I’m an awful writer-in all the quintessential ways. I’m wordy, dull, unimaginative and intellectually dishonest–the absolute worst; just a doe-eyed–well meaning-dud factory.
It’s really easy to romanticize incompetence with a bounty of listicles constantly invading the internet like: Top 5 places Oprah use to collect cans when she was 24. Or the sensational clickbaity ones like: Did you know Genghis Khan was a barista before his exceptional tour of barbarism?
I, like many others, took all the wrong lessons from my hero’s failures. I observed them as good omens through the cracked lens of a cheap telescope. ‘J.K. Rowling also used to crash on her friend’s couch? I must be doing something right.’ It’s true that T.S Elliot savagely rejected Animal Farm, but it wasn’t because its author was a mud-mouthed dolt like I am. My Confederacy Of Dunces, a meandering snooze pamphlet I wrote in high school titled Space Monkey, will remain unpublished at my folks’ house back in PA, long after I’ve finally built up the mettle.
At the time, Space Monkey was the only thing I’d ever think about. I would tell everyone about it. My friends, family, even strangers. One time I offered a homeless shoe-shiner 40 bucks to let me read the first chapter to him. He accepted. Initially.
The plot followed a utopian-Issac Newton-obsessed rhesus monkey from Nepal named, Albert. He quits the monkey-start up he’s working for and heads to Washington D.C to join the space program. All the other astronauts doubt Albert’s abilities by reason of his monkey-ness. They instance their prejudice through nuanced lines of dialogue: ‘What do you know about space, monkey?’
This doesn’t stop Albert though. He studies hard and is eventually cleared to board the first shuttle into space–wherein he dies on impact.
The story is semi-biographical, it’s got pathos, heart and even some tragedy to boot. A sentiment zero publishers agreed with–a heartbreaking development at the time that proved to be extraordinarily helpful.
The months following a slew of rejection emboldened my perseverance. My passion for literature encouraged an undeserved tenacity in me. In my 16-year-old mind I was Millville, awaiting my Richard Bentley.
But eventually, time strong-arms folly into meditation. A meditation, that sees the relief of truth morph instantly into unrelenting embarrassment. At 23, I blush to remember that, for years, my opus was a one-dimensional commentary on egalitarianism via the first monkey to go to space. The query letters accompanying the manuscript were histrionic and self-important; they featured vivid illusions to generational change and references to James Baldwin.
Discovering your passion and your aptitude aren’t on the same page is both dispiriting and necessary. I’m sure you’ve heard ad nauseam about the upside of failure being its ability to teach us things about our craft and ourselves. Both of those things are true but, if we only allow it, failure has the potential to play a much bigger role in our progress.
Failure is an unavoidable, reckless fair-minded entity. It’s myopic to only take solace in the failures of your heroes because everyone is subject to it. Those of us that work hard-talented or untalented, as well as those of us that are lazy. Those of us that are kind, cruel, revel in risks and exercise prudence. Ultimately success belongs much more to chance than it does anything else, so give yourself a break and a fair shot. Weaponize failure against the tyranny of self-loathing.
Stephen Fry recently sat down with Sam Harris where he talked about the fancy that leaches itself to youth. How we erroneously believe that: “..we are particularly privileged to have this access to the staggering beauty of everything … the thisness and thatness of a thing” Fry recounts: “As a teenager, I didn’t want to lose it. I was aware that this would pass, that this was a phase… I believed that music and art were pathways to retaining it … these profound feelings and revelations.”
The ghost of that intense relationship we have with the things we love rarely ever leaves us. In fact, it more often betrays us later in life. It demarcates success and failure with a stark-unforgiving line. To engage in work that isn’t meaningful on our terms is to fail, shamefully and resolutely. I’ve always empathized with that notion but I use to evidence my empathy unproductively.
I would actively fight against the inner voices that told me I was never going to be a compelling novelist. I remained sanguine despite the freshet of evidence to the contrary. But the truth of the matter is, dedication and appreciation for a thing doesn’t, as a rule, yield mastery. Sometimes the things you’re passionate about just don’t feel the same way about you. However, despite what society will have you believe–this is not a death sentence.
The things that make you-you are more than the things that you enjoy doing and your worth does not exist on a continuum of how proficient you are at them. It’s all apart of it sure, but you’re bigger than that. Your identity can’t be caged by external validation-it’ll get in your way and make you sterile. Good work is much more sympathetic to those with earnest intentions.
The concept of just going in and doing the job is becoming more and more outmoded. The thing that pays our bills must additionally employ meaning and fund our sense of self. If it doesn’t we submit to the professional malaise that defines our generation in the workplace.
We all can’t be promethium, authors of innovation. Some of us, are simply “fine” – but hacks have to eat too. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a creative field or not, If you express fidelity to the job itself as oppose to what the job is supposed to mean, I think you’ll find both the work and your well-being to be in a much better state.
Self-compassion is salient to mental and physical fortitude equally. According to a study published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, “Being kind to oneself switches off the threat response and puts the body in a state of safety and relaxation that is important for regeneration and healing.”
Fulfillment can’t be dependent on superficial factors. Your “calling” doubling as your “career” isn’t a license for it to determine your worth.
More importantly, the infection of doubt plagues everyone. We’re all chasing the fear of being “found out.” Being outed as frauds. Instead of giving the doubt the power to make us withdraw, we can manipulate it into encouraging solidarity. Your coworker probably thinks (knows) they suck just like you do. Let’s all make a point to suck together, unreservedly.
It’s OK to be just “OK.”