are different from you," "Don't pressure people to do things that they don't want to do," "Accept that what other people are going through is as bad as they say it is."

That's what I'm doing here, on this blog. That's something a lot of my posts have in common.  I address the people who are doing the invalidating and pressuring and bullying and assaulting. I show people how to validate others and respect their boundaries. When I write fictional stories from the point of view of someone who is being hurt by someone else, I am almost always addressing the people who are doing the hurting. The tone is more, "Look what you did! Stop hurting people!" than it is, "How to heal from this inevitable problem." I will NOT discuss preventable problems as if they're just a part of life. I will not treat other people like storms we have to protect ourselves from. I WILL encourage people to respect other people's desires and to welcome other people to get out there and be themselves, like fireworks.

Friday, September 20, 2013

When Authorites Stand in Your Way

There's a website I grew up with that's aimed at elementary and middle school girls, but I still visit every so often. Part of the website is an advice column, where readers can submit a problem and get advice from their peers. Each question is up for one week, everyone has a chance to write in with a solution, and at the end of the week, someone running the site posts about 15 of the responses submitted (The site has over 1,000 readers, so this is probably a small handful). Sometimes the adults running the site are very good about picking a variety of different responses, including solutions that contradict each other. But other times, the results are biased. There are certain kinds of answers that will never get selected, answers that people really need to hear.
Here's a question I once saw on the site:

"I just failed a midterm! I'm afraid that if my parents find out, they'll make me quite dance, which I love. What do I do?"
-Dancing is my Life

The answers to this question were very biased, and one person even said, "If they make you quit dance, so what? Education is more important than sports." It makes me really sad to see this internalization coming from kids who've already bought into the idea that someone else can tell you what matters to you. (And that out of hundreds of responses, the admins would select an invalidating statement like this). There were other well-intentioned answers that respected this person's desires, but having been in this situation myself, I don't think they would have worked. If this happens to you, here is my advice:

First of all, I respect your priorities. I know from this question that dance is important to you, and that grades are important to your parents. I don't know from this question if grades are important to you. The advice I'm going to give you may seem focused on your grades, but my intention is only to help you stay in dance:

1. This problem is URGENT. You absolutely must tell your parents about the midterm before they find out on their own. You'll be in a lot more trouble if it looks like you were trying to hide it.
2. Before you talk to you parents, go and talk to your teacher about getting extra help, coming up with a study plan, and improving your grade in that class. When you share the news with your parents, let them know what you've already done to fix the problem. This will make you look responsible and like you care about your grades, which will make them less likely to think that you need to quit dance in order to bring your grades up. (Note: if for some reason you can't talk to your teacher soon enough, it's more important to tell your parents before they find out on their own. If this is the case, tell your parents that you are planning to talk to you teacher on such and such a date, and follow through).
3. Don't bring up the subject of dance. Some girls advised that you tell your parents that school and dance are both very important to you, but I would not mention dance if your parents don't bring it up. Your parents would make you quit dance if they think that you care more about dance than about school (even though that's totally okay). So bringing up that dance is important to you while discussing your midterm is not going to help your case.
4. If the issue of quitting dance does come up, you are right to tell your parents how important dance is to you, but you also need to assure them that you are putting school first, whether that's true or not. I don't normally encourage people to lie, but when you live in culture where adults think they can impose their own values on you, this is often what you need to do to ensure that you can keep doing what you love. (Don't worry, all that "Be yourself, don't change to fit in with the popular kids," will become bullshit in a few years when it's time to apply to college, and your parents encourage you to do lots of activities just to put them on your resume and present yourself like something you're not in order to get into school. If you're going to pretend, at least do it to get something YOU want.) If your parents are leaning towards making you quit, tell them how you will manage your schoolwork while also staying in dance. If you really need more time for your schoolwork, figure out where else you could get that extra time from. Maybe you could drop another activity or spend more of your free time studying (not that you should have to give up something else that you love for school, but if your parents don't respect your priorities, this may be what will save you from having to quit dance). If they still want you to quit, offer to have a trial period for a week or two, where you show your parents that you can manage your schoolwork with dance.
5. So, you're still in dance, but you don't feel like you're in the clear just yet. Again, make sure your parents are under the impression that school comes first for you. If you normally talk about dance all the time, cut down on that for a while. Follow through with your extra help and your study plan, and make sure your parents know what you're doing. Talk to your parents about you tutoring sessions. Tell them what you went over today. Tell them how your new note-taking technique is helping you remember facts. This may seem boring, but talking about your academics will make your parents feel like you're focused on school. It's subconscious, and it really will help.
6. If your parents still want you to quit dance because they think you can't handle it with your schoolwork, see if you can negotiate. If you're in several dance classes, maybe you can just drop one. If you have dance five days a week, talk to your dance instructor and see if you can go to fewer classes a week until your grades improve. If you need a lot of extra help in school temporarily, maybe you could take just a couple weeks off from dance until you catch up. (Not that these would be good things to do, but they are a better alternative to quitting dance entirely, if it comes to that with your parents).
7. If your parents are going to make you quit dance anyway as a punishment for your grade, that sucks and it's not okay at all. But keep in mind that this is not the end. Work on your grades so you can do dance again next year. In the meantime, there are plenty of ways to keep up with dance on your own, even when you're not in class. Practice the moves you know. Watch dance videos on Youtube and learn the moves Make up a dance of your own. If you have friends in your dance classes, ask them to show you what they're learning. When you're allowed to do dance again, you won't be rusty and can pick up right where you left off. Always try to work towards what really matters to you, even in a small way. Don't let this setback effect your passion for dance. The fact that you care enough about dance to write in for help like this is really special. No one can take that away from you.

