I wasn’t getting insanely drunk on the job, but I was really drinking at work. I would drink to that point of tipsiness that I really liked, but then I would get anxious: What if someone sees me like this?
Fadulu: Do you think the impulse to be reckless and to shrug off responsibilities had anything to do with the nature of the work that you were doing?
Jamison: I think it was more of an attempt to find some sort of pressure valve or release from that clenched fist of achievement-oriented drive inside of me than it was seeking relief from tedium. I did work in jobs that had a lot of tedium. But I never worked those jobs five or six days week for 10 years. I never worked those jobs without a sense that another job would become available to me once I got my various degrees. I think that sense of really being trapped inside of that kind of labor is something I’ve never had to really experience.
Fadulu: Why were you trying so hard to be “good enough”?
Jamison: Some of it had to do with how I was raised and the environment I grew up in, where the people in my family were overachievers and successful in their field. I was also the youngest by quite a bit. I have two older brothers that are nine and 10 years older. I think from very young I felt like everybody in my family was already kind of embedded in their lives and I was just trying to catch up.
Sometimes I feel wary of talking about temperament because I think temperament is always shaped by external forces, but I think there’s something inside of me that just had this kind of determined drive toward a kind of excess. I didn’t just want to be good. I wanted to be the best. In that way, the drive toward excess in terms of achievement feels related to the drive toward excess in terms of booze or getting drunk. I didn’t want to feel just a little bit of a good feeling. I wanted to feel the strongest version of it.
Fadulu: Would you mentor your overachiever younger self?
Jamison: I certainly have all kinds of advice I want to give my younger self, if that counts. I try not to project onto my students, but I do sometimes feel that the closest that I will ever get to mentoring a version of my younger self is working with students. Not only do I see lots of similar desires and anxieties in my students to the desires and anxieties I had when I was in my 20s, I also see them confronting similar work choices.
I just got an email from a student that just graduated from the MFA and is applying for a job at a hedge fund. It was a hedge fund that I applied for a job at when I was 22. And I remember thinking, God, I want to be a writer. But also would be really nice to make some serious money.
Fadulu: What would be the top three pieces of advice that you think your younger self would have benefited the most from hearing?
Jamison: Be patient. Life, hopefully, is long and you don’t need to make everything happen tomorrow.