Brian Kitano

The Underachiever's Wall

This evening, I watched Frances Ha (2012). It's a film about a not-so-young aspiring dancer who finds herself a witness to her own life, rather than the choreographer of it. It's fitting that the film takes place in New York, a claustrophobic petri dish of rapidly evolving cells who crowd both my physical and mental space. To be a cell in a cramped dish where everyone else around you appears to be moving on with the stages of life, the ones you are supposed to be moving at pace with, is deeply alienating. This seems to be Frances' experience as well.

I'm reminded of a conversation I had with Gray, my roommate, a few nights ago. We made a simple observation: despite all of our peers being well educated, brilliant, and privileged to boot, no one we knew was "really killing it." Friends who had once dreamt so big now seem so tired. What we imagined for our lives, and what our friends imagined for their own lives, has been deferred.

I attribute this to a few things. First is an inculcated philosophy of extraction. Early in our careers, we are just trying to be exposed to new things, and to "learn" as much as possible, to "get the most" out of our new opportunities. This philosophy is extractive: the aim is to gain from your experiences, not necessarily to contribute. However, in most workplaces, managers use performance reviews to evaluate how much we have contributed to the organization, and whether we deserve to continue contributing value. While I believe the solution to feeling more fulfilled is a shift in mindset from extraction to contribution, the structure of performance reviews as determining whether you deserve to continue contributing is antithetical to creating a feeling of contributive empowerment. Instead, it demoralizes: although reviews work well to weed out extractive workers, it also paralyzes insecure contributors. This is exacerbated by workplaces largely lacking in coaching feedback or acknowledgment. [1]

A second cause for not killing it: most of my friends are too smart. When you are too smart, you rarely have to work hard, because you can get by on sheer intellect. This works very well, especially within well defined systems like school, where you're encouraged to work smart and explicitly not hard. However, it uniformly seems like any of my friends who are not on a well-trodden path that are too smart have plateau'd; they have reached the point at which forward progress will only come from hard work.

In seventh grade, my social studies teacher called me and a fellow classmate to the front of the room, and drew two graphs beside each of us. Beside Christine, he drew two increasing parallel lines, and beside me he drew one increasing line, and one flat line. He then labeled the axes: the x-axis was time, and the y-axis was effort.

While we stood beside him, Mr. Sochi then explained to the class: "The increasing line is how hard the work is. Over time, it will get harder. There are two kinds of students: those where when the work gets harder, they work harder" (gesturing to Christine), "and those who don't" (gesturing to me). He traced his finger along the flatline, arriving at the point of intersection with the increasing line. "At some point, Brian is going to hit this point, and that's the point where he will fail."

I don't know if I believe Mr. Sochi knew it would take over a decade for me to reach his intersection. In some ways, I always anticipated that failure would feel like an explosion, but the world really does end with a whimper, and failure most recently has not felt like a presence of something bad, but the absence of something good. What that something good is might be the essential contributive mindset, the relishing of hard work, or simply the confidence to direct myself in the absence of structure.

In the last moments of the film, Frances has a chance encounter with her (conventionally) far more successful friend Sophie, one who she was told by her peers was once "the same person as her, with different hair." That evening, Sophie reveals to Frances that although she is engaged, living abroad in Tokyo, and seems to have it all together, she is actually deeply unhappy. She misses New York, her relationship with Patch is tumultuous, and she miscarried (all fundamentally alienating experiences).

Frances emerges from this night newly invigorated, and abruptly retakes the reigns of her life. Maybe it's because from that night, she identifies that comparing herself to others (an evaluative process imposed on us by teachers, and later managers) is actually quite divorced from the reality that we are all on our own journey, and we are the sole driver. Maybe it's because she awakens to the simple truth that she is the only one who can change her own life, that there are no shortcuts around that, that we cannot remain in the backseat, and that you have to choose hard work to make your dreams a reality. Maybe it's because she realizes that life is a struggle for everyone, regardless of whether you choose to work hard or not, no matter how glitzy it looks from the outside.

Ultimately, while we are all living together, we as individuals choose if and when to start leading our lives. And whether we choose to lead our lives or remain witnesses to them, we make the decision alone. Once we identify this solitude, the choice to lead becomes inescapable, the abstention becomes intolerable, and the taste for a life of contributive effort becomes insatiable. Let us inevitably, individually lead a life fulfilled, a life filled full.


[1] Looking back now though, I realize that I needed to focus on the work.