I didn’t look up at Lou when he asked me; I concentrated on picking my dismembered blue crab’s meat with the tip of its claw. “I’m taking my time.”
Lou and I had escaped a work conference in D.C. with our three other coworkers. Mike, a laid-back thirtysomething who used to live in D.C., had recommended the live crab market on the riverbank.
Now we were standing on the back half of an old barge—the half that had lighting, if a string of Christmas lights with disco ball sconces might be called lighting. Mike had demonstrated the shucking and eating of a crab for us, but most people had made it by now to their second or even their third crab. Lou, the leader of the crab-eating pack besides Mike, had just picked up his fourth, and he seemed concerned about my paltry contribution to the diminishment of the crab pile.
I wasn’t thrilled with the amount of effort it took to eat a cooked-in-the-shell crab. For the amount of cracking and picking and plucking involved, there just isn’t that much food. I kept going on this crab because I didn’t want to waste its meat; Mike had paid about four dollars for the thing, and the crab had paid quite a bit more than that. But I felt content, once I polished this one off, to set aside my wooden mallet and go back to eating shrimp for the rest of the night. Those have a much higher food return on shucking investment.
Lou had other ideas. The moment I finished the smaller of my crab’s two claws, his long arm appeared over me with another crab. “Oooh, here! Here’s a perfect one, Chels.” I looked down at my second crab, whose two large claws folded symmetrically in front of it as though it weren’t actually dead, but rather just preparing to pounce. I flipped it over. To Lou’s credit, I had a much easier time shelling this crab than the first one.
It wasn’t the first time that my lack of skill at something had alarmed poorLou. The previous night, at a company bowling alley, he had sauntered over to discover that, in the three frames since the game had started, I had not managed to hit even a single pin. “Instead of looking down, try looking directly at the pins,”Lou suggested. I tried this on the fourth frame, and I still knocked over only three pins. “Hey, better than before!”Lou commented. I laughed “Well, it couldn’t really get worse.”
I think my failures affectLou’s emotional state more than they affect mine. A similar thing has happened at work before: he became very dismayed at my lack of skill at something. I worried, on that occasion, that he had identified a critical flaw that rendered me unfit to work for the company, but now I wonder whether he just invests himself inexplicably in seeing me be good at stuff.
It’s really a feat for someone to take my failures harder even than I take them. I would rank fear of failure my number one fear, and I’d also say it’s the culprit behind the fact that I don’t always act as gung-ho about new experiences as I wish I did. Sometimes I notice myself doing that: backing away from a new experience because I am afraid of how I’ll do at it.
Immediately after the conference, I went on a camping trip in the woods. On the first night, I noticed myself hesitating to join in some of the games because I did not know how to play and I felt afraid that I wouldn’t like them. I did not want to end up playing a game, messing it up or not enjoying myself, and ruining everybody else’s fun. This had nothing to do with anyone there, and was rather just a fear of mine. I don’t know where it came from.
I did end up trying out several new games—including a party game called werewolf, a card game called Hanabi, and a board game called Pandemic. After all, a camping trip isn’t about being nervous. It’s about spending time with friends.
Still, I wondered. I like to think of myself as a confident, adventurous person who welcomes the opportunity to try new things. But then sometimes I receive a cluster of evidence to the contrary, and I wonder why I sometimes hesitate to try something new.
I don’t think it comes from a fear of being bad at something. At this point, I consider bad first attempts to be a hallmark of my personality. I cannot remember a time I have been good at something the first time I tried it. Examples:
1. On Valentine’s day when I was five, I gave someone a kiss for the first time. My juvenile attempt at romance set off a barrage of ridicule that haunted my teensy brain. After that, every single day of school, I would try to come up with a novel way to feign an illness. This habit became annoying for my mom, and it persisted after I changed schools and entered the first grade. The new school had hardass teachers who didn’t let me steal away to the nurse’s office. My mother probably appreciated this. I didn’t kiss anyone again until after my freshman year…of college.
2. I remember the first time my mother answered my pleas for horseback riding lessons (to her credit, she took me almost the nanosecond that I was old enough). After a week, the instructor expressed that she thought I wouldn’t amount to much as a rider.
3. I tried to write an engaging story for my third-grade class, so I made up some lie about my grandmother baking rock cupcakes (original, I know). Unfortunately my teacher posted it on the wall along with all the other kids’ stories, and they were all still posted when my grandmother came to visit. She was not happy.
4. In middle school, after my father and I had racked up a couple of national accolades at model horse shows (we entered contests where we showed off little statue horses against other people’s little statue horses), I decided to start a business selling model horse saddles and other accessories. I had four customers at my middle school, and my largest haul ever was a small english saddle that I auctioned off for ten dollars and fifty one cents. The purchaser showed off the saddle at school, and then I got sent to the principal’s office and told to shut my business down. This was not the last business I had shut down by authority figures.
5. In the fall of ninth grade, I joined the fencing team. In the fall of ninth grade, I also got cut from the fencing team.
So I don’t think that I take it hard or personally when I don’t have a natural talent for something. Given enough time, I can get good at things despite lacking the natural talent I would like.
I think, rather, that I don’t want to let other people down.
Sometimes I view myself as this person who other people like and who they want to see be good at things, but then I don’t deliver for them.
And then I disappoint them when I do not do those things well right away. Maybe they feel like I don’t have the potential they thought I did, or maybe they just feel awkward to have suggested I try something that I end up not excelling at. I do not want to make people feel disappointed or awkward, and I guess some little part of my brain pipes up anytime an opportunity presents itself that runs the risk of me doing that to someone. I don’t know that it’s right or rational. I only just now figured out that it’s even there at all.
I actually read an interesting article this morning about stuff like this. See, I was listening to a programming podcast and they suggested that listeners contribute to them on Patreon, so I went to the Patreon homepage and ended up scrolling through their list of new creators. Wait But Why was in the list. I found the article while perusing the homepage of Wait But Why.
The article is called Taming the Mammoth: Why You Should Stop Caring What Other People Think. It’s kind of fun and very well-illustrated. It talks about our instincts to fit in and please people. It contrasts those instincts with our authentic voice, which it abbreviates to AV. It explains that, if we don’t listen to our AVs, they will become weak and demotivated.
I don’t know whether I could consider myself well-acquainted with my AV, but I do think that talking to you does the opposite of weaken and demotivate it :).