A reader asks our agony aunt Beth how she can stop convincing herself that other people are funnier or more successful or that she’ll fail if she tries
I have what I believe is a pretty common problem for women like me. I’m in my mid-twenties, sort of directionless when it comes to a career, but also unable to make definitive moves. The problem is that I talk myself out of almost everything before giving it a proper shot. A lot of things, like grad school for example, are hard to “give a shot” without committing a lot of time and money. But the moment I think of something I might be interested in and good at, I come up with a long list of reasons why I would, in fact, not be good at it, and inevitably fail.
I like to write, and I’m good at it, but then I go on Twitter and see other women who are more successful, seem more intelligent, more informed, wittier, etc. I’m good at most jobs I’ve held (I currently work in a law office), because I am good at accomplishing the achievable goals set out for me. I was a good student, because it is not the completion of a task that is difficult for me, but rather the setting of those tasks. For some reason, when I think of a goal I’d like to achieve for myself, I convince myself before I begin that I will inevitably fail for any number of reasons.
I’ve heard the expression “bigger dummies than you” and try to think of this when I consider beginning something new or ambitious, but I seem to more easily believe the opposite: there will always be someone better than me trying to do the same thing as me, so why bother?
I know it’s important to try and to fail, but I don’t have a lot of resources or time, so instead of trying and failing, I don’t try, and I fail in my head, anyway.
How do I stop dooming myself to mediocrity when I know I could do better?
You talk about success and failure a few times in your letter; “I could do X, but I might fail. Doing Y is a possibility- but what if I’m not successful at it?”. So long as X and Y are new, vaguely risky moves and not aimlessly throwing meatballs at the side of your grandma’s Hyundai- they’re worth doing. But how can you work out exactly what those moves are?
Firstly: by digging deeper and forcing yourself to talk about the scary stuff. What level of risk can you stand at this point? What might you love doing as a job if you were already this dreamgirl version of yourself? What kind of savings would you need to carry it off? What are the logistics of following it through?
I can’t tell you the answers to these questions. I don’t even know your star-sign or what size croc you wear. I can give you this piece of advice though: TRY LOOKING FOR ANSWERS OUTSIDE YOUR OWN BRAIN MAZE FOR ONCE. Inside your brain-maze is the voice that tells you No, that tells you Wait, that tells you You Can’t Have Four Cheeseburgers For Breakfast. The voice has told you for years that Things Like This Don’t Happen For Girls Like You, and you’ve believed it.
To succeed you need to act in spite of that voice. You have to look at your heart and your hands and then put them to use. I know that’s frustrating advice. You don’t want it to happen like this. You want someone else to hand you the goal, to be the bearer of it, to give you the nod and say “This is what you’re going to do.” When asked by someone else you can leap fearlessly through flaming hoops. When asked by yourself for the same thing you falter, shrink in on yourself like a crisp bag in a bonfire. “I can’t do that” you say, lying.
You like a goal that you can look in the eye and understand. You like a goal with a reassuring moustache. You like your goals to talk to you in a soothing Jeff Golblum-esque voice. A goal with a faint peachy, achievable glow. I get that – that makes sense. But figuring out what would make you happy in life is not a goal with a soothing voice or reassuring moustache. In fact it’s not a goal at all and the more you ask it to become one the more stubbornly it stays a shapeless, monstrous, yelling impossibility of a thing. It’s life! It’s waking up everyday and doing things slightly differently than you did the day previously. It’s knowing that you’re doing something with your entire heart and that even if it doesn’t make you money or get you the recognition that you eventually want- that it was worth doing. It’s watching a tiny dog trot along a bridge and thinking “this planet can be the most marvellous place. I am happy to be here. I am going to make this count.”
You can write. You’re good at it. Currently though your brain is quicker than your hands and you’ve thought and thought and thought and ended up doing very little (or nothing). That’s normal. Writers are very convincing people. We don’t just have the right words, we have the wrong ones too, and a million more besides. So those right words – the ones that would get you off the ground and doing something – get buried deep down in the pile up of “very compelling reasons why I am not even going to try”.
But you are going to try. Now, in fact. Today. Write in a journal, or on your phone, or on the back of your bald uncle’s neck as he sleeps serenely in a hammock. Write at a desk, or in the bath, or on the train. Do it every day. Enter your work in a competition every few weeks without fail. Email articles to editors. Accept that they might never email back. Publish your essays on Medium. Link them to Facebook. Take a course. Do it however you want – just write.
Write because you can. Write because feeling yourself getting better at something you’re working hard at is as close to God as you can get without eating a bag of week old eggs and running naked into the desert. Write because unlike going to grad school it doesn’t cost a penny to do. Write because you want to.
And no, it won’t feel vital and life-affirming at first (or probably for a long time) but you’re going to do it anyway. You don’t need to change everything at once, or tear apart your current life like an old piñata that may or may not contain something sweet. Sure, some people thrive in the free fall, in leaving one job before they’ve found another, in buying a pair of snakeskin flares without even trying those snakeskin flares on. Will they suit the snakeskin flares?? It doesn’t matter! They don’t care! It’s anarchy!
That’s not you, though. Put down the snakeskin flares. Keep your job until you know what’s next. You’re not wasting your time there. You probably know how to use a photocopier because of this job. Do you know how many adults can’t do that? You could put a photocopier in a line up of human teenagers and I’d probably point to it and say “That was him officer. That was the one who hit me with his skateboard.”
“Your life isn’t a bomb to be diffused. There’s no red wire you can cut to silence the alarms and hurry in the happy ending. Clarity won’t come marching in like a clown with a fistful of balloons”
Listen: you have time. Your days are long enough. There’s enough room here. Your life isn’t a bomb to be diffused. There’s no red wire you can cut to silence the alarms and hurry in the happy ending. Clarity won’t come marching in like a clown with a fistful of balloons. “You’re here! You made it! You’re happy now! Finally, finally, you can stop trying so hard!” No such luck: the trying hard lasts forever. The trying hard is the point.
And it is hard. I find it hard. Some days I wake up terrified. The seconds ticking by all seem desperately important and so long as I’m not writing a bestseller or running on the treadmill or charming editors over coffee then I’m failing, fucking up, SQUANDERING THE RIPE DELICIOUS LEMON OF MY LIFE.
Then I breathe.
I get out of bed and make tea. I decide whether I’ll sit down to work or if I’ll watch Netflix and ignore my emails. There’s no great reckoning either way. I try hard or I don’t. I take the risk or I stay still. There’s occasionally a moment of sheer joy when I’m writing and I feel like I’m exactly where I need to be. But then it passes and I’m here again- getting frustrated with the order of things, apologizing for my late reply, trying to organize deadlines around my day jobs. Cos that’s what it feels like to be a young writer – frustrating. Scary. Vaguely irritating. Like eating bugs and not even the delicious ones. But we do it because we have to. It’s our good fight.
Your good fight starts with accepting that you need to make changes. It starts with doing shit differently going forward. It starts with changing the landscape of your days by changing what you expose yourself to.
It starts with reading more and comparing less. It starts with having a fucking noodle cup and giving yourself a break. It starts with seeking out what sustains and inspires you and giving that a seat at your table. It starts with believing you can.
Good luck. Be brave.
Go feast on your life.