A King’s Defeat

When I was born, my dad was working as a cab driver in Washington DC while my mom was a cafeteria cook in Alexandria, Virginia. My parents struggled to make ends meet in order to provide me with a great childhood and they didn’t want that life for me. So every chance they got, they stressed how important a quality education was for me. They made sure that as soon as I got home from school that I did my homework. They made sure I was on the honor roll. They made sure that they were involved in my school life and it paid dividends. My grades were always at the top of my class and I breezed through most of my classes. Not only that, but my parents made sure that I was involved in extracurricular activities such as soccer, karate, choir, and church. I pretty much excelled at everything I did. Because of this, I became the pride of my community.

Seriously, I was that kid who other parents would brag about to their own children. Every A+ that I brought home was greeted with hugs and statements of pride. It was awesome, but also stressful. As years went by, this larger-than-life reputation that I seemed to have built kept adding more and more self-inflicted pressure on me. You see, life got a little harder in the very area of my life that I had been a king in. Classes started becoming difficult. My grades began slipping a little. I couldn’t simply ingest information as soon as I saw it anymore. I had to chew first. And even then, certain topics felt too big to swallow. All the while, I felt like I had to keep up appearances. Once I realized I wasn’t as invincible as my reputation seemed to advertise, I froze. I had connected great grades and academic success with love and acceptance by family and friends.

So what did I do? It would have been ideal if I had used my declining situation as a motivating tool to regain my kingly status. What actually happened is I developed a fear of failure and a reluctance to ask for help. Procrastination became one of my favorite techniques to avoid situations and tasks that held the possibility of failure (which ironically only made it easier for me to be mediocre at said tasks). My rationale was that if I didn’t try, then no one would think I couldn’t do it, they would just think I didn’t do it. The fear of asking a dumb question and revealing to my peers that I’m secretly incompetent kept me from asking for help. Even now, I find myself waiting for some inevitable moment where it’s reveled that I’m not PhD material and I somehow snuck into the program (see: imposter syndrome). My entire life was defined by raving academic success, so once I reached a point where I realized I wasn’t perfect, I felt…lost. At the same time, I felt I shouldn’t be tormented by this mindset. I shouldn’t think so little of myself, which made me more aggravated that I couldn’t break out of this mindset and made me think even less of myself. Vicious cycle.

All of this seemed to come to a climax in graduate school. Lots of students, all seemingly geniuses, progressing through their classes and research at a faster pace than I seemed to be. And as one of the only black students, I found myself feeling more pressure to represent for my race. I often ignore the fact that I was accepted into the same program as all of these “geniuses” and that I was coming in with nothing more than a remedial Biology knowledge base that caused me to have to do some serious catching up that a lot of these students didn’t have to do. But, a negative mindset as deeply rooted as this one doesn’t quit so easily.

I see myself making strides sometimes. Feeling confident and willing to take on the challenges ahead of me without any fear or cowardice in my mind. In fact, a friend of mine in my program admitted to having a lot of the same issues with her research that I was having, which made me feel less alone in my struggles and gave me a bit of confidence. But there’s still lots of work to be done and lots of growth that needs to take place before this midset is destroyed.



19 thoughts on “A King’s Defeat

  1. Man this a good post. I have bouts with a fear of failure but I have to maintain to fight through the self-doubt. Look at it this way TDA, you didn’t make it as far as you did being unskilled did you? It will take a while but you can change your mindset.

    • I keep reminding myself that I obviously have the intelligence, skills, whatever to make it and do this PhD thing. I know no one has gone through the PhD program without struggles. I know all of those, but it’s believing it when I need it the most that turns out being difficult. But this post definitely helped me face this problem instead of running away from it like I usually do. Small victories.

  2. If you never learn another thing in school, if you never earn another degree, if you never walk across another stage – you’re already more than enough.
    You’re already loved.
    You’re already crazy smart.
    You’re already worthy.
    You’re already accomplished.
    You’re already and have always been His son.

    You’re blessed, anointed – and nothing you do can change that. It’s great that you want more, it’s great that you have lofty goals for yourself – but remember that they are your own benchmarks. Those that know you, they already love you B. If you drop out of school tomorrow – that won’t change. There may be disappointment, confusion, surely lots of questions – but in the end, they love Berook; not the doctor, not the degrees, not the test scores. But the humor, the son, the compassion, the singer, the big brother, the intelligence, the Christian, the romantic, the family man.

    Yes, you are a very learned man, and that’s a wonderful and attractive thing about you – but homie, #YouAreNotYourDegrees, you’re so much more. And you’re going to be ok, and you’ll always have love and acceptance – so let those around you in. Let them help, share with them all that you are. Both sides will benefit. I’ve only gotten a glimpse and I can tell you, I’m better for it. *hugs*

  3. I’d comment, but.. um. Star stole mine.
    so i’ll just drop a +1 and give you big hugs.

    ps: everyone has been there, but we’re so bad at talking about it. this putting on airs for parents, friends, the world is exhausting and detrimental to our emotional health!

