Overachivement from insecurities

Coping with insecurities in tying up my identity with my grades as a student, and work performance as an adult.

This clickbaity Youtube caught my attention, and against my better judgment, I watched it:

What stereotypes and prejudices went through these teachers' minds as they undertook this knowingly problematic and flawed social exercise? What went on in my mind as an audience member with my own preconceptions? I walked away with way too many thoughts after this silly experiment.

Warning: video spoilers ahead.

Table of contents

About me

I am a(n) (Southeast) Asian American woman with deep insecurities. I was an academic overachiever through all my years of school. (My highest degree is a bachelorś). In high school had a weighted GPA over 4.0 (I don't know what it was unweighted), and in college I had a 3.90 with two majors, a few honor society inductions, other senior awards, and Latin honors (summa cum laude).

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The Asian female student's academic goal was to do premed in college to become a surgeon, and her favorite classes were AP ones leaning towards the sciences. Her behavioral habits reminded me of myself--nervous, humble, maybe insecure, but also highly ambitious and determined. Given my own experience, and probably assisted by the Asian American model student stereotype, I was most biased into thinking that the Asian female student had the 4.0 GPA, and the brown male student (Southeast Asian? Something else?) was close to the top. I was more unsure of the other students, but felt the Black male student and jacket-wearing white male student were also good students based on how much they expressed interest in their AP classes.

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Low confidence != highest GPA?

All the teachers rated the Asian female student as having a 3.8 GPA. The clip showed her asking one of the male teachers, "Why not 4.0?" and he explained that she exhibits low confidence in her posture and lack of consistent eye contact. That struck me a lot as someone who has similar habits, due to low confidence. Why the fuck does this teacher think you need to exude confidence to be a 4.0 student? That's some of the stupidest shit I've ever heard.

Other students generally were assumed to have lower GPAs. The Black male and white jacket-wearing male students probably spoke the most confidently and positively about advanced classes, and so they were rated towards the top, with the white male jacket-wearing one getting the 4.0 vote from two out of the three teachers. The brown male student also sounded articulate but expressed disdain for school.

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The outcome

In the end, it was revealed that the Asian female student is indeed the student with a 4.0 GPA, the highest among all the students in the group. I felt validated and gave a silent "F U!" to all the teachers. The female teacher asked about the stress that comes with feeling like the student needs to maintain that GPA, and the student admitted about having panic attacks, etc.

As for the other male students I mentioned, the brown student had a respectable 3.4 – while he doesn't care for school, he still applies himself but doesn't stress about it – the Black student had a great 3.8, and the white male jacket-wearing student had the lowest of 1.5. The latter admitted that he had great standardized test scores but recently, through COVID, went in and out of mental institutions, which dropped his GPA; but since he had great test scores, he still got into college. What struck with me all of these male students was how self-assured they sounded compared to the Asian female student. How much of that confidence comes from being male in our patriarchal society?

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Validation through grades

In the comments section is a very highly voted comment and thread. Here are  the comments that resonated most with me:

I was a 4.0 student. The lack of confidence thing made a lot of sense to me because I too was the quiet shy kid at the back with absolutely no self esteem. I used to find my worth through my grades and that became a big part of my identity, because I was convincing my worth through other people's validation. It was actually, really, sad. My confidence definitely got better in time but that comment killed me, because lack of confidence is the reason I had 4.0 but at the same time is perceived to be a negative characteristic
Feel that. I also had a 4.0. The way she carried herself screamed 4.0 to me. It was the anxiety and stress of that 4.0 mindset. And the frustration she had when they assumed she had 3.8 because of her lack of confidence. It was always so frustrating because you're trying so hard to make up for your personality with your GPA and then everyone just assumes the charmers are smarter and harder working than you. Not to say they aren't, just the assumption makes you feel like shit.
I think she was also sad about all the encouragement the others were getting when it looked to me like maybe she needed it the most.  She seems to feel a lot of pressure on herself
It can get so intensely stressful to maintain a 4.0. Sometimes I think that if I had a 3.8 it would have taken the pressure off somewhat. If you think about it, you can't get any better (unweighted), you can only do worse, so there is no sense of improvement or accomplishment with receiving a 4.0. I had a 4.3 in high school and a 4.0 in college, and I stressed about grades more than I should have.

Reading these comments helped me feel that I was not alone or crazy for being who I am, for having these seemingly contradictory feelings of lack of confidence with high achievement.

