So I can’t quite decide how to approach the topic du jour, so I’ll just dive right in and see where it goes. I have a high GPA. I won’t include it here, but it’s high. I had a high GPA the last time I was in college. But as much of an accomplishment as that was, I tended to discount it. I was, after all, an art major, and what does a high GPA mean for an art major? It means I got lucky. It means I was a brown-noser. It means my professors liked me, for whatever reason, during those critical moments when grades were being handed out.
My former photography professor, with whom I’m still good friends, reminds me of all the other reasons I might have gotten good grades in my art classes. Talent. Skill. Attention to detail. Doggedly hard work. I’m certain that, at least to some extent, he’s right. I did work really hard in art school. But the fact remains, there are no right answers in art. The grades are always going to be subjective. Which attributes are weighted most heavily? Talent and skill? Hard work and perseverance? Idea and concept? It depends on the professor. I had one emotionally volatile professor who I was convinced could as easily have given me a 2.0 or a 4.0 depending on what mood she was in when she graded my drawings.
To this day, I still believe my art school GPA was equal parts hard work and just getting damn lucky. So I was understandably freaked out stepping into my first class on my way to getting my engineering degree. It was chemistry and I was terrified. I hadn’t been in school for eight years and even then, I was “just drawing pictures all day.” I had no idea what would be required of me to do well in a college-level science class. So I set out to work my tail off. I showed up in class every day. I memorized everything I was told to memorize. I did every problem in the assigned homework. I read the textbook chapters that went along with the lectures. I couldn’t let my guard down for a second or, surely, I would fail.
I hadn’t yet learned how to manage my time doing both work and school. My apartment rarely got cleaned that semester. My gym schedule suffered. I didn’t make very many social plans. But dang, did I know chemistry like the back of my hand. I got an A and was thoroughly relieved.
My relief was short-lived. Since I’d finally tested into calculus, I was able to take two classes the following semester. Again, terror set in. How could I possibly work full time and take two classes without dooming myself to failure? Again, I worked my tail off. I did all the homework, all the practice problems, all the reading. I was managing my time a bit better and, thankfully, my apartment stayed a little cleaner. I pulled off two more A’s.
The following semester I started the first of two physics classes and continued on with higher-level calculus. I had bad memories of physics from high school. I hadn’t liked it. I remembered a lot of obscure formulas and messy calculations. I was, again, terrified. Again, I worked my tail off. Low and behold, I ended up enjoying physics. The formulas were not obscure. In fact, the way they so accurately and succinctly described the world, I’d almost call them beautiful. I passed “Go”, I collected my $200 (or my two A’s, if the Monopoly metaphor annoys you).
Fast forward to my first semester after transferring to my university. Lots of A’s in my pocket. Can you guess how I was feeling? Surprise! I was terrified! This was a huge engineering school. Not the happy little world of my community college. I was sure to get pummeled. The standard narrative ensued: fret, panic, work tail off – do well.
At the end of every semester I feel like I’ve narrowly missed being hit by a bus. No matter how many times I’m successful, I can’t help feeling I’ve somehow gotten lucky. I ignore the “work tail off” part and focus on the test that was generously graded, or how fortunate I was to have this professor rather than that one, who everyone says is a killer.
At the beginning of every semester I wonder if this is the semester when the other shoe is going to drop. Is this the semester when it’s all going to fall apart? Is this the semester when I will fail – when I will finally realize that I’m too stupid to be an engineer?
Why is it that, despite doing extremely well in one of the most challenging majors on campus, I still feel like luck has played as much of a role as hard work and dedication? I’m a member of the Society of Women Engineers, and they often do webinars about various topics of interest to their membership. Last year they had a webinar about Imposter Syndrome. I finally had an explanation for my bizarre fears –
“Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the [imposter] syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.”
Of course naming something doesn’t actually fix it. I just signed up for my next year of classes. They will be the hardest set of classes I’ve dealt with yet…classes I’ve been warned about by those who have gone before me. Classes where everything might fall apart. I am, you guessed it, terrified.
Okay. But what would I tell my best friend if she were me? I’d be nicer to her than I’ve been to myself. I’d tell her, look, you’ve proven you can do this. You’ve gone into every class with grit and determination. It’s not about brilliance or extraordinary intelligence, it’s about working hard, getting help when you need it and not accepting failure as an option.
So I try to be my own best friend, and bit by bit, I am gaining a little more faith in myself. I’m slowly learning that succeeding in a “hard” major is more about wanting it badly enough and less about being a genius. So that’s what I try to tell to myself and that’s what I’d tell anyone else who wants to try something they fear is too hard. In the words of Thomas Edison, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Turns out, it’s true.