Young and Burned Out: Addicted to Success

When I was just a girl, probably around late elementary school, I made a vow to myself. I would be successful by the time I turned 16, and I would be established, put-together, and full of infinite wisdom by the time I turned 20. Obviously, that was wishful thinking at its finest; no one enters their roaring twenties without feeling a sense of complete and utter bewilderment. Younger me thought it would be easy to just sort through every minor and major decision I needed to make in order to reach adulthood. Yet here I am, in the future I wanted so badly to predict, still so indecisive I can hardly figure out what to make for lunch later this afternoon.


This kind of wishful thinking, impassioned ambition and innate perfectionism turned into a serious drive toward accomplishment; an escape room with no exit. I became addicted to success very young and it got to my head. All throughout middle school and early high school, I worked myself to death for the thrill of being what I perceived as “the best.” It was selfish, but I felt like I had to outdo and one-up everyone. I couldn’t just turn in an assignment after perfecting it, it had to have that “wow” effect, that sense of being unforgettable, passing with flying colors and leaving a trail blazing behind me. I was always seeking validation from my teachers, not sucking up per se, but powered by the need to prove myself to them. I was so young and already proclaiming to the world, “Take me seriously. I am made of fire and I will not back down.”


woman wearing red high heels with white socks that say girls rule


But by the time I neared the end of high school and grades actually mattered, I found myself paralyzed. There I was, a perfect straight-A student, with suddenly no desire to keep proving myself to a world that felt impossible to reach. I felt like a cog in the machine of perfection, so utterly jaded by all of the late nights, frustrations and temporary highs of constantly pushing past my limits. When I say burnout hit me hard, I mean it nearly knocked me down for good, and I’m not talking about your run-of-the-mill case of senioritis. I found myself absolutely floored, suddenly facing challenges that people usually confront in their mid to late careers; certainly not a 17-year old girl with a world ahead of her, still stuck in her hometown. 


A photo of scrabble words assembled to spell


The Mayo Clinic defines burnout quite succinctly: “Job burnout is a special type of work-related stress — a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” It does not require a medical diagnosis, nor is it a mental illness in and of itself. But there’s no denying that burnout impacts an individual severely: physically, emotionally, and mentally. When you’re someone so used to the thrill of accomplishment, it can cause a serious identity quake when you suddenly feel anchored down and unsure of anything you are. Personally, my most notable burnout “symptoms” were very distinguishable. I felt like I had to drag myself to school; I’d cry on the drive there because I was so anxious that I wouldn’t get into college and that I’d never reach the goals I had planned for myself. My grades had taken an understandable dip for the first time in my life, and while previously this would likely send me into a fit of frustration, I took it so hard that, interestingly enough, I just stopped caring. I began to hate the educational system, became irritable whenever someone mentioned anything academic related and lacked the energy to be as productive as I used to be. Nothing felt right; my concentration waxed and waned, and even when I did achieve any given goal of mine, there was no satisfaction. I felt useless, disillusioned and constantly in my head, which impacted my physical health unlike anything else. 


I knew it was a problem when I finally graduated high school with the acceptance letter to my dream school yet I could not feel joy walking across that stage with honors. I felt like I didn’t deserve them even though I was decorated with so many medals and cords that it physically hurt my head to hold them up. I realize it now: I was just beyond done and success meant nothing anymore. I needed a fresh start badly -- a way to reinvent myself and rewire my unhealthy ideas of success and achievement -- and starting college was the best way to do that. And so I did -- I approached Virginia Tech with an open mind and a brand new spirit.



But that didn’t mean the toxicity ended right then and there; change is not linear, it is way easier said than done. As much as I wanted to commit to change, I neglected to understand that it would take some time and some serious evaluation of my weak points. Right after I finally settled into my dorm, I kicked off into grind season; I started looking for junior-level internships my first semester of freshman year, I took a full schedule’s worth of 4000-level classes just to challenge myself and while I did not quite crash and burn this time around, I definitely stumbled a bit. I finished my freshman year of college with a perfect GPA, but I was just as exhausted as I was when I left home. 


Don’t get me wrong, I’m still the same person now. I am far from perfect and still get stuck in a state of burnout every so often, but have I developed ways of breaking free from this mindset? Absolutely. I haven’t given up my goals in the slightest; in fact, I’m set to graduate a whole year early with two Bachelor’s degrees, a minor and memberships in clubs, organizations and honor societies I’m passionate about. It’s different this time around though, I’m not doing it to get in front of anyone else; I’m not doing it for competition, to be able to brag, “Look! I did that, and you didn’t!”


I’m just doing it for me, because I love what I study and I want to be able to apply it in the real world. I want to take what I’ve learned and channel it productively, with grace and determination. I’m not in a rush, no longer consumed by the endless race to get ahead. I have learned to take it slow, to trust the timing of my life and to know that good things will arrive at my doorstep if I work hard, but ultimately let them come to me. There’s an analogy to this: you can want the package you ordered online to arrive so badly, just because you want it in your hands, but ultimately, all you can do is wait for it. I know that as long as I apply myself, I will be able to reach my goals without digging my own grave. 


woman oil painting on canvas


I am learning how to breathe. How to enjoy my final year as an undergraduate student without dwelling so hard on what I’m going to do post-graduation. I am so young; I’m 20 years old, an aspiring writer and am loved beyond measure. If that’s not success, then what is? As long as I keep a positive outlook on life, learn how to embrace the essence of carpe diem, stay kind hearted and true to myself and others, then my worth is not dependent on what I do or do not achieve. I am more than just the sum of what I am capable of accomplishing. I’m a real, raw, authentic human being propelled by the desire to seize each day with optimism and inspiration rather than exhaustion and frustration. No, I am not perfect, and I never will be. Finally, that is the greatest blessing of my life. I am made of fire and I will not back down.