A few weeks ago, Tim and I went downtown for drinks late after dinner one night. I was feeling beyond discouraged about my first year exam and complained that the copious amounts of feedback I’d been getting on the last two drafts had been overwhelmingly negative…as in, hardly any positive comments at all. There I was, staring down a third draft that was shaping up to be a total rewrite (again), and the highest praise I was getting was “This is a good start.” (Good start? I just re-wrote a 45 page paper! Aren’t we past the starting line yet?)
Over a fizzy, Chartreuse-based cocktail, I unloaded my frustration on Tim. “How do they expect me to keep going when everything I do gets pulled to pieces?” I complained. “I know I’m not the best writer in the world, but I’m not that bad. I have no idea what I’m doing well, but I sure know everything I’m doing poorly.”
He listened sympathetically, commiserated with me, but also gently pointed out, “Michigan is a tough school. You knew going in that this process wasn’t going to be easy.”
Suddenly, I remembered the scene from The Devil Wears Prada where Andy complains to Nigel about how Miranda is treating her and Nigel gives her a wake-up call. When we got home that night, I re-watched the clip (watch it here if you’ve never seen it or don’t remember it; the whole film is outstanding, and this scene is a particularly compelling moment of self-revelation for the protagonist). Let me tell you, it resonated.
I was Andy: “If I do something right, it’s unacknowledged. But if I do something wrong? They are VICIOUS! I would just like a little credit for the fact that I am killing myself trying!”
I wasn’t intentionally half-hearted about the process of writing my first year exam, but I was overconfident. I did a lot of work, spending many hours reading, taking notes, outlining, drafting, revising, and editing. I plodded through every step of the writing process, checked every box. When I got a large volume of negative feedback on the first draft, I went through the same steps again and produced a wholly re-written draft that was equally excoriated by my three faculty readers. No pats on the back, no acknowledgement of my hours toiling in the library, no credit for the fact that I was killing myself trying.
Nigel’s reply to Andy gave me the wake-up call I needed. “Oh, please. You are not trying. You…are whining.”
I wasn’t really trying. I was whining. The truth was, I was capable of writing much better stuff. They knew it, and they were calling my BS, and I was pouting and sulking in response.
“You have no idea the legends that have walked these halls!” exclaims an exasperated Nigel. Legends have walked my halls too. John Dewey. Robert Frost. Gerald Ford. William Mayo. Arthur Miller.
“I could get another girl to take your place in five minutes. One who really wants it.” I had forgotten what a privilege it is to be here, how many people applied for the slot I accepted, how replaceable and forgettable I was making myself through my mediocre efforts.
“And you wonder why she doesn’t kiss you on the forehead and give you a gold star on your homework at the end of the day.” I intentionally chose three tough exam readers at one of the toughest universities in the world, and then I wondered why I wasn’t being given gold stars for average work. I came here to be pushed past the limits of what I could do, not to be given accolades for what I could already do.
I realized it was time to stop whining and start really trying. When I sat down at my computer to write my third draft, my heart was in my work for the first time that summer. Previously, I had been holding back out of fear: what if I put my absolute best out there…and they reject it? But in grad school, that is a fear that you have to get comfortable living with, and you have to acknowledge your fear and put your best out there anyway.
Because here’s the thing: when your best isn’t good enough, it means that you have to figure out how to become even better. That’s where real growth happens. That’s the lesson I learned from The Devil Wears Prada. And that’s how I wrote the best paper I’ve ever written in my life.
I’m just majorly bummed that my lightbulb moment wasn’t accompanied by a fabulous couture makeover. I’m still not wearing any Chanel.
As a quick coda to my story, I just heard back from one of my readers about my third draft. She wrote, “I think you should be incredibly proud of the work you’ve done in the past few months. Nice work. I am excited about this draft and have just two small comments.”
I think Miranda Priestly may have just half-smiled.