When I was in seventh grade, we had to write sentences with our spelling words as part of our weekly homework.
I hated it. Not because I can’t spell (I’m not entirely reliant upon spellcheck), or because I don’t enjoy writing (umm, hello? I write a blog), or even on the principle that it was homework (I was nerdy, homework was just part of my life). No, I hated it because it was boring. Even back then, I didn’t want to simply write sentences. I wanted them to mean something.
Luckily, my Reading & Language Arts teacher was awesome (she also recognized a Type-A bookworm when she saw one), and she let me fully geek-out on my homework. Soon, I was writing themed guidebooks on a weekly basis. Just a few pages each, on things like “Blonde Jokes” and “Bad Puns.” But they were funny, and they were memorable, and they quickly became a Friday afternoon tradition, because my fellow classmates actually wanted to hear my guides rather than the standard sentences.
So yeah, I was an embarrassingly enthusiastic overachiever even then, and for some reason my peers tolerated it. I still don’t know how I didn’t wind up a social pariah, except that . . well. . . I didn’t really care if I did, and perhaps that enabled me to march to the beat of my own drum. Regardless, I’m not looking a gift horse in the mouth.
The point of this very long and semi-mortifying story is that one day, the boy sitting next to me finally asked what everyone was thinking: “Jenny, why do you write guides? The sentences would take you ten minutes. These must take hours.” Surprisingly, I’d never actually thought about my motivations before. I wrote guides because . . . I could. They were in my head, and they were so much better than plain, old, boring sentences. I wrote them because I knew that I could, and because I knew that they would be better than the alternative. I wrote them because once I realized that there was a more exciting, effective option, I couldn’t bear to go back. So I answered, “Why wouldn’t I?”
It wasn’t until years later when I realized that this quirky little anecdote is pretty much my approach to life in a nutshell. If I can do something better, in a way that’s more beneficial, that has more meaning, is more exciting, or makes more of an impact, why wouldn’t I? How could I stand idly by and do the bare minimum – or worse, nothing at all – if I am capable of so much more?
Admittedly, this sometimes gets me into trouble. I have a terrible tendency to try to solve everyone’s problems, even when they’re not asking for my help, and even when I don’t have the time or skills necessary to actually be helpful. But my own personal pitfalls aside, it has mostly been a good way to live.
It’s also led me to often be accused of “trying too hard,” or being “too intense” or “caring too much about everything.” I recently joked with a friend that if I ever had to write an autobiography, its title would be Misplaced Enthusiasm. Perhaps my younger brother has summed it up the most succinctly, with a roll of his eyes and a well-meaning shrug: “do less.”
But here’s the problem. I’m not designed to do less. When I find myself overwhelmed at work or with personal commitments, I tend to volunteer for even more. Somehow, when I get busy, my default reaction is to get busier. Have a million deadlines this week? Make dinner plans, sign up for that new spin class, agree to serve on the committee I’d been trying to avoid. That’s how I handle “do less.”
But the bigger problem, and the thing that keeps me plowing right along with my metaphorical guides all these years later, is that the world really doesn’t need another person who does less. In fact, if everybody on this planet just did a tiny bit more, imagine the possibilities.
Please don’t misconstrue what I’m saying. It’s all too easy to burn out, especially if you’re not paying attention to just how much you’re taking on. Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt, and can wholeheartedly say that it’s not worth it. Know your limits, and know when “trying too hard” has escalated from an outsider’s inaccurate perception into a personal obsession to outperform at every opportunity. There’s a difference, and it’s foolish to pretend otherwise.
I also want to clarify that I’m not advocating for everyone to adopt my Type-A personality. Lord help us all if that ever happens. The world doesn’t need a bunch of OCD perfectionists, and that’s not at all what I’m encouraging. I’m simply saying to find your talents and use them to make the world a better place. Quit worrying about whether or not people think it’s cool. Don’t listen to those who tell you to “do less” solely because they find your enthusiasm disconcerting.
If you’re passionate about something, go for it . . . even if it’s as odd and insignificant as bucking the system on the seventh-grade spelling words.
*Main image via Playbuzz