Peer Pressure: The Misdirected Focus

This is a question from a CosmoGirl quiz about whether you stick to your own values and beliefs vs. following the crowd (paraphrased, since I don't have the book with me right now):

Some friends ask you and another friend if you want to ditch the rest of the school day and go to the mall with them. You:
a. Tell them no, you don't want to ditch school.
b. Tell them you can't because you have a test next period, even though you don't.
c. Do whatever your other friend decides to do.

Anyone see the problem here?

This quiz was supposed to be about whether or not you follow your own beliefs, but this question assumes that you wouldn't want to skip school, that you would only ever do that because you got peer-pressured into it. But what if skipping school to go to the mall is something that you would do on your own, whether your friends came with you or not? Then by saying that no, you would actually be going against what matters to you and following other people's expectations!

I never cared about school or learning, and as long as I didn't have theatre class or play rehearsal that day, I would have loved to ditch school and do something fun. But I never would have, because I was following my parents' expectations by treating school like a priority even though I said countless times that school was NOT my priority. I would be facing much more disapproval from my parents and teachers if I skipped school than I would from my peers if I didn't skip school, especially if I gave them an excuse like I had a test that day. When stuff like this came up, I would sit in my boring class and be fuming, wishing I were the kind of person who could stand up against parental/societal pressures and do what I really wanted to do with my time.

Everyone told me that I would be happy that I made the decisions I made once I was older. Well, I'm much older now, and older doesn't make me stupider. Older doesn't make me feel okay about making the choices that were wrong for me. Nothing that I have achieved so far and CARED about has come from me doing all those things that were forced on me. And when you frame a question in the context of peer pressure being bad without acknowledging the other implicit pressures, you are actually encouraging people to make choices that are not in line with their own priorities.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Anything Worth Doing

At the beginning of senior year in The Unencrypted Truth, I listed the top three qualities that I felt made me really different from the average Colby student and were causing the most problems for me at school. But when I actually came up with this list in college, there was a fourth item on the list, one that I didn't mention in my essay. That item was: "Not believing that anything worth doing is worth doing well."I eliminated this item from that list in my essay because it didn't seem as big as the other three issues. From what I remembered, the only time this issue really came up was sophomore year, when I went to the gym and felt pressure to be more athletic. It didn't seem worth discussing side-by-side with the issues that had affected me every waking moment at Colby.

But recent events have made me remember why issue #4 made its way to my list. The pressure I felt to care so much and work hard at everything also related to topics of conversation. I mentioned in my essay that Colby students are very judgmental against people not knowing things. When I was at Colby, I never felt like it was okay to have a casual interest in a topic that wasn't my focus. I never felt like I could enter a conversation about something unless that topic was my passion, unless I had done hours of research on it and was basically thinking about it all the time.

I am that passionate about social pressure and invalidation - I notice instances everywhere. I feel like an expert in these areas because of what I've experienced. Part of my comfort level comes from the fact that no one else seems to be talking about pressure and validation the way I am. Most discussions about peer pressure still focus on pressure to do "negative" things. I do wish there were more people doing what I'm doing. But I also think that being one of the few people doing this, not being part of a bigger social movement, eliminates the pressure to live up to any kind of standards. I don't need to reject every form of media that involves pressure or invalidation, even when I recognize that those things are bad. I can care more about what I'm doing this weekend than what I'm writing on my blog this week. I can choose where these issues fall on my priority list.

I'm now working on a new project, in addition to this blog, and I'm starting to get that feeling I had at Colby, that what I'm doing is not okay. I feel like it's not okay to have a casual interest in something. I feel like anything worth discussing has to be worth devoting my life to. I feel like I have to put at least the same effort into this as everyone else who's doing the same thing. I feel like I can't put my weekend plans ahead of this project, like I can't spend my free time entertaining myself instead of educating myself on what I'm about to, like I have to reject things that I like if they clash with what I'm doing. This is how I always felt at Colby and I am so fucking sick of it. I'm always the happiest when I feel obsessed and passionate about something because that feeling comes from within. And when I feel like my level of passionate has to live up to someone else's expectations, I honestly don't want to do the thing at all.