It’s ok to not be smart in the ways you thought you should

In college, I was an Art History major and loved it so much that I decided to get a Ph.D. I applied to Art History doctoral programs and got in and was VERY excited.

I started my doctoral program when I was 24 and already living in Manhattan, and it felt like a fantasy come true: living in the best city in the world and living a romantic academic life. So many of my career aspirations were hinging on this Ph.D., and quite frankly, so much of my self-identity and self-esteem was hinging and had ALWAYS hinged on being uber smart, a really, really good student, top of the class, and all-around successful at everything I tried.

Within the first two months of graduate school, it was clear to me that I was struggling.

Struggling academically for the first time in my entire life. I had to read texts 3 and 4 times over just to understand the gist of what was being communicated (I was studying feminist art history, which meant reading lots of complicated things, including French & German source texts). I lost focus easily (something very new for me). My professors didn’t love the papers I wrote, even though I’d spend countless hours trying to craft smart ideas and analyses.

I was falling behind on the work and generally didn’t enjoy (read: hated) doing the work. It didn’t excite me at all; that passion I had always felt for art history simply wasn’t there, and I couldn’t even tell if it was because I wasn’t interested or because it was just too hard.

I gave it my all for one more semester, and nothing changed. I didn’t enjoy the work, and I was not feeling good about myself at all.

I contemplated “trying harder”…so that I could show myself and everyone around me that I could make it happen. But something inside of me knew it wasn’t right for me to continue. I might be able to trudge through it and “prove” myself, but I knew I’d be miserable.

I had to accept that I wasn’t really meant to be an academic.

And along with that, I had to open the door to believing that I was still a valuable human being and that I could still be fulfilled and successful in life, even if I wasn’t an academic or at the top of the class…or even a drop out of a doctoral program.

Not an easy feat for someone who didn’t really value herself yet in any other way.

Not an easy feat for someone who was raised to compare herself to others and always be in fierce competition as a means for survival.

Not an easy feat for someone living in a society that rewards achievement and looks down upon perceived failure.

But despite all of this, I put my big girl panties on, and I accepted what was: 

I leaned and lived into the Truth that some things just simply don’t work out, that sometimes a fantasy isn’t aligned, and that I’m not always going to be the smartest person in the room (or half as smart as I thought I was), that just because I’m not cut out for academia (or what I thought was the “ultimate”) doesn’t mean I’m not extraordinary or valuable or meant for great things.

I didn’t go back to the doctoral program that following Autumn, and instead enrolled in a Master’s program in Art History (which I thrived in!) and miraculously got a job as an assistant curator in a prestigious NYC museum. It was SUCH a better, happier, more joyful, more fruitful fit for me all around. I was of way bigger value to the world as a curator interpreting art for the public, helping “non-academic” folks appreciate art, learn from it, and see a new perspective on the world through it… then I would have been writing essays and books that only other art history smartie-pants folks would have ever seen or understood.

And then, of course, after a few years, even though I was happy and satisfied as a curator,  I realized that even this wasn’t the best fit as my talents and passions were evolving, and I left the art world altogether to become a coach and ritualist…and now it is 20 years later, and I’ve never looked back! (& YES, being an entrepreneur has been hard at times and has stretched me a LOT….but it’s a different kind of stretching than that grueling year in the doctoral program).

For ourselves – and for our clients – it’s so vital that we hold space to see which goals are actually aligned…and which are not. To understand if we are committed to a goal because it is truly a desire and what is right for us…or because we are scared of what it means if we leave the goal behind. There are many moments where the exact right thing to do is endure, be resilient, and stick it out. And there are also moments where the exact right thing to do is let go and release, trusting that something even better is on its way.

It is OK to change your mind & your dreams.

It is OK to not be smart in the ways you thought you needed to be.

It is OK to let go of something even when your ego has been clinging to it.

It can all lead to so much more than you ever imagined.

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