We want you to do your best – but not really

I thought I wasn’t going to write this blog post, as this topic has been addressed now by five different Wrimos that I respect. However, after the second time when I almost wrote a blog-length reply on one of their blogs, I decided that it was better to just go ahead and write it here. This post deals with overachievers and those who do more than others in other aspects of life. I’m not going to attempt to put anyone down, but I can’t promise that I won’t. Continue at your own risk, knowing that this has been bothering me for the last two days in particular and my whole life in general.

First, some background for why this all started.
Thursday morning I was checking my Twitter messages from the night before, and I saw a conversation between two MLs that I’ve always greatly admired, talking about how we should stop using the term “overachiever” because it’s insulting to others. My ML then changed the Atlanta “Overachievers” thread to Atlanta people “writing more than 50k.” There was then a small Twitter war almost where overachievers were arguing with these MLs, one of whom is going to break 200k this weekend and one of whom who has been an OA in years past but has made it clear that he is not his year.

Most people probably don’t understand why this series of events has been so troubling to me. Maybe they agree that the term “overachiever” is derogatory. Maybe they don’t care about labels. Maybe they agree that the term should remain “overachiever” but don’t care enough to get upset about changing it. Whatever the case, I am well aware that I am being hyper-sensitive to this. But this is something that is very close to me, and I can’t help but get defensive about it.

Second, some background on me.
I’ve always had confidence issues and issues expressing myself, stemming from events that happened in my past which I won’t get into here except to say that it left me isolated from my extended family and desperate to gain other people’s approval. If you look up Avoidant Personality Disorder, you’ll get a fairly good description of me, though I probably experience those symptoms on a lower level as I’ve never been diagnosed and I don’t really think someone with that disorder would try to become a teacher, where you have to interact with people on a daily basis. That said, I definitely experience the fear of looking stupid, the longing to have friends but being too afraid of rejection to go for it. I went to a post-NaNo group in Minnesota for like a year, and I don’t think I talked for more than a total of twenty minutes the entire year I went. This is my sixth year doing NaNo, and this is the first year that people on the forums know who I am. The only reason people in Atlanta know me is because my boyfriend is very vocal, and I’m always with him.

I’ve always done well in school. I almost always had the highest grade in my classes. I graduated high school 7 out of 750 people. My GPA was 97 out of 100. Thanks to my grades, I got an almost full scholarship to attend college. Thanks to AP tests, I started college with 36 credits, which allowed me to get my BA in three years with a GPA of 3.9.

And yet I’ve never been able to tell people that because it sounded like bragging. It sounded like I was rubbing it in their faces when really, all I was doing was being proud of something I had done. I didn’t have friends in high school. I had a few people I talked to in class, but I never did anything after school or on weekends. I was never good at sports. I wasn’t someone people would go to with all their problems. The only thing I had to be proud of was my grades, and I always had to hide them from people if I didn’t want people to hate me.

And then I graduated college, and I lost the only sense of self-worth I ever had. I couldn’t find a job, and when I finally did get a job, it was the job that my mother handed me, at the same company where my little sister, who dropped out of college, also works and makes more money than I do. The only thing I had ever been proud of was my grades, and I didn’t have those anymore. I didn’t have a job I could be proud of. I felt worthless and stupid and like there was no point in living almost.

And then I found the Overachievers.
I started doing NaNo in 2007, when I was a freshman in college. I won that year, failed the next two, and then I moved back home to Georgia after I graduated. I started attending events in Atlanta. My first year in Atlanta, I wrote 67k and learned about the Overachievers, as I think both of my MLs were overachieving at that point. That’s when I learned about this thing called 50k weekend. That’s when I learned that there was a thread where these people posted, where they attempted to write more than 50k.

The next year (2011), I joined that group. I set a goal for myself of 75k and, with the encouragement of some of the people in Atlanta and the people on the forums, I managed to write over 222k. I finally found a sense of self-worth again. Yes, NaNo is a silly event that doesn’t really mean anything in the world, but it was still something that I could do better than other people.

I’m not saying my words were better (though I also don’t think they were worse).

I’m not saying I’m a better writer.

I’m definitely not saying I’m a better person.

