"Try-hard, workaholic, control freak"

My mom was head mother of the PTA, which meant she planned all of our classroom parties in elementary school. At the 2nd grade Christmas party, I remember like yesterday the peanut butter and jelly reindeer sandwiches that were cut like triangles with half pretzels stuck in the sides like antlers and little red m&m’s on the noses and blue or green or brown ones on the eyes. We had green squiggly straws to slurp our red Kool-aid from the festive red cups printed with a snowflake pattern to match the plates. We played “reindeer games” that kept our easily amused second grade hearts laughing for days. We wrapped each other up in wrapping paper, went caroling door to door at other classrooms, and my personal favorite the jingle jam where we tied an empty Kleenex box that we filled with jingle bells around our waist and tried to shake them out without using our hands.

That day brought me, as well as the rest of my second grade class so much joy and I guarantee I’m not the only one that still remembers how much fun we had. However, after that day, my mom became known among the network of moms in my small town as a “try-hard.” The other moms rolled their eyes and said she “always over did it.”

They asked why she spent so much time working on this Christmas party… No, my mom was not hired as a professional party planner for the 2nd grade class so why did she work so hard on it? Before Pinterest, coming up with ideas like that were hard y’all! She did her job as head PTA mother. My mom gave her daughter’s 2nd grade class the best Christmas party our elementary school had ever seen. She did her job well.

Obviously, you can see how this is a big problem… Why do we, as a society, tear down our high achievers? Why do we laugh off our hard workers? Why do we all too often mislabel them as “overly Type-A,” “teacher’s pets” “brown-nosers,” “control freaks” “goody-two-shoes” “over achievers” and “work-a-holics?

Well, I think Nick Saban, a semi popular college football coach for the University of Alabama answered this question best, “Mediocre people don’t like high achievers.”

Whether you already consider yourself a high achiever or not, I will encourage you to stay open-minded when trying to explain the success of other high achievers by labeling them improperly. I will beg you not to sink to blaming their investment in their work on a personality flaw or addiction, or their victories on “not having a life.” And finally, I will challenge you to accept my solution to this problem and not be afraid of “work” in any of its forms and devoting yourself to what you do fully.

First, to clarify what I mean by work in this particular setting… I don’t just mean just a job you can get paid for or training for a job you can get paid for academically. In an online article by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, they suggest that “work” can not only refer to a set of tasks providing the financial security necessary to buy food and other resources needed for material well-being, but work can also refer to tasks of service, self and community improvement, maintaining familial and romantic relationships, and other internal and external pursuits. For example, being a girlfriend is work, running at the gym is work, maintaining your relationship with your mom while you’re away at school is work, cleaning your apartment with your roommates is work and so on. This definition of work, I encourage you to think about as we progress.

Next, to define workaholic – “Work-a-holic” was a term created by Wayne E. Oates in 1971. Oates said in his book, Confessions of a Workaholic that workaholism is the compulsion or the uncontrollable need to work incessantly. He goes on to say that for workaholics, the need to work is so exaggerated that it endangers their health, reduces their happiness, and deteriorates their interpersonal relations and social functioning. But, does this unhealthy addiction explain the success of all workers?

Now, moving on, to directly contrast this, and answer that question – an academic journal’s account of a qualitative interview study by Marilyn Machlowitz revealed that some of those labeled as “workaholics” were both satisfied and productive, finding joy in their work and fueling their creativity. This actually improved their mental and physical health. Their gratification came from their passionate involvement in work and resulting self or societal improvements so they became relabeled as “hyper-performers.”

But, what I’m here to talk to you about today is not as black and white as just differentiating between two terms and deciding what cases it’s okay to say someone’s addicted to work. This is an honors class. We’re better than that. I want to dig deeper into the root of this problem.

In a recent online discussion board for postgraduates, one user noted that he was very intimidated by high achievers, by someone who was perhaps pursuing a PhD while also making outstanding contributions to the community and asked if anyone else felt like this. I then read about a million responses.

We have a society that looks for reasons to explain success other than hard work, determination and investment.

The amount of responses was overwhelming, but one response stood out in particular to me because of its positive nature. She said “It is important not to assume that people who have achievements or invest themselves into work are unhealthily driven, unfairly privileged, or unhappy. There is something healthy and liberating about accepting yourself as being quite good enough and still being able to admire those people who can and do achieve a heck of a lot more. We all have a right to walk this earth, a right to contribute and a place to direct our abilities.”

Ultimately, My goal today is to provide you with a solution to this backward society we live in. My goal is for us to fully allow ourselves to celebrate the high achievement around us and fully celebrate high achievement within ourselves.

That solution is first being assured that loving doing your job and loving doing it well is not a selfish endeavor. You are not out for self-gratification or glory. It is a life of service to yourself, to those around you, to your community, to your country and to the future. It’s putting your whole heart into every job you do because you love those around you so much that you would never provide them less than the best work you have to offer.

That solution is also for you to find confident, reassuring love in your work that will keep you unafraid of achieving and unable to envy the pursuits of others around you. That solution is never allowing yourself to cut corners or settle for mediocrity. That solution is taking pride in all you do by investing your heart into it.

When I work, whether it’s for a school class, or for my dance students, or for my plants on the windowsill, or for my community in a service project, or for my family trying to bake cookies over the holidays, it feels like diet coke bubbles fizzing up my throat – like sunshine coming out of my fingers.

Finally, I want to encourage you not to be afraid to love your work like that, no matter what it is. Whether you’re baking cookies for the PTA, crunching numbers at a desk from 9-5, shaping the young minds of tomorrow, playing catch with your son, or getting coffee at a big shot PR agency, I want you to be excited to strive to be the best cookie baker, number cruncher, mind shaper, coffee getter that this world has ever seen.

I challenge you to accept this solution so that one day, when a group of 2nd graders have the time of their life at their Christmas party, it wasn’t all thanks to a try-hard. It was all thanks to the best mom in the world, a hard worker, determined to serve in every way she could.