No Longer the Smartest Kid in the Room


The most blissful moment of my life was near the end of my freshman year, when my high school gave out awards for academic excellence. I won honors in three subjects—I was most proud of the English honors—and then took the cake overall: I had the highest GPA in my grade. Walking down from the bleachers, being watched by everyone, wearing a pretty dress picked out for the occasion—it was a perfect experience. Before I accepted the medal and shook hands with the principal, I thought, “This is the best I’ve ever felt.”

I felt completely validated by the external measure of accomplishment. Being best in my class bolstered my sense of self-worth. That was the pinnacle; sophomore year I had the second highest GPA, junior year, the third highest. I left high school early to go to Reed College, but once there, found I had no coping mechanisms for not being the smartest kid in the room. My classes were interesting, but I was overwhelmed and unable to cope with the amount of reading assigned. I had a nervous breakdown. I left Reed. I dabbled in community college for a bit, but after a year I dropped out altogether. Of course, too much homework wasn’t the root of my problems; the real issue was clinical depression (for which I am thankfully now medicated and therapized). Without academic success I didn’t feel anchored.

Now, at 20, I’m grappling with a professional version of the same issue. It feels uncomfortably familiar. I’ve chosen to pursue a very low-paying career in editorial work, with few opportunities for accolades. Without outside validation of awards or money, I struggle to believe that I’m valuable. This is further complicated by the fact that I only feel worthwhile when I’m being “productive,” and I hold myself to a particular definition of productivity. Just answering emails doesn’t count. To me, productivity means literally producing material, writing essays or formatting blog posts that I can point to and say, “That’s how I spent my hours.”

This is a compensation technique, or rather a technique to compensate for lack of compensation. I can’t help but see my paycheck as an indication of my value, and I yearn to make more. I assume that if I were paid more, I’d worry less about the tangibility of my labor, and that a high salary would instill confidence about my value. (Of course, it’s possible I would feel exactly the same with more money.)

I am also constantly thinking about how to be better. I want to perform well. I make to-do lists and set goals. I criticize and readjust my approach to various situations. This is important to me; this focus on my performance has improved my work, and perhaps other parts of my life, yet I’ve never allowed myself to enjoy it. We are not encouraged to sit still and congratulate ourselves; satisfaction is not a core American value. Instead, our capitalist society encourages people to tie self-esteem to earnings.

Improving just feeds the obsession with being better.

But there’s a problem with this approach. When I measure my value based on money, the answer is a finite dollar amount. The amount doesn’t account for my sense of humor or ability to tolerate hanging out with a toddler all day – attributes that are incredibly important to healthy communities and the overall success of any society. More importantly, these attributes are valuable to me.

Without money and without tangible ways to measure my productivity, how do I nurture a sense of inherent self-worth? How do I acknowledge that I have areas to improve while still saying, “hey, I’m doing a good job”? How do I love myself when I’m not being “productive”?

These are the questions I’m struggling with. I have no easy answers; all I can do is keep trying. I’m trying something new and counter-intuitive to me. I’m fighting my instinct to constantly compare my value to others’ around me. Instead, I strive to feel better by not constantly pressuring myself to do better.


Sonya tip-tap-types on her computer all day. When she gets home she watches The Good Wife — no spoilers, please! — and reads more articles than she has time for. Sonya tries unsuccessfully not to be a parody of herself. Image is by the author.

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  1. Meredith Watts

    I can so identify with the self-satisfaction of being the smartest kid in the room. I happened to go to a public high school with lots of smart kids, but I was always in the top 3. I hit the wall when I got to college, too, but it was primarily because I was — by a long shot — not the smartest kid in any of the classes I was attending. In fact, I was afraid to open my mouth!!

    Sonia, I’d just like to say that self-acceptance is the key to what ails you. It’s got to be OK to be who you are. That’s what makes life work from day to day. That doesn’t mean you can’t set goals or learn from mistakes. It’s more that you know that you are worthy just as yourself without any outside mirror of validation, because it’s true.

    Good luck, Meredith

    • Thank you, Meredith! I appreciate the wise encouragement. It’s always comforting to hear that someone else had the same emotional struggle.

  2. Irene

    Really enjoyed this, Sonya!

    The lack of professional milestones or measures outside of paycheck as an adult is troublesome for me as well. There’s no “graduation” to look forward to at work – in 4 years, you might still very well be at the same desk you are at now. What you’ve accomplished might “just” (whatever that means) be having written 1000 emails. It’s hard to build around that, especially the closer you are out of school, I think, when clear timelines are still such a fresh memory. I’m 27 and still struggle with this so I don’t know if it gets any easier.

    Maybe we just learn – with time – where to put our energy, how we find meaning, what we value more or less. It’s painful and slow … but in itself, an accomplishment though it lacks a price tag or trophy, and might take a lifetime since it’s constantly changing, shifting. Like with so many things, perhaps time is the secrete sauce. If only we had more patience and a better memory!

    • “What you’ve accomplished might ‘just’ (whatever that means) be having written 1000 emails.”

      Oh gosh. It might be that. I think you’re right, though — time, patience, self-kindness.

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