But I am better at putting words down on paper in November. Not at any other time. But this one month, I have a higher word count than many other people. I’m currently at 77k, and it’s only day 10, and I haven’t started writing yet today. It’s not the best thing to be proud of, but I am. Because that is how pathetic my life is – I have absolutely nothing else to be happy about than the fact that I can write a lot of words. And you know what? I found a (compared to the total number of people doing NaNo) small group of people who take just as much pride as I do in writing more words. We don’t all write the same number of words, but we cheer on everyone. It’s a great big family there, and for the first time in my life, I felt like I found a group of people who wanted and appreciated me.

And now people are suggesting taking away the name we’ve given ourselves because they’re afraid it will hurt other people’s feelings.
The argument I’ve seen against “overachiever” is that it implies that some people are “underachieving,” and that that’s not true. And while I can understand why some people would see it like that, I feel like they’re forgetting that those aren’t the only two choices. The goal of NaNo is to write 50k. Those who do achieve that goal. Those of us who write more achieve more words than others – we overachieve. Those who write 50k achieve.

One of the arguments being made on Twitter was that “overachiever” implied that those who “only” write 50k could be doing more. And you know what? I mostly agree with that. Are there exceptions to that? Of course. Like I’ve always said, some people work AND go to school AND raise kids AND take care of other friends/family. For such busy people, yes, I’m sure hitting 50k really is a challenge. I am by no means trying to say that these people could be doing more.

But I don’t think anyone can really deny that the rest of the participants COULD be doing more – they just chose not to. Whenever they spend hours on the forums, they’re giving up writing time. There’s an entire forum dedicated to providing people a way to procrastinate so they don’t have to write. I’m sorry, but those people COULD write more; they’d just rather play games. How many people reward themselves with TV shows or movies or video games or social time? Those people COULD be writing more but chose not to. When they hang out in chat rooms and get distracted talking to people, they are giving up noveling time.

And you know what? That is absolutely fine.
NaNo is about writing, but the social aspect is also a huge part of that. I understand that. Some people put more emphasis on the social part than others do. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. If that’s how you enjoy NaNo, by all means, continue to do so. I want you to have fun.

But why don’t others want me to have fun? If writing hundreds of thousands of words makes me happy, then what’s wrong with that? If I want to call myself an overachiever in the ONE thread out of the entire forum, what difference does it make to you? I don’t call myself an overachiever to put you down. I call myself an overachiever because I feel like I am going above and beyond what this challenge asks for, and I want recognition for that, even if it’s only among other people who overachieve.

We already don’t belong anywhere else in this challenge.
The pep talks that the OLL send out each week? They’re not meant for us. In fact, I remember one of Chris Baty’s last year that was incredibly insulting to me as an overachiever, as it said outright that those who hit 50k in week one or whenever aren’t really enjoying NaNo. That’s BS, and it was offensive. But it was there, and we did nothing about it.

The pep talks that our regions send out? They’re not meant for us. My region also includes pep talks each day written by the people in our region. Guess what? They’re not meant for us.

Down in the Artisan section of the forums, there’s a huge thread filled with word count calendars. Guess what? Almost all of them are made for people going for 50k. A few people ask for75k or 100k, but I’ve never seen a request for more than that, presumably because we know we’d be yelled at for aiming that high.

All of the merchandise in the store is for people who write 50k. We will never see a shirt that shows that we wrote 100k in a month. Or 200k. Or a million.

And that is fine. The official challenge is 50,000 words. We understand that. It makes sense.
I’m not saying we try to change the goal of NaNo. I understand why the pep talks aren’t for us. We don’t need as much encouragement as others do. Of course the calendars and the merchandise are going to reflect the goals of the contest. You can’t cater to the needs of everyone, especially in a forum this large, so of course you’re going to focus you attention on those who are aiming for the goal of the challenge and not their own goal.

But this is my point.

We don’t have anything else.
As one of my OA friends pointed out in her post on this subject, there is a separate forum for rebels. The people who openly announce that they have started writing their novels early have their own section. The people who aren’t writing fiction get their own section. The people who are continuing a previous story have their own section, even though the aim of this challenge is to get you to write a first draft of a novel, from start to finish. You’re not supposed to start early. You’re not supposed to continue on a story you’ve already started. You’re not supposed to write nonfiction or screenplays or graphic novels.

And yet all of these people are welcomed and given their own section of the forums to hang out in, and we are not.
I’m not saying to get rid of the rebel forum. I’m glad that they include those with slightly different goals than the official one. But why can’t we get our own forum? We’re not rebels. We’re not starting early. We’re just writing more.

