Burnout, Part 1

I’ve mentioned before that I’m something of a recovering perfectionist. I’ve also referred to myself as an “underachieving overachiever.” What do I mean by that? Well, I’m in the habit of knowing I could put more effort into things, but for some reason don’t. But I still feel guilty about it.

What happened? Well, long story short, I burned out in college.

Up through high school, I was a very dedicated and motivated student. I loved learning, even didn’t mind doing homework too much. I was the kind of kid who would read my textbooks for fun. From what I can recall now, I regularly leaped at the chance to do extra work. I did science experiments at the kitchen table. I couldn’t get enough of drafting in AutoCAD. I was put in Honors-level classes whenever possible. In middle school, I actually went to the high school down the hill for some classes. I was a good student, is what I’m saying.

But it wasn’t all roses and butterflies and 4.0 GPAs as far as the I could see. My penchant for good grades probably contributing to my perfectionism. In fact, I still remember freaking out in elementary school because I got a less-than-perfect grade on something. I got pretty bad test anxiety, especially about timed tests. I never was able to memorize the Twelve Times Table. I could be forgetful; if I didn’t write down an assignment I tended to forget it, which also probably stressed me out a bit.

Then in college, something changed.

I ended up graduating high school a year early. I went off to college at seventeen, commuting from my parents’ house every day. I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to be an astrobiologist, searching for extraterrestrial life in the stars above. Over long summer between high school and college I had the chance to visit the University of Washington (Seattle) and tour the astrobiology program there. It was a graduate program, and I figured I’d head there after my undergraduate work was finished. In order to prepare, I would dual-major in biology and physics. I was excited. I was ready. Everything would go according to plan.

Then I took nineteen credits my first trimester.

The typical maximum load for undergraduates allowed at my college was eighteen credits. In fact, you had to get special dispensation in the form of an adviser signature to take more. The exception was the first quarter freshman year, because of the required major orientation class. But I figured that hey, I was a good student. I could handle this!

Looking back, two hard science majors was a bit of a doozy. Couple that with the culture shock between high school and college, and you can probably see where this is going. I was used to school being easy, so I was wholly unprepared for the work load I found myself under. I don’t even remember specifics, like if there was a particular class that drove me over the edge. I just remember wandering through the quarter in a vague haze of panic, as I attempted to do all the assignments. Read all the books. Go to all the classes. Succeed at all the things.

Unsurprisingly, something snapped.

Looking back, I can’t tell you what it was that caused it, the apocryphal straw that broke this camel’s back. All I know is that something changed, and suddenly school wasn’t fun any more. School became work. School became a chore. School became a thing to be tolerated, to be wandered through, getting from Point A to Point B as painlessly as possible.

And I don’t think I’ve ever fully recovered.