As I was relearning how to write a proper paragraph for the sixth time this year and thousandth time in my academic career, I came across a tiny little sound file. It’s just four minutes and fifty-one seconds long, and it doesn’t say anything about graduate school that I haven’t heard before. I listened anyway. It’s the voice of a woman named Theresa Bell, saying:

“Shush any perfectionist tendencies that tell you [that] you need to excel at being a graduate student immediately. If you are able to do that, there wouldn’t be any learning involved for you, and consequently, the process of earning the degree wouldn’t be meaningful.”

We’ve heard that message before, but there was something in the diction that stuck. She’s right, this process is meant to be meaningful and challenge us. If we don’t take risks, try to aim at things beyond our current abilities, and feel pressured to do more, the process means less. Even though this is a reality we know about, and we’re told going into the program, we need to hear it again at the right time.

Like Thomas King expresses in The Truth About Stories, “each time someone tells the story, it changes.” Over the course of our degrees, we hear many versions of the same stories. They’re comforting, familiar in their repetition, and sometimes aggravating. There’s the emotional “I emailed my advisor and haven’t heard back from them in five days, is my paper awful?” story of the stressed student checking their email ten times an hour. There’s usually a sympathetic audience for that one among our peers. That story has a lesson in it, a little like a fable: it’s “just go talk to them.” We all learned that story pretty early on in the semester. Like faithful characters, however, we forget the lesson every time when we’re acting it out ourselves. Thankfully, the fourth wall is permanently broken, and our friendly audience gives us a gentle reminder; just go talk to them.

Then there’s the story of forgotten readings. I’d say this one belongs in the horror genre. Even the most organized student, with their novel of an agenda, sometimes has their heart stop in terror when they realize, moments before class that they somehow forgot to read an entire book. I forgot to read an entire book this semester. It happened.

There’s another story, too. We know that one well. It’s the one student who’s quietly walking along while their peers start to run; the one whose grades are not quite as high as the class average. The one who does the readings, highlights the right sentences, and goes to all their classes but just doesn’t say the right things. What’s up with that student? Why aren’t they presenting at conferences, or getting their papers turned into publications?

Maybe they’re not doing enough secondary reading.

Maybe they’re just not as smart as their peers.

Maybe they need to think about what they’re doing here.

Does this sound familiar? It should. It’s part of the story.

Each time it happens, it’s the same narrative, but the telling changes. Some people call it self-doubt, Imposter Syndrome, or #Gradschoolitis, but all of us have our story. For me, it came this semester. I know that graduate school is supposed to challenging, like Theresa Bell said, but I wasn’t taking the most important part of that advice: telling myself to relax and not try to be perfect. I was working myself into imposter syndrome. I remember on the very first day of our orientation, there was a presentation on this to the graduate student body. At that time, I scoffed; no way was I going to suffer from Imposter Syndrome! I’d heard the story, so I knew how someone went down that path, and I was certain I could avoid it. I should have known better. Now, this story has to have an ending, and it can go one of two ways.

I realized I was rushing through my readings because I had so many. I realized I was looking at books like they were all part of a horror story, and that I wasn’t feeling the joy in learning. I realized I was measuring myself against my peers, who were taking one or two classes while I was doing three and a graduate assistantship. I realized that I should relax. So I went to talk to the graduate advisor.

That was all I needed to do. That’s it! My story of my brush with imposter syndrome has an easy, happy ending. I adjusted my course load so I could relax and take my time with the readings and my writing. I talked to my peers and professors about something that’s very easy to lose sight of – the joy of what we do. I took a break, and went to the library to find a book to read for fun. To remind myself that I love stories. I had to remember that my program is about pursuing my studies for me, not in comparison to my peers, some of whom are in their PhD programs, and some who are working on their second Master’s degree. For me, however strange it may seem (and if you’re a potential graduate student, this may not seem strange at all) it’s a challenge to slow down. It’s a risk to not be perfect all the time. It’s a risk to ask for help. It’s even a little risky to view your work as fun! But just like Bell said in that sound clip, you’re supposed to be challenged. That’s how you know what you’re doing is meaningful.

Until next time…