I’ve had some lovely successes in my life. Nothing as historic or life-changing as the splitting of the atom or the women’s suffrage movement, but moments where I can legitimately weigh in and say “Yes, I did good that day.” These can range from organising a quiz an event, to excelling in a piece of study. But in all honesty, I have never really enjoyed my successes. I never really feel like I deserve them.
There is this sense of embarrassment attached to my success that is hard to reconcile with the joy my friends and family display when I share this news with them. It’s a feeling of guilt and discomfort that the success they celebrate is nothing more than a series of accumulated bits of output that I have no ongoing attachment to, nor does it have any ongoing value. What do they see that I can’t? And that guilt is compounded by the additional guilt I feel for not sharing in their happiness for my achievements.
The same feeling surfaces when I am selected for a working group or a project group. What can I contribute? Is it enough? When I ask for support or feedback, am I prepared for the answers? Feedback tends to be delivered in a critique of what you’re not doing. I appreciate the directness and authenticity, and value the fact that they can feel comfortable enough to give their frank honesty. But somehow I come away feeling a little battered and bruised and ashamed of my lacklustre efforts.
I’ve recently been exposed to two sources that have given me perspective on these reflections and provided some solace to my internal struggles.
The first is an article on indigenous peoples and knowledge sharing by Carla McGrath, a Torres Strait Islander. There was a small part in this piece that addressed success. What I read that resonated with me is that in societies that indigenous minorities share with the ethnic mainstream, Western schools of thought that favour competition and individual success dominate. But indigenous communities share work activities and successes as a collaboration, as a collective. This made me re-examine my own thoughts on success and that maybe, maybe, my successes, as individual successes, just do not sit comfortably with my indigenous mindset.
The other source is a podcast with Oprah talking to Brené Brown who found prominence with her TedTalk on vulnerability. In this podcast, she revisits the Theodore Roosevelt quote, often referred to as the “Man in the Arena” speech, which inspired the title of her book Daring Greatly.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
I by no means think that I have dared greatly, or that I have been into a battle to warrant a face “marred by dust and sweat and blood”. But my experiences of being that person in the arena, no matter how limited the scope, has been to come away a little worse for wear and wanting to retreat back to the safety and security of anonymity. And I almost did.
But after listening to Brown talk on this podcast, I realised that anytime you put yourself forward, you’re placing yourself in a vulnerable state and by doing so, you’re going to encounter discomfort, disappointment, distress, and many other dis-words besides. And I did not like the way that made me feel.
But she goes on to say that “vulnerability – the willingness to be “all in” even when you know it can mean failing and hurting – is brave.” And I do like how that makes me feel.
So, I resolved to take my bruised self and enter back into the arena knowing that I will likely fail any number of times before I triumph. And even when I do triumph, it is likely I’ll feel a little ashamed about it.
McGrath, C. (2015). Indigenous culture relies on knowledge sharing. We need new leaders to reflect that. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/oct/19/indigenous-culture-relies-on-knowledge-sharing-we-need-new-leaders-to-reflect-that
Oprah’s Supersoul Conversations (August 2017) Brené Brown Part 1: Daring Greatly [Podcast]. Retrieved from: https://player.fm/series/oprahs-supersoul-conversations-1708688/bren-brown-part-1-daring-greatly
Roosevelt, T. (1910, April 23) Citizenship in a Republic. Speech delivered at La Sorbonne, Paris, France. Retrieved from: http://www.design.caltech.edu/erik/Misc/Citizenship_in_a_Republic.pdf