Author Interview

A Conversation with Liz Funk

You’ve written and published a book at the age of 19! Do you view your success differently now than you did when you were overworking yourself as a Supergirl?

Luckily, yes! I think at this point in my life, I can recognize that I’ve achieved stuff and can congratulate myself for it, rather than feeling as though I could always be doing more. I’m trying to allow myself to savor my success. There is definitely a vacation to Florida in my near future, but I don’t think the old me would have considered completing a book sufficient reason to take a week off. Overachievers can be very funny like that.

Where do you draw the line between being an overachiever and having a healthy amount of ambition and drive? How can girls tell if they’re working so hard for the right reasons?

I think overachievers work as hard as they do for the wrong reasons; when we see young women studying forty hours a week in high school and college, they’re rarely trying to satiate a thirst for knowledge. They’re often struggling to understand why they matter, and working too hard is a very convenient and accessible way to distract oneself from one’s thoughts. Also I think a lot of what drives Supergirls is selfberating, which—hopefully—isn’t something that drives all girls!

I think girls with a healthy amount of drive can still go above and beyond the call of duty in work or school or relationships . . . but they know when to call it a day and plop down on the couch with a movie when they’re tired. For example, one of my best friends, Lauren, isn’t a Supergirl, even though she gets great grades, is a good daughter, a great friend, works two jobs, and is really skinny and beautiful. The difference between her and Supergirls, although there are many, is that if she has a night off from work and she doesn’t have homework, she’ll sit down in front of the TV and not feel guilty about it at all. It’s awesome.

Was there a defining moment for you when you realized that you really needed to change your ways?

Yes, definitely. When I was a junior in college, I transferred colleges and left Manhattan to enroll at this huge public school on Long Island. I was put in a dorm that was almost all international students who didn’t speak English, and the students in my classes had this major-award urban iciness to them. I had an impossible time trying to make friends, so I was completely socially isolated and completely alone with my thoughts. And what I realized was that I had no understanding of why I mattered or why I was special or important if I wasn’t living in Manhattan and trying to be Carrie Bradshaw–ish and aggressively working on my career. I came face-to-face with myself and found that I had wildly low self-esteem and felt inherently boring. So I can definitely identify with the breakdowns that so many Supergirls described to me, because mine lasted an entire semester!

If someone had told you to relax at the height of your ambition, how would you have reacted? How do you think other girls can try to help a Supergirl who doesn’t yet realize she is one?

I think I was at the height of my Supergirl self in the spring of 2007, when I was a sophomore in college. I had a really good friend who was always like, “Why do you work so hard? It’s the weekend!” And I was always like, “I need to get my career rolling! I want to have this really fantastic New York life, and I need to work for it.” Totally lame.

I think a Supergirl who won’t admit her Supergirl habits needs to realize her problems at her own pace, and honestly, I’m really leaning toward believing that it is important for Supergirls to have breakdowns and realize the (extremely) hard way that they need to change. If a girl can nip her Supergirl self in the bud, that’s fantastic, but I sense that the Supergirls who have breakdowns are better poised to do some very provocative evaluating of their lives. Even though it’s emotionally painful, it’s really amazing.

Do you believe that eventually young women can grow out of their overachieving tendencies as they mature, or do you think they have to come to the end of their rope before they realize what they’re doing to themselves and can begin to climb back up?

I don’t get the sense that when Supergirls mature, their Supergirl behaviors dissolve with taking on real responsibilities at work or with the routine of married life. In fact, I think Supergirls who grow older without confronting their Supergirl tendencies simply become the Supermoms we hear about in the media who make elaborate homemade Halloween costumes and cut their kids’ PB&J sandwiches into shapes with cookie cutters for school lunches, even though they have a lot of other things they could be doing! The Supergirl pattern of spending so much time doing unnecessary things to distract oneself from one’s problems can be evident in women of all ages, which is why it needs to be confronted when girls are younger!

How did you finally let go of your Supergirl ways?

A huge part of it was writing this book! So many of the young women I met really worried me . . . and inspired me! I also did an interview with life coach Cathy Wasserman for this book that honestly changed my life. She told me that young women need to “be open to exploring the mystery of their lives,” and I think that might be the most important advice I’ve ever heard. There is so much out there to be experienced that is right before Supergirls’ eyes, if they could back away from their MacBooks and hop off the treadmill!

I’ve been living in New York City for going on three years, but this is my first year living in Manhattan with a cognizance of my Supergirl behaviors, and I am having more fun than I’ve ever had in my life—I’m noticing just how exquisite the world around me is. To think that I’d been power walking past all of the amazing things in this city during my first few years of college!

