Becoming my best self

How being intrinsically motivated led me to find my strengths

Something bizarre happened to me the other day: I received personalized career advice from not one, but two of my instructors. For the first time in my four years of studying here, I felt like my strengths had been wholly and thoughtfully validated.

Perhaps this doesn’t sound so extraordinary to the typical ultra-dynamic, high-achieving University student, but I think it’s safe to say that a majority of us, myself included, are not that student. Therefore, hearing these constructive evaluations prompted me to realize I am no longer in the phase of perpetually feeling inadequate in my abilities. Though my earlier college years tried to convince me I would never amount to anything, my later years proved otherwise.

Back in high school, my biggest claim to fame was being a “good student.” Disruptive adolescent tendencies evaded me. Schoolwork was something I pushed through with ease. Apparently, through the lens of those around me, I had a laudable, rare aptitude for following the rules and doing exactly as I was told. It’s clear now that my teachers prized me solely for existing, and I had never once questioned it.

As expected from the mass exodus of all the “good students” from every corner of the state of Virginia to Charlottesville, my ego was thoroughly shattered once I came to college. I learned early on that simply going through the motions wouldn’t cut it anymore. Professors weren’t going to automatically think any more highly of me than anyone else. I needed to find something I could do well, but I had spent my youth convinced my only talent was perfecting my winning streak on the honor roll.

Many of my personal interests went unpursued in high school because I knew I would never be the best at them. Everyone was confined to their own box, and trying to step out of yours would make you look like a cheap imitation of someone else’s. I liked singing with my guitar, but there were so many other people who performed better than I ever could. I wanted to join the track team, but I was certainly not athletic enough to win any races. I was drawn to the idea of being a writer, but I knew my thoughts would never be as soulful as the spoken-word savants who seemed to exhale lines of poetry.

In a way, my transition into college was like high school intensified hundredfold; if I thought I was unskilled back then, I had been rendered completely useless now. My supposed superior intelligence, the only thing that had kept me going, had now been snatched right out of my hands. But over time, this reality check turned out to be more constructive than morally damaging.

I was forced to fully acknowledge that I would probably never be the best at anything at the University. Anything I could do, another U.Va. student could undoubtedly do better. But as a result of this acceptance, I stopped caring about doing things for the sake of earning an extrinsic reward — namely, the reverence of other people. Instead, I started doing things for the undisrupted pleasure of just doing them.

I shamelessly belted out karaoke renditions of my favorite songs from the walls of my bedroom. I learned how to swim and lift weights for the pure satisfaction of feeling stronger. I spent years scribbling out incoherent streams of words into piles of journal pages. I read interesting books, I took classes that challenged my way of thinking and I allowed myself to interact with people who added completely different perspectives to the way I perceive the world.

By allowing myself to stretch past my preconceived limitations, I was able to grow in ways I couldn’t have envisioned otherwise. And before I knew it, others began to notice my potential as well. Perhaps I’ll never know what it’s like to be widely known across Grounds for my accomplishments or contributions to the University, but at least I can applaud myself for harnessing the best in me.

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