Thursday, August 29, 2013

Affirmations

I'm trying to fight one of those funks where I keep thinking to myself, "Geez, I'm not really that great at anything." Part of the rumination that keeps bothering me has to do with the role of difficulty of a task, or perceived subjective difficulty, and whether and how that relates to ability, aptitude, potential, success, etc. That is: if I feel like something is difficult, does that mean I'm not really that good at it--that I don't have a noteworthy ability or aptitude for it? Or does it mean that I am actually good at it because I'm trying to struggle through problems that others aren't willing or able to tackle? Or are the two completely independent, nothing to do with one another at all? [Something is difficult] AND/OR [I'm good at it or not good at it] but there is no causal relationship.

Mostly, though, instead of tackling the why and the self-analysis, I end up going through this list of things I like to do (or even things I don't like, just things I have to do or could do) and sort of checking them off, like, "Nope, I'm not all that great at that; oh, playing the ukulele? not so good at that; singing is fun but I'm really not that great at it; I could go back to working in a corporate environment but I'm not so great at stuff like meetings and getting to work on time and grown-up shit like that; I used to be pretty good at picking up languages but I don't think I am any more and hardly ever have time to practice;" and on and on.

So I decided to try to list a few things I am good at, to make myself feel a little better.

  • I'm really amazingly good at sitting on the couch with a purring cat on my lap. Making the cats happy is something I can do.
  • I can kick ass at cleaning out the refrigerator. In fact, I did that just yesterday. Now it's cleaner than it's been in many moons. (Of course, I don't know if this counts, since I was also at least partly responsible for failing to clean it for many moons...) 
  • I'm generally pretty good at things related to our household food management: grocery shopping, putting the shopping away, cooking or otherwise assembling the food into yummy form.
  • I am amazing at filing. You wouldn't really know this from the current state of *my* office, but while working as a temp, I once reorganized an entire file system for the City of Modesto Wastewater Treatment Facility--at least a half dozen large filing cabinets that had last been sorted sometime in the 1980s. In fact, that's how I met Joe Barretta, although he probably doesn't remember me. We had a long conversation about how he was taking his son to a Green Day concert.
  • I am good at consuming mass quantities. 
  • I am good at fading into the background (except in India, where I apparently stick out like a sore thumb--hence the many photo-ops people insisted on having with us).
  • I am good at being quiet. Too good, sometimes. In fact, sometimes that quietness extends to this blog, for which I apologize, because I do go through vast epochs of silence from time to time.
 I will try to be less silent. Bust out of the box! We'll see how well I do...and whether "busting out of the box" is one of the things I'm good at, or one of the other things...

10 comments:

David T. Macknet said...

The thing about having a childhood in which you didn't "live up to your potential" is just that: you're born with lots of potential, but it's only just sitting there until you give it a push. So, if something is hard, then you're still having to push, and haven't yet achieved the potential. If it's easy, you may still not have achieved the potential - because it's about 1) who's judging the achievement, 2) what the criteria are, and 3) whether you feel you've achieved.

But achievement and feeling good about that achievement are too different things, and feeling competent is something else entirely.

Feeling good about an achievement tends to be a fleeting sensation, and is often more about external validation. Feeling competent, though, is about knowing the skills of others (or some absolute measure) and how you stack up.

When you achieve a certain level of mastery, though, you start to realize that there are things you don't know / can't know / don't have time to learn. It's a very difficult thing to understand that, and yet be objective about the skills you do possess.

The question, when you've reached some measure of your potential in a given area, is whether you like where you've ended up, and whether you can be at peace with what you had to sacrifice to get it.

The question, before you're totally there, is whether you're willing to sacrifice some things to achieve that potential (hello, television? playing the violin at a semi-professional level? career aspirations? external validation which is more easily obtained? financial independence? vacations? smart-phones?).

tanita♥davis said...

I wanted to say that the greatest lie ever perpetuated on - yes, children - is that they're supposed to be good at things. As if, automatically, we come into this life well skilled at all kinds of things, and it's only our lack of awesome which prevents us from showing up everyone with our sparkling skill.

Never mind that we had to learn to walk and talk and even pee somewhere other than on ourselves.

I used to have to tell my fifth graders this constantly, especially as we did art, and I held up our finished project as a model, and they all melted down and said, "Teeeacher, I caaaaan't." And I would tell them, in a variety of ways: there is no such thing as a "noteworthy ability or aptitude" for anything, not really. Not where it counts. Effort counts. And then, I'd make the little buggers try, and find the joy in the doing. Okay, it's also a lesson that takes effort and application to learn - but they tried.

Once we understand that, with effort, we can be at least competent at most anything we work at - and that it's okay to have to work, and it's okay to have some things come more easily into our skillset than others, I think we're happier, and less unsure of our way.

In adulthood, the learning curve simply turns into less of a curve and more of a cliff to climb. Especially as our brains mature, and we learn about shortcuts, things being hard still is a good sign. We've not lost our ability. We've not lost our understanding that there are some unknowable things. We've not lost our reason to strive... which, in the end, might be a better gift than you think.

David T. Macknet said...

