Feature image from www.rachaelcharles.com.
My mom’s words:
“Make sure you’re working hard; your boss will notice your diligence. If you have to stay late, then you should stay late to do whatever you need to do.”
These were the sentences my mother chanted at the beginning of this summer, when I first started my internship working as a research lab assistant. After I reported what I had done each day and how my work was coming along, my mom never ceased to prompt me with a reminder to work hard.
Although she also encouraged me once in a while (“Sounds like your internship is going great so far! Keep up the good work!”), urging me to prove myself was always the one constant in our conversations. To assure me that her advice was actually based on tried and true observations rather than arbitrary opinions, my mom would tell me about her experience working in a lab and how she often saw undergraduate students as the first to arrive each morning and last to leave each afternoon from work.
Given what I knew about my mom’s work experience, I made sure to do everything that I could to prove how hard I was working. I was often the first to show up, greeted by a row of darkened lab benches and closed doors, and occasionally the last to leave, trailing the other interns as they left to catch their trains and buses to go home.
If I finished my work early, I busied myself by tidying up the bench area or asking others in the lab if they needed help with experiments or errands. I tried to do as much as I could, leaving as little downtime as possible so I didn’t look like I was slacking.
As the weeks progressed, even though I became somewhat annoyed with my mom’s words, I listened to her because I assumed she knew what she was talking about. Following my parents’ advice was far from a natural tendency for me (residuals left from adolescent rebellion I suppose), but when it came to the professional world, I trusted that my parents knew what was best for me.
And for a while, it certainly seemed like my mom’s advice was paying off. My mentor complimented me regularly (“Good work today! We’ve been able to get lots done, thanks to you!”), which indicated to me that my diligence was being recognized. I felt like I was leaving a good impression and well on the way towards amassing data that would become the well-earned fruits of my summer’s labor.
Work was going smoothly, perhaps a bit too smoothly, which is why I shouldn’t have been all that surprised when things took an unexpected turn one Thursday afternoon. My mentor left early, leaving me with several tasks to accomplish. I was by no means required to finish all the tasks that day, but wanting to prove myself, I decided to stay extra late at work to finish everything.
While working, I came across something I was unfamiliar with, and as I often did, I texted my mentor a question to clarify before moving on. When I finally finished, it was about an hour and a half after the last person had left work. After turning off the lights and shutting the lab’s door, I left feeling satisfied and eager to see what my mentor would say the next day.
My mentor’s words:
When I met up with my mentor the next morning, the first words out of her mouth came as a bit of a shock. “Before we take a look at your results from yesterday, I just want to say this. June, don’t ever stay that late again, because there’s no reason to be overworking yourself, seeing as you’re already working hard as it is. Plus if you can’t finish something the day of, we can always do it the next day.”
I was momentarily confused as to how my mentor knew I had stayed late, until I remembered the text I had sent her the previous afternoon (or more accurately, evening, given how late I had stayed). She added that it’s risky to have a student in the lab alone, but I could tell the main point she was trying to drive home was that although hard work is appreciated, it’s also important to know where to draw the line. I was somewhat crestfallen that she scolded me after I had put in all the extra work, but I was also strangely relieved.
Upon some thought, I realized that my mentor’s cautionary words were the long awaited relief I needed to ease the discomfort that had been growing over the past few weeks. While I had followed my mom’s advice about working hard all this time, a part of me never felt quite right doing it.
I felt like I was only doing something because someone else told me what to do based on what they thought was right, rather than following my own instincts and doing what I felt was right.
I couldn’t put my finger on it before, but I could now see that sometimes I arrived early or took on extra tasks at work out of defiance. It was if by doing more than what I was asked to do, I was proving to everyone that I could work as hard, if not harder, than what my mom had implied, that her advice was not only being followed, but was rendered unnecessary.
My own words:
It took the talk with my mentor for me to realize that although my mom had good intentions and was trying to give me advice based on what she knew, it didn’t necessarily mean that it applied to me, or should be advice I needed to follow blindly.
My internship was my own experience, and as such, it should have ultimately been up to me to figure out what exactly I needed to do to excel in my surroundings. Always having my mom’s voice in the back of my head made me feel less autonomous and added stress I certainly could have done without.
I’ve gained enough perspective since then to ease up on my work schedule occasionally. It doesn’t mean I now give myself permission to slack off, but I’m more aware of how much work I’ve done and know when I should call it a day instead of plowing ahead and trying to start the next thing prematurely.
As a summer job, my tasks were hardly laden with the extreme pressures that college applications come with. During application season, when parents and other adults unintentionally say things that add pressure to you during an already stressful time, it can make the whole process almost unbearable.
I’m sure we’ve all had that thoughtful friend ask how applications are coming along, or a well-meaning counselor ask “are you sure the topic you chose for your essay is unique/quirky/strong enough,” or even a parent that blurts out an offhand comment putting you down indirectly. Each of these instances taken by itself is not necessarily a big deal, but added up can really begin to wear you down.
Ultimately, regardless of what you hear coming from others, know that you’ve already worked extremely hard to be where you are right now. As my mentor taught me, sometimes you need to cut yourself some slack and realize that what you’re currently doing is enough, and you don’t always have to go the extra three steps to achieve what you want.
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