The Academy of Achievement Summit in Sun Valley was like a step into an enchanted world, like falling down a rabbit hole and finding myself at a ski resort in Idaho surrounded by celebrities. My family was fairly dysfunctional and solidly middle class, both of which meant we did not take vacations, we did not know celebrities, and we certainly did not go to fancy resorts. The very personality traits that got me invited—the perpetual drive to achieve and accomplish—were the reasons I had never experienced anything remotely like that atmosphere. It was the first time I ever felt like my work had been rewarded with something other than the ability to advance to the next level for more work. I had received plenty of awards and praise before, but I had never been given a weekend to just relax, watch, and listen.
It might seem that the TED talk has made this sort of celebrity access obsolete, but the moments that had the greatest impact on me all occurred outside the auditorium. Seated between celebrities on park benches, I listened to luminaries from different fields talk to each other, sharing insights about the diverse perspectives from which they viewed the world. In high school, where everything was divided neatly into subjects, I had never really thought about the way disciplines speak to each other. And at the same time, I appreciated these icons as people. The President of Spellman College lent a shivering high-schooler her shawl. Amy Tan kept stuffing little pieces of dinner into her handbag. I was wondering whether she had come slightly undone when a little Yorkshire terrier head popped out of her bag, and then another (this was before Paris Hilton made teacup pups a must-have accessory), each licking its chops and requesting more. I may have been invited there for being an over-achiever, but what I most enjoyed was being invisible, being a spectator and an eavesdropper on creative cross-pollination.
Along with what seemed like 95 percent of the students invited my year, I went to Harvard. And I can say—with a little regret and mostly contentment—that my career of over-achievement ended there. If the first 18 years of my life were about accomplishing, the next 19 have been about learning that I don’t need to accomplish to be happy. That in fact, I became immediately happier when I stopped trying to be the best at everything and decided to be curious about everything, passionate about a few things, and to be part of a community, rather than a leader. Perhaps it’s another manifestation of the pleasure I felt in just sitting on a bench and listening to other people talk.
I graduated from Harvard and went on to get a Ph.D. in Spanish literature at New York University. My first job was teaching early modern Spanish at Columbia, but in many ways that was a relapse to the high-pressure, ego-driven achievement track, and I was no longer cut out for it. I have since joined the faculty at Tulane and find the Southern speed of life, New Orleans quirkiness, and the warm weather to be my natural habitat. I have published a book that maybe ten people have read, as we academics do, and am working on another. I have had a series of dogs, none small enough to carry in a handbag but it doesn’t keep me from trying to bring them everywhere. It’s too bad there isn’t a forum for celebrating quiet competence in addition to visionary leadership, but I’m glad I’ve had the chance to be exposed to both. Every now and again I think of that crazy weekend in Idaho and wonder if it really happened. But I have my Golden Plate yearbook as proof.