And yet the only place we have to talk with other people who are writing more than others is a single thread. Most of us don’t dare post anywhere else in the forums because we’re afraid of the flak that we’ll get because of it. We can’t be proud of what we’ve done because then we’re bragging. We can’t be upset with what we’ve done because we’re already ahead and therefore should just be happy about it and shut up, even if we’re not happy with where we are. And when I try to mention the fact that we stay in one place, the response I get is that “well, not everyone stays there.” But you know what? We shouldn’t have to hide. Most of us do because we don’t want to make others unhappy, but we shouldn’t have to do that.

Changing the Overachiever name won’t fix anything.
I have yet to see a single thread where an overachiever bragged about their word count (except in the Shoutout thread, but that’s what it’s there for) or put down someone else because their word count was lower. If you have proof otherwise, please let me know. But it has been my experience that the overachievers welcome everyone. I’ve read every post in the OA thread, and I’ve never seen them be anything but encouraging, whether your WC was one thousand or one million. The same cannot be said of the rest of the forum.

As another OA pointed out in his blog, the problem people have is mostly with our word counts. We don’t have to mention our word counts at all, but they’re right there for everyone to see, and they will continue to be mad at our existence no matter what we call ourselves. So changing our name would only piss off the Overachievers. It won’t make anyone else feel better. It will just bring us down.

And that is what it feels like it was designed to do – to bring us down. To make sure that we don’t dare to feel proud of ourselves for even a minute, because we are no better at this contest than anyone else.

And this is the sentiment that seems to be most prevalent everywhere: we don’t want anyone to feel proud of their achievements – unless it’s sports-related.
No one complains when Michael Jordan is called an athlete and the guy who plays ball in his driveway and misses all of his shots is not.

No one complains that Michael Phelps can swim faster than they can.

No one complains when the top basketball player at their school gets a press conference when she chooses a college but those who get scholarships because of their grades have to keep silent lest they make other students feel bad.

It’s okay to have Varsity and Junior Varsity and intramural levels of sports, for those who are really good, those who are pretty good, and those who are just doing it for fun and don’t really care about it. No one says that the Varsity players’ existence somehow makes their own existence less meaningful.

We tell kids that we want them to do their best, but we only mean it if their best isn’t better than anyone else’s best.
My whole life, I’ve been made to feel like I have to hide my grades and apologize for them if anyone finds out. It doesn’t matter that I did the homework while they went out any partied. My college professor went out of his way to make sure that I knew that I wasn’t smarter than anyone else even though my GPA and SAT scores say otherwise. I’m not a better student just because I actually do the work.

We played Apples to Apples at my boyfriend’s house last night, and his parents were getting annoyed that I was doing so well. Apples to freaking Apples, and I felt like I had to apologize because I was winning. I win at Monopoly twice, and suddenly no one wants to play with me. His mother cheats to win, and suddenly I’m okay to play with again, since my streak is broken. So now if I want to play a game with them, I have to do worse than I really can if I don’t want them to get annoyed with me.

In my grad school classes, we’re reading about how more and more people are trying to get rid of gifted classes and have the special ed kids and the gifted kids in the same classrooms with everyone else, even though the gifted kids are bound to get bored and be held back if that happens. We spend ten times more in this country for special education than we do gifted education. The people who like school and do well at it always get the short stick. Those who do well in school are looked down on by their peers as freaks or teachers’ pets. People get mad at the kid who jumps up first to answer all of the questions – but why? Because we don’t like people who are smarter than we are, and we certainly don’t like people who aren’t quiet about it.

Whenever we talk about group assignments in my classes, I say that I’m worried that one person is going to end up doing all the work, and I’m always looked down on for saying that because I’m implying that I’m smarter than others because I say I always end up doing all the work. Even though it’s true. Even in my classes now. I’m in grad school, and I’m still surrounded by morons who can’t do anything. And yet I’m reminded on a daily basis that I’m not allowed to think I’m smarter or better as a student or anything.

