Changed for the Better

Changed for the Better: Episode 35

Darian Garner

What a treat to chat with my episode 35 guest: Darian Garner, the valedictorian of the class of 2013. A perfect blend of brilliance, kindness and humility, Darian graciously shared her stories about navigating the challenges of being Black in an Ivy League school, losing her mom, becoming an actuary, and growing into her independence.

I was fortunate to cross paths with Darian when she was in high school; because excellence has always been her goal, she was a wonderful addition to the dance program. Before she developed into the full-blown brain trust she is today, I was honored to teach her ballet in the studio. Not surprisingly, she had an affinity for the discipline of ballet and loved performing, taking on a duet with a classmate for her junior year concert where they wore matching sky blue tutus. She was also a track star and an accomplished violinist, always working to balance her academic, artistic and athletic capacities in school.

Darian’s scholastic accomplishments earned her a spot at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, one of the top Ivy League institutions in the US. She studied Economics, with a concentration in Actuarial Science.

What is actuarial science?

Most people have no idea what is involved in this branch of mathematics. In fact, there are scant few people that can actually wrap their brains around the complexity of actuarial science. In it’s most basic definition, actuaries are people who, through statistics and probability, analyze risk, and do their best to predict the future of what is most likely to happen in their field. In her words: The premise is that you can use the past to help predict the future, looking at historical losses and trying to understand how that might change for the future. She takes numbers and data from the past, churns it together with what’s happening in the world now, and proposes what business decisions her company should make.

Sounds complicated, no? Of course it is. And, she does that for Travelers Insurance, one of the top six insurance companies in the US.

Navigating adolescence

The exercise of looking back almost ten years to the young person you once were is a tough one. So much of the history that laid the foundation of who you are now becomes blurry. However, what you do remember is often the stuff that defines your truest, most enduring self. She remembers high school as being some of the best years of her life: less worries, lots of friends, and participating in fun activities.

So how did the valedictorian get through the four years of high stress and expectation? What lessons did she learn then that helped her to manage

Staying busy

Darian was one of those do-it-all kinds of kids who enjoyed every aspect of high school. She took pride in being well-rounded, social, competitive, both against others and herself, and was always striving to be better.

Excellence always has been my goal. I was ready to take the world by storm, leave a mark somewhere in the world. I did a lot in high school. On top of the AP Honors course load, I ran track for two seasons a year, a violinist in the school and all-district orchestra, I was in a couple of honor societies, volunteered outside of the school, so I was busy.

Being that busy can certainly take it’s toll on the strongest of people, but she was well-supported at home and in school.

The people in my life definitely created an environment for me to be successful in that way; my mom, my biggest cheerleader, she was always in my corner. My dad, as well, pushing me to be the best that I can be. And I had outlets like dance; all the activities didn’t feel like work. I had fun running track and in the orchestra.

Having outlets

Those outlets are what relieve the stresses and pressures that adolescents invariably feel in their high school years. The dance studio provided one of those outlets. Darian had been a dancer since the age of four, but had to step away from it in middle school when she was introduced to track. When she was a sophomore, she had the opportunity to take my ballet class, which reinvigorated her passion for dance.

Immediately I had recalled all the things that I had missed and I didn’t even notice that I was missing them. First, dance was a great form of exercise that didn’t feel like exercise. It was natural movement and creativity with the fitness component that has both physical and mental benefits. It was therapeutic; the studio has always been therapeutic for me. If nothing else, it was a distraction from other things that were happening outside of the studio; a time to focus on this one activity – dance was a tool to relieve some of that stress.

Being disciplined

Ballet tracked closely with her naturally-disciplined nature. Darian recalled the adages if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again and practice makes perfect as the truisms in the dance studio that provided the most enduring lessons for her. She applies the same lessons she used when trying to get double pirouettes and fouetté turns to taking each level of her actuarial exams (there are ten levels, by the way).

I might not get it the first time, but you set your mind to it, you put the work in, you can definitely overcome and achieve those goals. Discipline is definitely the number one lesson that I’ve learned and continue to use.

Learning to collaborate

Along with that discipline, she learned about the collaborative nature of the choreographic process, for dance works large and small. In order to be collaborative, you need to be teachable, to accept criticism and feedback with grace, and be willing to use ideas that were not necessarily your own.

Be moldable; always have something to learn.

What has changed in ten years?

Darian, from my perspective, has always maintained a constant and consistent character. There are no surprises, and what you see is what you get. She is steady, diligent, and a quietly powerful force. But in the ten years since high school graduation, she learned several important ways that she has changed.

Failing forward

My level of comfort with failure; I was an overachiever. When I graduated and went to the Wharton School (a very competitive, almost toxic environment), it was there where I did not do well on an exam and I wasn’t used to that experience. I called my parents crying. It was a shift for me in my perspective. Some of that continued into my actuarial exams; I’ve not passed every one on the first attempt. My very first exam on probability where I did not pass and I wasn’t sure it was the right career to pursue. But, I went back, took it a second time and passed it.

When you fall, you have a choice: give up, or learn to get up, dust yourself off, and try again. The hardest pill to swallow for an overachiever is that you don’t need to be at the top of your class, you don’t have to get straight A’s, and when you try again, you must figure out what needs to change to move forward. A failing grade doesn’t make you less smart, less good, or less capable. It is simply another pathway to learning.

Setting boundaries

What sometimes goes hand-in-hand with making changes while preserving your sanity is creating boundaries, especially if you are one of those do-everything type of overachievers. A most important lesson for Darian:

Learning how to say no.