  4. wow dude. i could have written this post–word for word. well, except for the cab-driving dad part. and soccer and karate. and queen instead of king and… well you get my point lol.

    you already know my view on this, because im in the exact same place. but its good to know we are not alone in our struggles and that we lean on One much greater than us to get through it. and we will get through it, and all the struggles that come with it.

    great post *hug*

  5. great post man. very honest, very forthcoming.

    i think in a lot of ways we’re alike. i also grew up with parents who struggled to make ends meet in order to provide for their children and they stressed the importance of education to us. i breezed all the way through high school. college i still maintained my 3.3 average to keep my scholarship but i didn’t try too hard in most subjects. that all changed when i got to grad school. i joke that grad school’s purpose is for people to realize just how smart they aren’t.

    i remember i breezed through biochem like it was nothing. it was something i was familiar and comfortable with. i thought this grad school thing ain’t so bad. then came micro. i struggled. i studied and i got a C. i was devastated. i felt like a complete failure. after my first two years my grades really weren’t on par with my classmates and i felt bad. a friend who went to undergrad with me and was close to defending let me know that in grad school classes and grades really mean nothing. you can get straight As but still be in school for 8-9 years because of research. we’re in on of those fields were grade point average doesn’t necessarily correlate to the success you have as a student.

    trust me. it gets a lot better.

    • “i struggled. i studied and i got a C. i was devastated.”

      This was me my second semester in grad school. Took a neuroscience course & studied my ass off, but I always felt lost. Got that C and felt like I was nothing. But you’re right, the grades don’t matter that much. The research is what it’s all about. I’m kinda in that research slump right now. Things are moving slow, so I’m trying not to get down about that. I keep telling myself it gets better. Just waiting for that better to show up.

  6. Wow, I love this. I love your honesty as always, Berook. But not you… never you. 😉

    Seriously, doe, I’m impressed with your ability to step back and assess the seemingly small details in your life that are pretty common in life (even if you change the specific situation, i.e. changing graduate school with getting a new job…) and bring it home in a way that everyone can relate to.

    I definitely believe the experiences you’ve had, has shaped the way you view things… particularly YOURSELF. There will always be a “nature vs. nurture” argument, but we can never deny that nurture has a significant impact in our lives.

    We’re rootin’ for ya! 🙂

    • Let me know when you start loving me, so that I’ll know the moment my life needs to end 🙂

      Yeah, my experiences definitely had a huge impact on how I view myself and the expectations I have for myself. But now I have to modify those views that I established so long ago. It’ll be hard, but not impossible. Not so long as I keep facing my issues and not putting them to side.

  7. I said I was excited to see the rest of your posts for this week and I wasn’t disappointed. You are incredibly brave to put this out for the world to see. I’ve only gotten as far as writing these things in my journal, lol.

    “All of this seemed to come to a climax in graduate school. Lots of students, all seemingly geniuses, progressing through their classes and research at a faster pace than I seemed to be.” <= This was me when I hit high school. I went to a magnet school, which is just fancy talk for a school of high achievers. I was so used to things coming easily, that when they didn't, I basically shut down. It took a long time for me to finally learn to study and to stop being so proud. I'm thankful that I finally made it though.

    Like an above poster said, the pressure is good, but its internal. The people in your life who love you (Sans Cheekie.. Like did you like threaten her Disney collection or something? She has you on her list, lol) love you for who you are. All of you, not just the PhD part. 🙂 Wishing you continual success in your journey, and by God's grace I'll be joining you all in school in August. (I figure call things that be not as though they are works with written words too?)

    Keep up the excellent work, and I look forward to more posts. 🙂

  8. Wow! I thought I was the only one with this struggle. I feel the same way everyday in my PhD program at Vanderbilt (Human Genetics). Over the years I have accepted myself as being a hard worker and I pride myself on that. I actually feel that I have overcome more than my Caucasian counterparts and I find it even more of an accomplishment that I have made it through the program despite my ‘disadvantaged’ background. I ask everyday how did I ever make it this far and now that I am writing my thesis, I realized that I did it all by faith! Thanks so much for posting this.

  9. *sigh* again. I was the smart kid in my family. Nikki ALWAYS got straight As. Got into my only choice college and did well. Then I got sick and had to eat a large chunk of humble pie. Got back on my feet, shakily, then got pregnant. It feels like, mentally, I have never gotten my feet back under me, and that I am waiting for other people (whom I know don’t even matter) to see the fraud that I sometimes see myself as.

    ” What actually happened is I developed a fear of failure and a reluctance to ask for help. Procrastination became one of my favorite techniques to avoid situations and tasks that held the possibility of failure (which ironically only made it easier for me to be mediocre at said tasks). My rationale was that if I didn’t try, then no one would think I couldn’t do it, they would just think I didn’t do it.”

    A variation of this plays in my head when I want to do something to move forward. How do I move past this? How do I shut this up? How do I erase it from my mental tape? Can anyone give me any advice?

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