This is one of those hybrid posts. You know the kind – they’re intended as helpul advice but you’re actually writing it as much for yourself as your audience. It was sparked by some introspection during a wonderful event I was part of yesterday, a roundtable organised by publishing platform Blurb to help them move forward as a brand that stands for beautiful books. I was delighted to take part, having been a fan of their production values for a long time.
(Songs From the Other Side of the Wall, my lyrical literary coming of age novel set in post-communist Hungary, is still a free pdf but it’s now available again for $2.99 for Kindle US and £1.93 for Kindle UK, and I very much hope that people will buy it – I’m finally learning to say I’m incredibly proud of it, and it’s definitely worth the money)
There were all sorts of exciting people there, including a number of old friends, several of whom had been at Saturday’s self-publishing summit. Looking around the table I had one of those “what on earth am I doing here?” moments. If you are anything like me, and I know many of you are, you will know exactly what I mean. It’s not so much the “OMG, I’m doing grown up stuff!” kind of thing, though it’s a close relation. It’s more the “I’d better get out and cede the place to someone more deserving before they figure out I’m a fraud” kind of thing.
It’s the kind of feeling that explains a phenomenon I’ve found myself noticing more and more. The people who seem to get the very juiciest opportunities are, in my experience, incredibly talented. But they are not the only talented people I know who could have done the thing in question, whatever that thing happens to be. Sometimes they are not the people I think would have done it best. The more I think about it, though, the more they seem to have something in common. A belief in their own ability. There’s a confident, often quiet, poise that takes praise well and humbly but without surprise. It’s fascinating to watch – in large part because it’s something that feels so alien.
Ever since noticing this, I’ve been trying to put my finger on why it is I am so uncomfortable with this kind of self-worth. And whether any of those reasons are well founded. It has been a little like my own personal Jacob’s Ladder. In the red corner of this preternatural struggle we have the throbbing anxiety that humility and altruism are merely cloaks with which to hide inadequacy, whilst in the blue confidence is the pulsing fear that confidence is just another name for an arrogant, swingeing capitalism seeking to strip all before it of their assets and autonomy. This is what happened when I uncaged the two on each other.
I managed to identify the following reasons why I feel uncomfortable ever saying “I’m actually rather good at that.” I’m sure I’m not alone in any of them. Maybe I’m not even alone in feeling that the whole exercise of questionning one’s lack of confidence might in itself be distasteful – an excuse for an overwheening ego. I’m also fearful, of course, not only that the exercise itself might seem set up to be an excuse for arrogance but that it might also be dismissed out of hand with a “what are you talking about, only numpties would confuse confidence and arrogance” and the like. Thrown in to spice the blend is the fear that such introspection will be read as “tell me I’m wonderful” just like the regular self-doubting Facebook statuses people post so others will wade in with their wonderfulness. But, donning a hard-skinned hat to dodge those bullets, here goes.
1. A dislike of arrogance.
We all dislike arrogance. At least, I hope we do. It’s often hard to tell, though, where confidence ends and arroagance begins. I find myself regularly listening to speakers talking about what they’ve done and thinking “how dare they.” By which I mean, what right do they have to speak about their successes when others are denied teh chance to speak about theirs. Even after wrestling I still struggle with it. After all, my ultimate goal, my reason for involvement in the creative world, is to help everyone speak and be heard. The overwhelming silence of many still deafens, though, making the ears that the few seem to be able to bend seem fundamentally unjust. The first inclination is always to deflect praise onto someone who deserves it more, or who at least deserves a chance to be heard so that we can see if they deserve it more. Is this altruism or inadequacy? I don’t know. This is still an unresolved issue for me. What I am trying to learn to think, though, is that the line into arrogance isn’t crossed so long as we never seek to diminish others by comparison or overstep our own abilities and achievements. Which brings me neatly to
2. Lack of self-esteem
Most of us writers have both a low and a high self-esteem. This isn’t a post about self-doubt but if it were a post about self-doubt I’d spend a lot of time unravelling that ambiguity. We have a low self-esteem in that we are wracked by self-doubt. But we also have a high self-esteem because we bruise our words into being and then expect them to be read. We think that what we say matters. It is tempting to say that both of these tendencies probably overreach the truth of the matter. I am not sure that the latter is an overreach. I think we should believe our words matter. We should believe that what we have to say really is important. Whether it is or not is not the question, and is almost certainly something utterly beyond measure. But if we are taking the time to sculpt those words, we should believe utterly in their value, or we should look seriously at what we’re writing! This is very different from beieving in one’s ability to convey that thing of ultimate value – and here, our self-esteem levels are right if they are an accurate reflection, and we need to learn to recognise what we do well as well as those things where we need to improve