Tanita's thoughts bring to mind the research about how best to teach children to achieve. If the results are rewarded, children learn to be risk-averse - to do the easy thing. If the effort is rewarded, they learn to take risks, and that working is valuable.

When we seek external validation for results, we're trying to keep the reward-for-achievement cycle going. And it's never enough, particularly when you hit that point where you're somewhat competent to judge what "good" is, in your field.

To get around that, we need to figure out how to reward the work, not the output - the effort, not the achievement. Number of hours of butt-in-chair and working seems like a start. Number of hours not-checking-email is another.

aquafortis said...

Rewarding the work, rather than the result, also seems like a good way to combat the idea of "impostor syndrome" that seems all too common among those who have achieved competency (and, dare I say, some measure of success). And, definitely, the way education is set up has long been much more results-focused than perhaps it ought to be.

Not that I approve of blaming all my current preoccupations on my childhood, but I can say that my dad has always been extremely results- and achievement-oriented, and still is. For him, the external evidence and trappings of success are very important, and it's taken me a long time even to realize the effect that had on me over time. For quite a while I didn't think it *had* affected me--and maybe there have been times in my life when I've been better at ignoring it.

But I've realized it is the kind of thinking that unexpectedly pops up from time to time, in insidious ways. When I'm feeling frustrated, my mind slips into well-worn grooves...

David T. Macknet said...

The problem with those well-worn grooves, though, is that they're about the end result ... and focusing on that end result has led to risk-aversion. So, that well-worn groove actually works against achievement.

It helps, I think, if you can trick yourself into thinking that the "end result" is something tangible, measurable, and immediate - like having that time spent working, and consciously NOT focusing on the end product.

It's like bowling: if you look at the pins, you're going to miss them. You must focus on getting your feet in the right place when you're ready to release the ball, and the ball going over the correct arrowheads on the alley. Only then will the ball get where you want it to go.

If you're focusing on writing a "good book," then you'll miss out on writing a "good scene" or a "real scene" or whatever it is that's your near-term goal. Until you can focus on putting in time, though, you'll have a fear even of writing a "real scene" - and you'll be afraid to try, because it seems like too much effort, so you'll write something with an immediate payoff, or you'll clean the fridge, or whatever - and then you can say that of course you didn't write a "good book" because you didn't have the writing time.

aquafortis said...

Yeah...although I should point out, this week I did clean the fridge and it was well overdue and my life is probably much more hygienic now. ;)

I came to a related realization last night, which is that I need to reject the unhealthy premise running through my subconscious that if I can't be AWESOME AND AMAZING at whatever, then it's not worth me even doing it and I hardly deserve to live. I have no idea where that assumption comes from or how it took shape, but I know it's really, really bad.

I mean, I'd NEVER ever say that to someone else. Why should I be holding myself to that impossible standard? When it comes to anybody who is NOT me, I truly feel that it's actually our duty as human beings to be creative and write and play music and do art and "quality" or "importance" has very little to do with it, because these are necessary human activities. They make us individuals AND they bring us together.

adrienne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
adrienne said...

Ah, the Internet ate my first comment.

My mind has been here lately as well, and I have been making a very, very concentrated effort to stop myself from limiting my own options only because I feel I'm not good at something. I've been reading a lot of research lately about why our children, particularly girls, are not going into fields like math, science, and technology in the numbers we need them to, and some researchers think it has to do with this kind of American notion that one has to be good at something to pursue it. Of course, it is as David and Tanita say--effort is what is going to pay off in the end and maybe we don't all have to get perfect at every single thing we pursue. So now I try to think about things more in terms of whether I'm interested enough in it to make it worth my time. The options still overwhelm me, but it's liberating when I can break out of my own well-worn grooves, try new things, and even find some small successes. At my new job, for instance, after a lifetime of hating math and feeling I was bad at it, with a little bit of work, I'm learning a lot about finance and budgeting. I still have a lot to learn, but I'm enjoying it and having a lot of success. I've even figured out how to make formulas in Excel.

Ah, the Internet ate my first comment.

My mind has been here lately as well, and I have been making a very, very concentrated effort to stop myself from limiting my own options only because I feel I'm not good at something. I've been reading a lot of research lately about why our children, particularly girls, are not going into fields like math, science, and technology in the numbers we need them to, and some researchers think it has to do with this kind of American notion that one has to be good at something to pursue it. Of course, it is as David and Tanita say--effort is what is going to pay off in the end and maybe we don't all have to get perfect at every single thing we pursue. So now I try to think about things more in terms of whether I'm interested enough in it to make it worth my time. The options still overwhelm me, but it's liberating when I can break out of my own well-worn grooves, try new things, and even find some small successes. At my new job, for instance, after a lifetime of hating math and feeling I was bad at it, with a little bit of work, I'm learning a lot about finance and budgeting. I still have a lot to learn, but I'm enjoying it and having a lot of success. I've even figured out how to make formulas in Excel.

I am also really good at sitting on the couch with purring cats. Sometimes I think that's one of the more useful things I do in a day.

Sherry said...

"If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly." ~G.K. Chesterton

Not to say that you do things badly . . .

aquafortis said...

Always good advice to remember! :)

Thanks, Sherry!