My whole life, I’ve had to be quiet about anything that I’m proud of, lest I hurt someone else’s feelings.
And I’ve done it, because I don’t want to hurt other people. I try to be nice to people. I try to encourage them. I try not to make anyone feel uncomfortable. Because I’ve been uncomfortable my whole life. I’ve always been the odd one out. I’m a Democrat in a Republican state. I’m an atheist in the Bible Belt. I’m transitioning into the vegetarian/vegan lifestyle in a country that scorns anyone who doesn’t eat meat. I keep my opinions to myself unless asked, and even then I sometimes skirt the truth because I don’t want to offend or upset people.

The same is true with NaNo. I have a high word count, much higher than those around me. I feel awkward at write-ins because I feel like I have to lie when people ask me my word count (either that or evade the question, which is what I did last week). When we have word wars, I’m only allowed to share my word count if it’s around the same level as other people’s. Hell, I almost didn’t share my word count or goals on my own blog because I was worried about offending people.

The only place I feel like I’m allowed to be myself is the OA thread and the OA chat room. It’s the only place I’m allowed to proud of what I’ve done, where I can share my word count without having to add on “well I’m not working and I can only write like this in November” and all sorts of other apologetic statements.

And now people are suggesting that we change that, too.

It might not sound like a big request, but it is to me. Because it’s suggesting taking away the one thing I’m proud of. It’s suggesting that we have nothing to be proud of. That our feelings don’t matter as much as other people’s.

My feelings have never mattered as much as other people’s. I learned that when I was a small child. I thought I had finally found somewhere where I was allowed to have feelings. I guess I should have known better.

If you’re interested in reading the other blogs on this topic, check them our here:
In Which Ranty McRantyPants Complains Not polite in the least but the best blog post I’ve read on this topic.

On Overachievers A polite but to the point look at why the term “overachiever” isn’t the problem.

On the word ‘Overachiever’ A look at both sides of the issue.

Thoughts on the Overachiever term A history of the usage of “Overachiever” and the problems at hand.

Of overachieving and self-confidence. The other side of the argument, from one of the people who started this debate. I disagree with her about the term, but she still has my complete and total respect, and I hope she knows that.

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Posted on November 10, 2012, in NaNoWriMo, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. I just thought I’d say that I totally understand what you’re saying about school. I did have a few friends who I talked to, but if I was ever disappointed with my grades I had to pretend I wasn’t because I had still managed so much more than some of them ever could. And I agree about the double standards people seem to have. Somehow it’s ok to be proud of your achievements in sports and art, but not to be proud of how good you are at the academic subjects in case you offend someone. And people would always interrupt me or say derogatory things about me reading and writing all the time, just because I was getting pleasure out of something they didn’t.

    • Isn’t it horrible? I’m sorry you had to put up with that. It’s terrible that we can’t share our feelings without being ridiculed. It does suck when you’re sad about getting a B in a class when everyone around you thinks a B is a good grade. You don’t want to insult them, but they don’t seem to care about insulting you. The rest of us need to stick together! If you ever need to rant, I’m here to listen. 🙂

  2. I love this. Thanks for bringing out the personal (and less aggressively so) side of this. 🙂 And I just want to say: I’ve always known you as quix and Loki as quix’s girlfriend, because you’re the one I’m always neck-and-neck with!

    • Haha. I think you meant boyfriend. 😀 But thank you! It’s good to know that that’s not all I’m known for. I’m glad you like this post. Although I still think yours is way better. Haha. I seriously have it open in another tab at all times! 🙂

      • Haha, yes! I cannot word. I can has verbal skills? I’m glad my rant helps you out so much! Hopefully something good will come of all this, besides it drawing us all (defensively) closer.

      • I hope so, too. Although I will say that it’s been sort of nice getting closer to you all. I think this might have been what I needed to get myself to stop trying to get the approval of certain members of Nanolanta. I guess that’s good in its own way. 🙂