3. Comparison to others.
This is the killer. It is compounded, of course, by the Dunning Kruger effect – that those most likely to have a high perception of their abilities are often those with the least reason for that perception. This means that we suffer doubly when we compare ourselves to others. On the one hand, we see the handful of geniuses we work alongside, and wonder how we could ever match up (the answer, of course, is that we can’t. What we can do is our own thing in our own style). On the other, we see those who talk themselves up. And we believe them when they say how good they are, and esepcially when others around them echo and reflect that, and offer them gigs and positions to match that talk. By some kind of NLP we come with the presupposition they are better than us – because that’s what they and the world tell us. Then we look at what they actually do and say. And it really doesn’t seem all that impressive. So, because we’ve already judged ourselves their inferior, we assume that what we do is even worse. And when a certain amount of self-belief does nudge through, we end up resenting the fact that “they get all the breaks” whilst still not putting ourselves forward, preferring to huff and puff about it and know that somehow we are “in the right” and will be rewarded on the eternal scorecard of righteous indignation. The key is never to compare. Not when it comes to self-worth. Your self-worth must come from you and be related to whatever you do – not how that measures up to what other people do.
4. The worry that you are cheating others
I have found so often there is a mismatch between what we believe we owe and what others expect. It comes from being a perfectionist. “I don’t know everything about x” translates into “If I talk about x to people, I am cheating them.” I go through endless iterations of this every time I give a talk, and I went through it at yesterday’s roundtable. And of course, it’s nonsense. No one knows everything about anything. But there are many things about which each of us know and can impart knowledge for which others will be extremely grateful,a nd which is valuable to them. It boils down to the same as abaove – “know yourself” applies to your upper limits as well as your lower. Try this. Spend time to list the things you know about a topic. Write a blog post explaining it. Show that to someone who is interested but inexpert, and ask them if they have learned from it. If they have, then you have something valuable to say. Often, it is een simpler. People want to get something specific out of what you have to say. They proabbly don’t want to become an overnight expert (if they do, the problem is tehirs not yours) – they want you to take them a particular step on the journey. Try to discover what that is, and then be honest with yourself about whether or not you can do it. If you cam, you are cheating no one.
5. Discomfort with praise
Maybe it’s only me. I don’t think so, though. Praise makes me uncomfortable. My natural reaction is to deflect it. I can’t put my finger on why, but I think it’s a blend of all the above. But it’s a separate point, because it does have a serious negative impact – the need constantly to balance out a compliment with self-deprecation or turning the compliment onto someone else. It’s the main reason I’m often invited along to initial meetings but end up persuading people to take others on in my stead as projects mature. And it’s why I find it immensely difficult to accept money for my work, batting the issue away and saying no, no, I can’t – and ending up greatly out of pocket as a result, often when I absolutely can’t afford it.
It’s debilitating yet it’s something I’ve never addressed. I’ve always felt that would be wrong, placing too much value on myself. Fingers crossed the above points will be steps in tackling that. The truth is the same as everything I’ve been saying – if people are praising or paying you in proportion to what you’ve done (and not your perfectionist perception of what you consider an inadequate task – though of course you should always strive to use that to improve), that’s what matters. Learn to accept it.
As with everything I have been writing about of late, authenticity is the key. Know what you can do. Know the limits of your abilities, and be prepared to acknowledge them at the upper end as well as the lower. Your talents are as much a part of you as your limitations. Then, knowing your strengths, be prepared to accept praise for them, and be prepared to value them in a way you see fair. That will differ from person to person. But whatever scale of value you use, neither overvalue yourself on it, nor undervalue. If you would be happy to pay someone for doing what you do then don’t be afraid to ask others to pay you. and if you would be happy to consult with or write about someone who writes/articulates like you, don’t be afraid to accept positions or gigs or praise that comes your way, or to put yourself forward for them.
Never demean others, even where you are sure they have completely overestimated their wbilities. And don’t demean yourself either. There is nothing to be ashamed of in being and acknowledging yourself. The problem comes when you overstep the mark. But it also comes when you understep it. Know what you can do. Offer that. Ask for something appropriate in return. And then deliver.
Go on, be brave. Tell me something you do well.