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The Shame of Pursuing Excellence

In second grade, I can remember the race to get through all of the SRAs. These were reading comprehension texts about all kinds of subjects. They were two pages long, then you needed to answer questions about the text. Once you got enough of the answers right, you moved onto the next one.

It was cool to be doing well with the SRAs. There were 4 or 5 of us who were competing to see who could complete the most before the end of school. It was cool, or at least socially acceptable, to be focused on academic excellence.

Between 2nd and 5th grade, something changed. It was no longer cool to be striving to do well in school. There were all kinds of insults hurled at anyone who seemed like they were trying too hard. You were better off focusing on sports or a hobby, at least that was the message from my peers.

As a bit of context, I grew up in a steel plant region. At one point, my dad pointed out to me that his students (he was a high school English teacher) who graduated from high school and went to work in the steel mills were making more money than he was. This was an area that valued sports highly and did not value intellect much.

The next seven years became an interesting balancing act. I did really well in school, and eventually graduated valedictorian. However, I had to look like I was not trying. Somehow, I pulled it off pretty well. I became known as the “smart kid” but not a nerd.

This left a mark that I still run up against on occasion. I want to be successful, but not by working too hard for it. There is still a certain amount of shame in pursuing excellence. What a waste of talent that attitude caused for lots of kids from New Brighton.

While I have made my mark in the world (and plan to make more of one), I still wonder what I might have accomplished if I had been conditioned to believe there is pride in pursuing excellence. In raising our two boys, I have always made it clear to them that pursuing excellence in everything they choose to do is a worthy endeavor. I believe they will make a bigger mark on the world because of it.

So much of who we are is because of the environment we grew up in. And yet, it is important to filter that experience to eliminate, as best you can, the things that are not a good fit for who you are. It’s not easy, but it is worth the effort. That is the only way that you can become your authentic self.

This is message #11 in 21 Days of Authenticity. If that would like to receive the rest of the 21 Days of Authenticity via email, please click here to sign up.

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