Not easy, when you are “supposed to” always excel in all the things you do. Of course, the reality of burning out sometimes forces your hand, and when you are an adult on your own, paying bills and maintaining a job, that’s not an option. Darian had to be more discerning in what would earn her full attention and what was just noise.

Being independent

While Darian was always a capable and independent type of person, it wasn’t until after college when she learned the true meaning of independence. Living on her own for the first time, she had moved to Connecticut to be close to her new job and since her father had moved away from her childhood home when he got a now job out of state, Darian only had herself to fall back on. She didn’t mind, and actually relished in having the time and space to sit with herself and start to process some very significant challenges in her life.

Darian talked about a fortunate side-effect of the pandemic: everything slowed down. She worked remotely from home for two years and spent the time prioritizing how to best spend her mental energy, since the shifts in every corner of the work force required a different kind of attention.

If anything has changed for Darian since high school, it’s that she has developed a stronger sense of self as she grew up. When she was in school, she followed the lead of her parents, her teachers and her mentors. Now, she has found a path to feel comfortable taking the lead, making her own choices and defining her own values.

What words of wisdom would Darian offer her adolescent self?

Do not strive for perfection. It’s okay to make a mistake, to not be strong for a minute!

Somewhere along the way in my school years I earned the nickname ‘perfect girl’ which was so crazy. Maybe subconsciously it had an impact on how I reacted to things and thought about myself. It’s just so unrealistic!

The second piece (related to the first) is it’s okay to ask for help.

Darian remembered a college class in which she was not doing well. She wasn’t connecting with the material or the professor and did not want to go to office hours to ask for help.

That was rooted in the fact that I’d always been able to get it on my own. [It was] probably exacerbated by the fact that I was a minority in a predominantly white prestigious institution. ‘If I need to ask for help, I must not belong here,’ which is silly.

When imposter syndrome rears its ugly head

Of course, those feelings aren’t rooted in any reality. Darian did every ounce of work and had all the brain power required to succeed in her degree program. The culture shock of attending Wharton certainly impacted her perception of the world. She had grown up in Spring Valley, then a predominantly Black community in the New York suburbs. Suddenly being dropped into a predominantly white environment opened the door to the ugliness of imposter syndrome. She found herself actively participating more than she did in high school, offering responses to show everyone (and herself) that she belonged there.

The radical shift in the student demographics was another challenging factor. While she did not personally experience overt racism, the established culture was certainly there through accepted cultural insensitivity and people being turned away from fraternity parties because of their skin color. It was hard to avoid the discomfort of trying to prove herself in a system that did not readily embrace people who looked like her. She did it, often quietly, knowing that she had to balance the insidious indiscretions that she heard about with her desire to succeed in that environment.

How did she cope with that feeling? As we have talked about many times on “Changed for the Better,” the best thing you can do is to find community. At Penn, she found the small, albeit small Black community where she was able to embrace her identity, vent when she needed to, and get her work done as she navigated the four years.

We've talked a lot about imposter syndrome in this blog. Read about it in episodes with Tom Dheere, Chizi Duru, Jessica Butler and in my Geriatric Gymnastics blog series.

What is Darian grappling with now?

Darian’s mom passed away in August 2015, just a few days before classes started for her junior year in college, Suddenly, her biggest cheerleader, the force that carried her through her toughest moments and greatest accomplishments, was gone.

I haven’t really taken a moments to stop and grieve fully; [we] planned a funeral and went back to school. To be honest, those last two years were a blur, just kind of chugging through, going through the motions. I lost my biggest cheerleader! So now, I’m grappling with shifting from that extrinsic source of motivation to intrinsic, so I’m trying to find that within myself. That’s something I’m still learning to do.

Darian and I have shared a similar loss. My mom, my biggest cheerleader and the one with whom I wanted to share all of my joys and sorrows, passed in 2020. When you have that kind of relationship, where you are so imprinted on each other, the loss of that connection on earth is something you never fully recover from. You learn to manage more on your own, I suppose. You can read about my experience in  "What Ronnie Sue Knew" available on Amazon Books. 

Looking for the silver lining, Darian channels her mom all the time, thinking of what she would say or do in response to all of the moments in her life. She looks at old texts that she has saved and remembers that she’s still cheering for her girl.

Darian’s sage advice for high school students

Do things that you are passionate about. And now is the time to explore what that passion might be. The cost of making a mistake is pretty low, maybe the lowest it will ever be in your life. It’s time to try new things.

If your passion doesn’t exist, create it. Take some initiative. If you see a problem, think of a solution. Go for it.

Darian’s self-care practices

  • Taking barre classes. While it’s not exactly like ballet class, Darian enjoys being back in a studio environment. She gets exercise, relieves some stress, and it hearkens back to her days in a leotard.
  • Going to the salon. She goes every two weeks, religiously, without fail. The ritual of a wash, scalp massage, straightening and trim is something she has cherished since she graduated college.
  • Therapy. Another thing I didn’t realize I needed until I pursued it. When you are a private person who holds things close to the vest, therapy is such a gift. Giving yourself the permission to reveal and work through the thoughts you don’t share with anyone else is an important path to healing your weary soul. I wish more people gave themselves that permission.

As Darian is a very private person, I appreciate how gracious she was in sharing her personal story. She also shared that she had watched some of the past episodes (thank you for watching!!) and had noted that therapy is a running theme that is discussed on this podcast. I hope that as more people take in these stories, they decide to give themselves the gift of healing their weary souls too.

Enjoy the full interview below.

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