I had this comic on my door in college that really struck me as the story of my life. It showed a person sitting on the examination table of a doctor’s office with the doctor saying “you have a lot of overachiever stress for such an underachiever.” Now, nearing the end of my dissertation in a heterodox economics program while writing about gender, trying to maintain my convictions while attempting professional success, the overachiever stress/underachiever identity has become that much starker.
In particular, it seems as though overachiever stress is heightened by going against the mainstream – for me, heterodox economics, feminist economics, feminist politics, and the labor movement. Each of these pieces of my professional intellectual identity stand, at least somewhat, in contrary to the the mainstream. A funny thing happens in non-mainstream movements where this pressure to be perfect – to understand many viewpoints, to have a well-developed understanding of a wide variety of theories, and to master different intellectual skills – can dominate even the most radical convictions. In order to be taken seriously, the non-mainstream needs to both master the mainstream as well as the radical. To go against the mainstream and be taken seriously requires perfection.
In heterodox economics, this plays out in the classes we take and the textbooks we have to master. Any heterodox (non-mainstream) economics program requires its students to master orthodox (mainstream) economics in order to be able to criticize it and develop alternatives. Our professors still often come from the prestigious graduate programs that we are taught to argue against, further validating the importance that is associated with top-tier degrees. While believing that the focus on econometric mastery of how to measure marginal effects is overblown, people in heterodox programs still pride themselves on the models we can build in computer programs that have just as many bells and whistles as the next orthodox economist being published in a top tier journal. In our effort to show that heterodox economics is just as rigorous as orthodox economists, we’re singing “anything you can do, I can do better. I can do anything better than you.” We have to learn the mainstream and the critique of the mainstream. We are learning current dominant economic theories while also learning their historical development. And this is extra work we are doing with little recognition. We have to do it just to get a word in the debate.
I feel a similar thing happens in trying to project women’s voices and feminist points of view. This great piece by Mary Beard on the Public Voice of Women in the London Review of Books reviews the historical struggle for women’s voices to be heard. She writes about the silencing of women’s voices parodied in an old Punch cartoon – “That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.” Because men and masculine points of view are taken more seriously, it is difficult for women to simply be heard. In the post-second wave feminist world, (middle-to-upper class, professional, mostly white) women have become crazed perfectionists in order just to be taken seriously like men are. It sometimes feels like in order to get our foot in the door, we need to be that much better than any given man who has a red carpet rolled out for him. Equal education has been viewed as the great equalizer, giving women the opportunity to be taken seriously. But girls are now doing so well in high school, that it is actually harder for them to get into college. Because universities want to maintain a gender balance, boys are privileged in college acceptance. Yet we try harder still. The trope of trying to “have it all” still dominates how many (again, middle-to-upper class, professional, mostly white) women live. In order for a woman’s voice to be heard, she needs to be that much louder than a man. Sheryl Sandberg preaches this in Lean In, where she encourages professional women to learn the balance of niceness with assertiveness and maintaining family while pushing forward in your career, and she does not even get into the physical expectations of women to look a certain way in addition to maintaining these balances in attitude and lifestyle.
These two narratives are about how being against the dominant culture – whether it being a heterodox economist in an orthodox world or being a feminist in a patriarchal world – has created the pressure for perfectionism. When I wrote about economics as a science on this blog, Imre Lakatos’s philosophy of science can be applied more broadly to the intellectual and professional world we live in. Because of the protective boundary around mainstream thought, it is very difficult to penetrate mainstream dialogue and be taken seriously on your own ground. In order to learn how to do this, you need to master the mainstream as well as develop a counter-narrative. But often, even when doing this, you are still not taken seriously. It feels as though it is the bare minimum to be a successful radical to do this extra work. This encourages and reinforces perfectionism and impossibly high standards for the non-mainstream.
When, as a heterodox economist and feminist writer, do I get to the point where it is enough? Where I can feel like I can be taken seriously and relax into some complacency? I want the right to be lazy sometimes. I want to not feel like I always have to work so hard, because frankly I just don’t feel like its in my nature to be one of those tireless activist intellectuals who I admire so much. I have an awful lot of overachiever stress for such an underachiever.