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Insecurities at work

Earlier this month, I wrote about my recent flare-up of insecurities with my job. While I worked my butt off for a year and earned the equivalent of a 4.0 GPA rating 🙂 during my performance review, I didn't receive a title change I thought I deserved. Shortly afterword, I got a new manager, so I felt like I had to rebuild my image and prove myself to him. (This was all in my head; my new manager didn't express any demand outwardly to me.) Our team changed focus, and I was put on a project that I was very uncomfortable with and had little technical/operational support. Adding onto my failure at getting the other recognition I wanted, I started thinking, maybe I didn't deserve that recognition anyway.

I felt so incompetent and slow and unproductive at my job. I wasn't pumping out new, finished work as quickly as I did in the past year, under the team's old focus. I was (I am) still the lowest ranking person on my team, and I kept comparing myself unfairly to an idealized version of my teammates in my head and being vastly inferior to them. Finally, even after 10 years of professional experience, the fact that I have a nontraditional, non-technical background always remains in the back of my mind as a glaring weakness – at any moment, I will be outed as an imposter for not knowing X or Y fundamental thing and fucking up and sounding so stupid, or not contributing any insightful technical ideas. It was an endless, though also not unfamiliar, cycle of negativity all inside my head.

Barring my brief first two months of onboarding, I was used to excelling at (almost) all times at work, relative to my tenure and rank. I was used to being recognized and validated for my work from other coworkers, my boss, and the formal review process. But this first half of the year, a lot of things went against my expectations. I was going through ruts with my project and the team changes. My confidence easily shattered when I faced these difficulties, especially all at once. While in reality my "work GPA" of 4.0 was maybe only going down to a "3.7", if it was even going down at all, it felt like it was going down to a "1.5". There were times where I felt I was in danger of getting fired.

Granted, I tend to focus on the worst possible outcome, rather than the most likely.

Unlike school, at work I don't get hard letter grades on my performance every week to calculate my live "work GPA". It's more fluid, with human discussions and free-form reviews every quarter, which is probably a very good thing in general: letter grades every week sound hella disciplinarian and inhuman. But the fluidity can leave a lot of things up to interpretation, which can be dangerous for someone with deep insecurities.

My company hosted a third-party presentation on mental health and burnout, which motivated me to seek professional counseling through my company's benefits. Somehow, in the span of 30 minutes having just met me over the phone, the counselor led me to conclude that I was sort of in the situation of taking on a new role.  

I didn't give myself the space to patiently wade through those ruts and changes. When I was a new employee at this company last year, I was explicitly told I should onboard in 3-6 months (it was more like 1-2 months 🤓 to at least be somewhat helpful). I'm no longer a new employee with a completely foreign codebase to learn, but I am in a new role with a new manager. It shouldn't take me 6 months to be productive, but I should reasonably expect some time in adjusting to this new world. Clearly my manager has given me that time; I should do the same! It may have been nice to get explicit expectations of this adjustment, but that's OK, that ship has sailed.

I talked this out with my manager, and he was very supportive of me and happy that I have been seeking ways to address my insecurities. He reassured me as well that he is not concerned with my performance, and he sees me as on track to get what I want in the next review cycle. Another great thing was that, after many dark days, I happened to make some great progress on my project. All of these things slowly rebuilt my confidence.

I also have my steadfast support from my closest personal and work friends. I'm grateful for their patience: my self-doubts often stubbornly push out their words of belief in me; yet, eventually, every time, their care for me outweighs my self-doubts. It's especially true with my old friends, who have seen me in my highs and lows over the years, but always coming out stronger from each challenge.

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Learning to embrace uncertainty and imperfection

After watching the above video and empathizing with the Asian female student, I thought again about the male students. Of course, the video only showed me a few seconds or minutes of them, and I can't accurately assess their personalities with that little information – were they just acting cool and confident in front of the camera, but deep inside they were also insecure? Probably to some degree most teenagers (and people in general) have insecurities. I suspect the Asian female student, like myself, has one of highest bouts of it, though.

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"Be a man!"

I have the Mulan song playing now:

(Be a man)
We must be swift as the coursing river,
(Be a man)
With all the force of a great typhoon,
(Be a man)
With all the strength of a raging fire,
Mysterious as the dark side of the moon.

Toxic masculinity aside, this is such a catchy song! It's about a commander of the Chinese imperial army training new (male, and Mulan disguised as male) recruits to fight against and defeat the Huns. Soldiers need to be fearless in the face of death, and this commander is trying to toughen them up mentally and physically.