Also, after I had a breakdown at SUNY–Stony Brook, I spent the following month-long holiday break at my parents’ house in upstate New York sleeping ten hours a night, painting and listening to French music, hanging out with my best friends from high school, and devouring self-help books, to try to relax, cope and figure out who I was. I literally Googled “how to find yourself.” It was weird for me to get in touch with just how insecure and depressed I was, but it was the most restorative month of my life. Fully finding myself ended up taking about six months of hard work of thinking and journaling and therapy, but it was so worth it.

Now that you’ve faced your issues, you seem confident that the rest of your life will be “demon-free.” In trying to balance school, a writing career, and a social life, do you ever feel yourself reverting back to being a Supergirl—and if so, how do you deal with that?

It’s hard to balance! A lot of days, my schedule is basically: get up and write, go to class, come back to my apartment, exercise and run errands, have dinner or go to a party with a friend, and then come home and write. But then I work really hard to make sure that at least two nights a week and one or two whole days a week, I do nothing all day except exactly what I want to do. But I’m happy now! And I think things are only going to get better from here. (Fingers crossed!)

But regrettably, I think I’m always going to struggle a little bit with this balancing act of being a recovering Supergirl. The best analogy I can think of I actually read in a women’s magazine where Paula Abdul described her struggle with overcoming bulimia: with other addictions (alcohol, drugs, gambling, etc., etc.), you just stop doing it. But food and work are integral parts of life! People with eating disorders can’t just cut food out of their lives and people with diseased relationships to work can’t just stop working to nix the problem.

But it’s not like I’m totally recovered. I’ll know that I’ve completely distanced myself from being a Supergirl when I feel comfortable letting my hair grow out brown.

Do you think any of the girls you interviewed for this book are now on the road to recovery, having finally been able to talk about their issues?

Of the five “main characters” in the book, one just got married and moved to England, one got a job offer an entire semester before she graduated from college, one just received an award from her college for being so involved, one just started college at a good school, and I actually randomly just ran into the youngest of the Supergirls at my cousin’s Sweet Sixteen party and she looked great. So, on paper, they still look amazing!

Whether they’ve come closer to coming face-to-face with themselves, I’m not sure. I think the younger girls I interviewed had a few real lightbulb moments as we were talking about overachieving and why they devoted so much of their time to attempting perfection, and I think that they may question their efforts today, but I don’t know that any of them have fully confronted what they’re doing yet. I think that they’re all going to be wildly successful . . . I just hope that they can all be completely happy, too!

What advice would you give to girls who want to talk to their friends or family about the pressures they feel, but don’t know how to broach the subject?

The power of honesty is overwhelming. Most parents are really perplexed by their daughters’ behavior and would be eager to help . . . if they knew what exactly the problem was! I am a huge proponent of going out for regular Starbucks dates with Mom and just talking—it really keeps the channels of conversation open. Also, even though Supergirls have this disheartening tendency to compete with one another, I think friends are the biggest allies for young women grappling with the pressure to be perfect. Even though girls might feel uncomfortable confessing that their perfection isn’t coming as easily as it looks, a girl’s friends are supposed to be a really nonjudgmental audience.

What’s up for you next?

I know I want to write for the rest of my life. I have literally almost ten more ideas for books that I want to write. I am also totally salivating about the idea of getting a job as a contributing editor at New York magazine or The New Yorker. And I also really want an apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows in a high-rise Manhattan apartment building.

But . . . I’m also keeping in mind that success and happiness comes in so many different shapes and sizes! I’ve been having a really amazing time living in Manhattan for the past year, and in meeting new people and trying out new activities, I’ve learned that there is such a different rubric for success for people getting the most out of life. I’ve met a great number of people in the past year who are so creative and interesting . . . who either didn’t go to college but are successful anyway, or went to awesome schools but make in the very low five figures because they’re doing artsy stuff, or who plan to leave New York to travel for a year because the world doesn’t actually revolve around New York! Because of their open-mindedness and the fact that they aren’t berating themselves all the time, they are so successful! So, that’s the vision of my life that I want to shoot for: being successful, but in a way that’s very different from the way that Supergirls view success. Also, I want to live in Florida, Paris, and may Los Angeles for a little while, because, as said, I just stumbled upon this amazing realization that world doesn’t revolve around New York City.

But actually, with all that in mind, I still want a contributing editor job and a nice apartment. Really badly. I’m always going to have a bit of Supergirl in me.

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