I love when my accomplishments make other people happy: like when I did well on the midterm exam I studied hard for last semester and my professor praised my performance, or when one of my friends told me I should ask for a promotion and I received it. These are things I ostensibly did for myself, but I cared more about how the people around me reacted to what I did than about actually doing those things.
I desperately want to be good enough, even though nothing I do ever feels good enough. But when I'm trying as hard as I can, the small moments when other people recognize my effort provide me with just enough joy to keep going. Inversely, I think my worst fear is probably disappointing other people.
In journalism, connecting with your readers and listeners matters. But this can also be a double-edged sword for the people, like me, behind the work. If people don’t like what you’re doing — if you don’t have enough listeners or aren’t meeting a certain benchmark — that can profoundly impact the way you feel about your work.
In podcasting, that’s all the more so. This past year, I let my fear of losing a show take over my life. I erased boundaries between my professional and personal lives. I picked up extra shifts to make the people around me happy. These are people who care about me; if they had known that I cried while offering to cover for them, I know they would have been upset — and rightly so. There was no good reason for me to feel like it was necessary for me to do that. But, I felt like if I worked harder I could make the show better, and then I’d be able to keep working on it.
“Mom, if I take a break, I could lose one of the only things I enjoy doing,” I cried while on the phone. “This is the worst I’ve ever felt.” I was desperate to continue working on the show with the people I loved — all while trying to pass my midterms. Everything was spiraling out of control. I felt like I was failing everyone and everything at the same time.
“Hope,” she said, “It sounds like you love the show more than you love yourself.”
Sure enough, halfway through my semester of overwork and isolation, my friends figured out what was going on and forced me to step back. I found taking better care of myself made the show better.
I’ve come to realize that for me, there’s an element of shame that acts as a barrier to taking care of myself. I’ve internalized the idea that I don’t deserve rest — that if I’m not constantly working, I’m not living up to the expectations other people have of me. But I’m learning that these things are not true: Success is subjective. I don’t want to fail — but I don’t want to succeed if it means destroying my personhood in the process.
Reflecting on this situation from the fall, I think there are a lot of things that should have been handled differently. For starters, I shouldn’t have felt like asking for breathing room would mean risking the end of a project I cared so deeply about. We have to allow for more grace and flexibility in our workspaces — for the simple reason that we are human.
I know that I’m not the only person at Princeton who pushes herself to the brink of success to make other people happy. And I know, on an intellectual level, that I am more than the things that I do. But in a world where what you do and who you are on a piece of paper postgrad seems to supersede everything else, it’s hard to remember this. I’m not done learning this yet, and I’m sure that there will be times this semester when my friends will send me this piece to remind me of my own lessons. I hope that recognizing my own tendencies will be one step towards working in a way that’s more sustainable.
The bottom line is that I really do love my job, but the job and my love for it are more than the stories I get to tell. Mostly, it’s about the people I cover the stories with. I know that the way to make them happiest isn’t to work so hard that I’m causing myself harm. Instead, it’s to take care of myself and to create an environment where they feel cared for so that we can work together.
Hope Perry is the Head Podcast Editor at the ‘Prince’ who has covered USG, University COVID-19 policies, and U.S. politics. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @hopemperry. This piece reflects the author’s views alone.
Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at email@example.com.