While it's pretty silly and over-the-top, the song does reflect the real phenomenon of the mindset that soldiers need to have to survive and be effective, even the face of great uncertainty and death. It is a similar mindset that boys and men are conditioned to develop in a patriarchal society. It can be a useful, though also unhealthy, mindset.

I am probably being silly comparing myself to the young male American (I assume, based on their accents) students to soldiers in Mulan. But it may do me some good to take this particular page out of the toxic masculinity handbook – to keep moving forward, confidently, in the face of uncertainty. Hopefully not death, but also bearing my mortality in mind is wise, too.

I don't get the sense that the male students in the video are moving forward in life with "all the force of a great typhoon" and the "strength of a raging fire". 😸  But at least on the surface, they seem more composed and at peace with their lower GPAs than the Asian female student with her perfect one. I feel such kinship with the Asian female student, but for a healthier, more sustainable mindset, I can try to be more like the male students. Maybe part of the male students' more peaceful-seeming mindsets come from not tying their identity with their GPA as strongly as, perhaps, the Asian female student does. They seem more at peace with imperfection in GPA and uncertainty that comes with everyone's futures.

I also suspect the white male jacket-wearing student, who admitted going through psychic care instituions, has gone through the most mental hardships and (therefore) growth during COVID. He could be among the most mentally mature (or, who knows, unstable still at times) and deliberately self-reflected a lot to come off as so self-assured.

But I find it telling that, not just him, but all the male students, regardless of race, seemed so self-assured compared to the female students (including the white female student) on the surface. That self-assurance could be a true reflection of their internal confidence or a product of patriarchal conditioning, despite their less-than-perfect GPAs.

I don't actually think I should "Be a man!" But many studies have shown that men apply to jobs even when they believe they only meet 40-60% of the job qualifications, whereas women apply if they meet closer to 100%. Men are rewarded, or at least not that much punished, for not being perfect. They are encouraged to take risks. Women less so, especially if they are women of color. (Men are also discouraged from showing insecurity.)

Old habits and strong, lifelong social conditioning are hard to fight against. I can feel fortunate in knowing that all of my managers at work, teachers at school, and loved ones have believed in my abilities and cheered me on, despite my insecurities. Time and again, like any other human being, I have faced uncertainty and managed with imperfection – even if I get some high marks, they aren't objectively perfect, and they are only one facet of my life. (I have so many other imperfections in my life to improve beyond work.) Unlike many other humans, I not only succeed, but I often excel. Constantly pushing myself lands me in more senior responsibilities with greater uncertainty, though. I should get comfortable with that higher level of uncertainty.

In this realm of greater uncertainty, as a respected senior engineer, I don't need to excel every single time. (The reality was, I never needed to.) Long term patterns stick with people. I'm not a one-hit wonder or a one-hit failure. Really, I don't even need to excel most of the time 🙂 but shaking that expectation out of my personality is very difficult. Still, I can learn to be easier on myself and appreciate my long-term pattern of success and steady growth. I can learn to not blow up temporary hardships as career-enders or confidence shatterers.

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My comparisons aren't fair

I can learn to treat myself as charitably as I do other people – if someone else were in my shoes, with my particular experience, I wouldn't be so hard on them.

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Self-gratitude and pride

It's pretty incredible to think how far I've come on my particular journey.

As with most other previous teams, I am the only person on my current team without any kind of formal technical background (major/minor in STEM or bootcamp in web development). I have other intersectional issues I must overcome. And yet, here I am! I am part of the team. I am a valued member of the team. I am fortunate to be among a group of such smart and talented people with whom I can learn so much. They are the highest performing team I've ever been on. In past environments, I have been used to being among the best in my team, but here, I am at least average among the best (in my opinion), which is still good. 🙂

I frequently face technical challenges that are completely foreign to me. I sometimes need help, I sometimes am slower than others, but I never give up, and I always find a way.

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Contentment and detachment

There will come a time when I have reached my professional limit. I think I am pretty close to it, to be honest. If I can just get one more title bump, I hope I will be personally and professionally satisfied until the day I retire; but I also will be OK if I don't get it at all (I tell myself). As I mentioned in my recent retrospective and reflection, and as I continued to reflect in this post, I shouldn't get so attached to this title change desire, or my work! as I did in the past with my GPA. I find a lot of meaning in other things outside of work, as I especially realized when I was in Japan earlier this year. If I get this title change, it should be a nice bonus. It is not a requirement for my happiness or a primary definination of my identity.

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