  3. I’m sorry I only get to read this now. I read the next post with the short story first and wanted to comment on that, but I thought I’d better read this first, and it does clarify my question.
    Alright, where to start…?
    First of all, I love the way you wrote this, it makes your point really clear and it’s also very emotional. I actually think I want to give you a hug now, so I’m sending you a digital one.
    On the subject matter… Oh, there’s so much to say… I think it’s wonderful and important to be proud of anything you do. Be proud of yourself, full stop. I think everyone – after childhood – defines for him- or herself what achievement means for them. For some, it might be an achievement to get a high grade at university. For others, it might be an achievement to go out and join a club and make a friend. And all of that is really good! The most important thing, I think, is to not stand still and be lethargic, but to move forward towards a goal that you have chosen yourself (not someone else for you). If there are some idiots in the world who don’t want to you to feel good about whatever achievement you’re aiming for, that’s most often just envy and sometimes, yes, it may be spite. The point is, it shouldn’t matter to you. As you know, of course. We can’t go around letting other people define who we are.
    But sometimes, it might be a good idea to challenge those people as well. Not in an aggressive way, but still, be open about it. I find communication is the key to so many problems. I don’t know if you have tried this already, but what about, the next time you play a game with the in-laws and you have the feeling that they are upset with you, you just say it out loud? Just pose it as a question, tell them this is what you feel and if you’re right about it.
    About the NaNo-specific issue… I don’t spend super-much time on the forums, but I browse a little from time to time and I have yet to see someone being mean to someone else. I’ve always perceived it as a very inclusive, supportive community. I’m really, really sorry that you have other experiences and I’m surprised by it as well. I think, if the name of “overachievers” is important to you, by all means keep it! I also don’t think that it is derogatory in any way, so I really don’t see the harm of calling yourselves that. Anyone who is feeling threatened by this term… I’d say it’s their own insecurity speaking.
    However, one last bit of unsolicited advice: I noticed that you used several comparisons, like “my achievement is that I can write more than other people” (I’m paraphrasing, but I think that’s basically what you say in several places) and I really, really hope that you don’t mean that. I hope that your achievement is that you can write a lot in a very short span of time, or that you can write a lot (or well) under pressure. I hope it’s got NOTHING to do with other people. – I have been searching for this really good quote, but I can’t find it at the moment, I’ll send it to you when I do. In the meantime, I’ll go with Mark Twain: “Comparison is the death of joy.” (And that’s true!)

    • I think I was trying to say that Overachievers write a lot of words and that the reason it causes so many problems is because we write more than other people. My ability to write a lot of words wouldn’t be a problem if my definition of “a lot of words” was 50k instead of, say, 250k. So in this case, the achievement that I have to hide *is* that I write more than other people, if that makes sense. I’m proud of my word count because I’m happy with the number, not because it’s more than what other people have. It’s also lower than other people have.

      That said, it is sort of fun to know that I have the highest word count in my region, at least among those people who are active on the forums/chat. I’m not saying I wouldn’t be happy if that wasn’t true, but it does give me a nice feeling to know that I’m at the top of something. To me, that’s one of those things that it’s okay to be proud of as long as a) you’re not a jerk about it and b) you would still be happy not being at the top. Being at the top should be a nice bonus, not the sole source of joy.

      Again, I’m not really sure if what I’m saying makes sense to anyone but me. I hope it does. But you are absolutely right about not letting other people define your worth/achievements. I think I’ve been letting people do that for far too long, and it’s time to stop it. I haven’t tried that thing with my boyfriend’s parents. I try not to talk to them about anything that they do that bothers me. I probably should. I’m just always afraid they’re going to get mad and keep me from seeing him, since even though we’re 23, we both still live at home, and they’re paying for his college, and I always have this small fear that I’ll piss them off and they’ll threaten to cut off his money if he doesn’t stop seeing me or something. Probably an unrealistic thought, but I still…the first time I tried to tell people about something that was bothering me, most of my extended family stopped talking to me. So I’m always incredibly nervous bringing up things that bother me. Even though I know you’re right and I probably should. 🙂

  4. I’m not doing NaNo this year (editing, editing, editing), but I give a big hearty GOOD FOR YOU! for those who reach 50K and beyond well before the Nov. 30 deadline. I’d LOVE to be able to write that much.

    My MIL and I are cutthroat when we play Scabble together, and it is freeing to not have to worry about hurting their feelings. I won’t play Monopoly with you, though, because I hate that game. Probably because I always lose, but that has nothing to do with you. 🙂

    Ooh – you should call yourselves Slackers instead of OverAchievers. Ironic, right? Who’s going to complain THEN?

    • Thanks! And I imagine editing your novel for publication is a bit more exciting than writing for NaNo. 🙂

      And Slackers would definitely be amusing! Haha. I like it. 😀

  5. I’ve never really read such an opinion, but it’s nice to have. A different perspective which is interesting.
    One thing that strikes a chord with me is the whole I’m sad about a A/B and everyone around thinks it’s good.

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