Friday, November 7, 2014

(Not) Doing It On My Own

I often hear people my age say things like, "Everything I have, I earned," or "I've worked for everything I have," or "I am the reason why I have what I have." There's this intense desire to validate that one's successes (whether material, professional, or financial) are purely their's and NO ONE ELSE'S. They were the ones with the strong work ethic. They were the ones who worked since they were 17 years old. They were the ones with the goals and aspirations.

This sort of perspective has been on my mind lately since I have been celebrating a series of successes. A few months ago, I defended my thesis and passed with distinction. I recently started work as an adjunct professor, teaching three classes in two different departments. It's not an understatement to say that I am in the beginning stages of my dream job. And, yet, despite all of the work, time, effort, tears, fatigue, frustration, and dedication that went into (and will continue to go into) these successes, I would never feel comfortable saying that my accomplishments are purely "mine." Looking back on it, I realize that they belong to so many others.

My parents bought me books as a child and told me education was a priceless endeavor. They took me school-shopping every summer, they encouraged me to go to college, and they helped me pay for expenses like food or health insurance so that I could focus on my studies. They didn't completely pay for college for me, but they gave me the resources to be able to go, and the ideology that made me WANT to go. Beyond my blood family, I've had "adopted" family who love me as their own, year after year, after year, after year. My surrogate "big" sister, for instance, has been with me not only every step of the last 7 years of my academic journey, but also my life in general, offering me her house as a safe space, buying me countless meals, and spending thousands of hours with me talking about my passions, struggles, and dreams.

My accomplishments belong to those I call my family.

My undergraduate professors saw potential in me and encouraged me to go to graduate school. They met with me with and read my writing sample over and over again. They gave me advice. They sent me emails and texts after interviews, asking me how I went. They told me when my writing needed improvement, when something was poorly phrased on my resume, and even when I was currently a major that they knew wasn't right for me. This extended even beyond classroom: the summer I moved into my new apartment, a professor gave me boxes of kitchen appliances and even a few pieces of furniture so that I could save some extra money. Another professor helped me set up what she referred to as a "big girl filing system;" before heading to grad school, I learned how to keep a budget, organize important paperwork, and understand things like car loans and interest rates.

My accomplishments belong to these faculty.

In graduate school, I found similar support. Professors answered emails at all hours of the night, did endless paper conferences with me, and encouraged me in my scholarship. While some could say that's just part of their job, many of them will never be financially compensated for what the time they gave me (and other students). My boss, for instance, who surprised me and took me to hear Toni Morrison speak at a school in the city, did so simply because she knew how much Morrison and her work meant to me; she was not obligated to show me such thoughtfulness. The same goes for my thesis advisor who would often stand outside in the cold with me for an hour after class, helping me process and think through ideas about my thesis.

My accomplishments belong to people like that.

At the risk of sounding like a complete poster child for socialism (guilty as charged), let me stress that I understand that this is a two-way street. It is a participatory relationship. These people help me, but it's because I want to be helped. I ask for advice. I'm not afraid to call myself an amateur and seek the advice of others. My desire for success far outweighs my momentary desire to seem like I am the pro or expert. I don't know it all, and I am willing to consult with the people who do. I've learned that this kind of humility and intense willingness to allow others to help me carries significant benefits. I'd go as far to say that it's one of the primary keys to success.

Yet, while certainly somewhat my responsibility, I also know that my initiative and willingness to learn would be meaningless without the people who have so graciously and selflessly met me half way. Anything I have, no matter how great or how small, is on one hand a product of my work and dedication, but it is also a product of someone ELSE's work and dedication. At the end of the day, I am a collective effort. In the famous words of Rushdie, "I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine." Everything I have is shared. And I am so very proud of that. 

1 comment:

  1. It is good to balance the pleasure one derives with one's accomplishments with a recognition of those who helped make them happen. It sounds like you have found a good sense of that balance.
    Nonetheless, I think it not undeserved that you be given recognition for how successful you have been at getting so far toward realizing your goals. I feel compelled to give you just such admiration. You've done good, pal. And your determination to recognize all those who have helped get you there is just one more thing to admire. Your humility is admired even more than your acheivements.