Monday, October 22, 2012


I read an interview with the excellent Alain de Botton recently where he talked about doing things at the last minute as being a result of the fear of doing something badly finally being outweighed by the fear of not doing anything at all.

It wasn't at all the focus of the interview, but it was the part that most struck a chord with me. I've suffered from a similar fear for most of my life; that of trying but not being the best. I'm not sure when it began, but I do remember feeling pressure to get the best mark from a very young age, partly from my parents and partly from kids in my class who would give me a hard time if I didn't. It wasn't their fault; I nearly always got it, so we all expected I would, and they couldn't know how that was affecting me - I certainly didn't. In form one, I faked being sick on the day of the school athletics finals because I was in the 100m sprint finals, and I knew I was going to come third. Once I knew I wouldn't be in the top ten, I started walking the school cross country. I had always left things until the last minute (I distinctly remember informing my mother at bedtime that I had a school project due the next day... many times), but it wasn't until secondary school that it became a protective kind of thing; if I got a good mark, I knew I hadn't spent more time on it than I needed to, and if I got an average mark, I would tell myself that if I had tried harder it would have been a good one. Even through university I would ignore the late penalty I incurred on nearly every assignment and just take note of the mark my work had actually been graded, not thinking about the fact that getting it in on time was part of the point. I was never one of those dicks who would tell everyone they hadn't studied, but I privately felt like I was in control, and that I knew my potential. I felt like I didn't have to worry about being the best as long as I wasn't really trying.

It wasn't until fairly recently that I realised I wasn't in control at all. Years earlier I'd started to put it together during a discussion with my sister and her over-achieving friend about the trap of being smart. The friend had topped almost every subject all through school and university, and been head-hunted by an engineering firm. She worked there for a year or so before she realised how unhappy she was, and why she was doing what she was doing; not because she loved engineering, but because she was extremely good at it. I think I was in my first year of university, studying communications to become a journalist because I was good at English, and thought there's no way I'm going to do that. At the end of the year I said I was taking a year off, and after that year off I began my BA elsewhere. I felt as if the  lack of direction would free me from the constraints and expectations of being good at something, and that the time lapse would free me from the competitive side of studying at the same time as my school friends. But I was still afraid of trying. I noticed it with basic things; if a bus was at my stop and I wasn't quite there, I'd never run for it. Why? Because what if I missed it? Then I'd have run for nothing. But I still didn't recognise it in my coursework. Nobody knew me, so no-one knew what I might be capable of and hold me to it, which was important, having been motivated solely by that for so long. I might have begun to feel okay about failing, and doing badly - things I needed to learn - except that I was lying or being evasive about my marks to my parents, so that doing badly was always tinged with guilt. My transcript is an embarrassment, but I'm glad I can look at it and not feel measured by it, which was how I felt by all of the good marks I ever got in my life.

I haven't stopped being afraid. Since I entered a writing competition in fourth form and didn't place, I hadn't entered one again until this month, when I entered the most low-risk competition possible (in my mind), under a pseudonym, and with a piece I deliberately wrote in an hour and didn't redraft. I've been so afraid of trying and not being the best, it's crippled me, and I didn't even know it. I learnt how to do things just for me, and that was good, but it meant I became afraid to share them, unless I had absolutely no investment in them, which is crazy; I feel more comfortable sharing things I have done that I don't think are particularly good, or that I don't feel I have put much into, than the things I have. Most people do the opposite of that!

I don't really know where to go from here, but I think, without always being aware of it, I'm trying to change. I've learnt to be confident enough in what I think of myself that I don't need other people to value it. I realised that being able to share things I'm not good at isn't a bad thing at all. But I still have to learn to try without being afraid, and to feel confident enough to share things I think I've done well. I'm sure there was a time when I wasn't afraid. When I was about six or seven, I used to perform all the time, including this dance, which I discovered again on YouTube last night. That kid was cringe-worthy in many ways, but she was her own person. (And didn't mind at all that the photo she did the I Love You bit to was a school portrait of her own cousin, complete with cardboard frame.)

Oh, Alain. You're so insightful, even when you're merely leading into an insight. Self-improvement is a lifelong commitment.


  1. I know what you mean - we are our own worst judge. Fear can be crippling or can spur us into action. I guess it's up to us to choose which. Good for you for entering that competition though. I'm no good at competition - never even entered one. Too chicken myself. You always paint beautiful pictures with your words in conversation so I bet your hour-long piece was still brilliant. I was just talking with someone on the boat after I saw you the other night, a writer too, about how we find it hard to read our own writing. I said how I can't read formal things I've written, the ones that I've put heaps of effort into. But things like diary entries I can read easily.

    It's a funny system that we're born into, that teaches us to know and judge ourselves according to a rating system. We're taught to see it as the important stuff and we take for granted that it might not even be as self-defining as we're led to believe. Money and class is the same.

    I've definately had to change the way I think about things like this, things like 'I've got a degree and I'm working in a fruit shop, what the hell am I doing with my life, my parents must be so disappointed' or whatever, things of that nature where I give it more weight than it deserves. I reckon you already do think in this way otherwise you'd be some glamorous journalist by now or something, which you are totally capable of, but instead you are focused on what's really important in life: others. You always pay attention to the characters and the downtrodden, y'know, the true stuff.

    I LOVE her dancing I'd probably be too embarrassed to do that in front of myself, give me something else to work on haha.

    1. You're so right about the rating system, and it has to change! I feel like we're lucky, and that it's an achievement, to have opted out of it, but I don't want my kids to waste all of the time I did getting to that stage. I still do think that way sometimes; I catch myself justifying working in the shop to people (usually who mean nothing to me!), and I hate it. I'm so flattered that you think that though, and I hope you know I think that about you. Did you know I was referring to you in my post all i need to get by?