A few weeks ago I was playing racketball (or squash as the rest of the sensible non-American world knows it) and was having a horrible time. As the ball bounced around the court with exactly the wrong speed, direction and momentum for me to make a game of it, I felt increasingly frustrated. I took frequent breaks to change my racket, choosing those with “better grips”. Then I changed the ball because it seemed to “bounce funny”. I found I needed a few additional “water breaks” because it was “humid” (the court is indoors and air-conditioned).
As I took my seven hundred and thirtieth break, it occurred to me there was definitely something wrong. I knew.
“It’s not the ball, the bounce, the surface, the pitch, the weather, the grip, the spectators, the wind, the wood. It’s you. You’re crap.”
It was liberating. It felt wonderful to articulate this deeply hidden truth. Strangely, it wasn’t demoralizing at all. I’ve felt this before. This self-deprecation gave way to a sense of relief and of wanting to move on and be something better.
I’ve suffered through an intensely torturous period in my life when my personal and professional lives were falling apart. I lost friends (or the ones I thought who were), I began to lose my family and the one thing that helped me accelerate down disaster alley was my own sense of imperviousness. Having taken stock of everything I had achieved in life up to that point (basically, nothing much), I decided that the world was failing me. If only others could understand how hard I was trying. A reality check would’ve helped but I didn’t think I needed it or that anyone was capable of providing it. I retreated into a shell, a feeling of isolation, hurt and of being misunderstood; ironically made worse by my slow descent into the world of online validation. The more time I spent there, the more I came away thinking I was a victim of circumstance. Delusion is like quicksand. The more you struggle to move up and out, the faster you sink.
It’s also this terrible problem of expectation. Especially, expecting of others. Who am I to expect others to adhere to my standards? How do I know my standards aren’t fundamentally flawed? It’s better to reserve your disappointment for failing to meet your own expectations.
Shorn of prejudice, it’s easier to introspect and see how full of crap you really are. That’s a great place to start resurrecting. You’re just crap, like a mound of clay, ready to be molded into something better. Bit by bit, day by day.
It has made me want to learn more. It’s nice to start from first principles again – wiping the slate clean of mental detritus and begin the process of neatly organizing every new thought into a coherent structure that’s useful to you and others.
It has made me seek out people who know more, are more and can help me be more. One-man shows are inherently dangerous, prone to hubris and lack perspective. I’ve been fortunate enough to surround myself with people with no insecurity and immense talent. A humbling experience indeed. This also reminds me, there are many people who think you’re crap but will tell you otherwise – out of politeness, malice or just apathy. Beware the passive-aggressive, the sweet-talking backstabbers and the solicitous friends who act as echo chambers.
It has made me want to be a better, more realistic parent. My son looks up to me. He wants to emulate my mannerisms, speech and idiosyncrasies. Luckily, he has a better role model in his mother, so the least I can do for him is present an honest picture of who I am and what he can expect from me. He can expect the very best because there’s no question he deserves it, but I’ll help him understand it’s the best that I can give. I want to tell him about my mistakes when he’s old enough to know they need not be repeated. I want to tell him about my flaws when he’s old enough to understand they don’t define me. I want him to respect me for the person I want to be, not the person he thinks I am – a default relationship as a father and the center of his universe.
A few years ago when I was a fresh-faced rookie, a senior colleague advised me that the first tenet of survival is to never admit you don’t know something. Bluff, buy time but maintain an aura of invincibility. That didn’t work out for me so well, but I hope it helped that person, wherever they are today.
My honest advice: every morning, tell yourself you’re crap. So that no one else will.