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How Academic Burnout Taught Me to Live

Updated: Dec 3, 2022

Beneath the stacks of books lined up in the living room, two chunky photo albums lay in dust at the bottom shelf --- their pages delicate yet adorned with scraps and photos that captured memories of a teen's academic and extracurricular achievements. If you would've flipped through those pages, you might think that, as often the past lays its foundation to shaping a person's future, this gifted kid would've been more than just the laid-back person she grew up to be.

Looking back, every time I was confronted with the most cliché question asked by teachers and adults, "What do you want to be when you grow up?", I would often reply with an answer that was manufactured since I was 6, "A doctor." No one was surprised by it; in fact, among the trinity-of-notable-professions™ recognized in an Asian household, being a doctor is a pursuit often taken by the academically privileged and gifted. A career in engineering, law, and medicine remained an unspoken and notarized deal between a visionary mother and her academically gifted child; there was no reason to hold a hefty discussion over career choices when a future has been set and planned since then.

Math competitions, spelling bees, stage performances, leadership trainings, research symposiums --- I've had them all, and for every competition and guild I was thrusted into, I came out victorious. As a child who has only ever known to win, there was no room for failure in my vocubulary; no vacancy for loss. Medals, certificates, and trophies were the glorified objects that I couldn't afford to lose. They symbolized power, superiority, and stability to a thirteen-year-old overachiever, and for years I've collected and displayed them like rare, art museum pieces --- until one day when I made a life-changing, rebellious decision to stop doing so.

Rebel --- I don't think any word could paint teenagehood better than this. If my teenage phase was adapted into a coming-of-age film, mine wouldn't include the typical late night parties, underage drinking, first kisses and relationships that you'd often see in these films. They weren't exactly present in my teenagehood, but instead, my version of rebelliousness was going against the vision that I have been molded and set up into; deconstructing the perfect version of myself to build up one who isn't concious with grades, competitions, and expectations. In other words, I rebelled against the idealized version that everyone had on me.

It was tough breaking from the mold, and even more challenging was putting myself together in a way that had my self choices upfront and center to show that I was manning the ship that was once captained by ideals and numbers. Stepping away from the academic and extracurricular spotlight in my third year of college was a breath of fresh air, and at the same time, it was a very foreign feeling for me. For the first time, it felt like I've lifted a heavy weight that I never knew was there from the beginning. It felt good to stay away from glory; to live a normal, student life without the constant pressure that burned me throughout those years of academic pursuit and perfectionism.

The academic break gave me room for self-discovery; the contemplation of who I was if stripped from honors and awards. It was from there, when I realized, that I never wanted to become a doctor; that it was all just born out of the constant pressure that resulted from peoples' expectations. It was through this break when I discovered that my passion was directed more towards research and writing instead of notably saving peoples' lives. It also made me realize how lonely and disconnected I was from people in general. Until now, I struggle to connect, express, and allow myself to become vulnerable to anyone, for I was raised in a world where perfectionism is the norm; where most of my time was spent manufacturing myself with success instead of growing up at my own pace and experiencing all the teen drama. Nonetheless, despite my personal struggles, I have maintained to keep it cool on the surface, with hope that, one day, I will learn how.

I guess, in all those years of stepping away from the limelight, I can say that I have learned to live and pursue my goals at my own pace without pressure, while simultaneously making room for personal growth. Things have been so much better than what they once were, and instead of living a bitter and frustrated life that could've resulted from the burn-out, I look back at those photographs as a reminder that I can still be as ambitious as thirteen-year-old me, but this time, as someone who gets to hold the reins. If there's anything good that came out from it, it's the people who constantly anchor me when the waves get rough.

So yeah, there it is. Me, an emotional recluse, being honest and vulnerable to everyone reading this. I hope you'll get through whatever shit you're in now. Life has its way of putting you back up in the most unexpected ways.


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