For Dave's 50th birthday, we went to see Mary Roach, a science writer and humorist who has written such books as Stiff, Bonk, and most recently, Gulp, speak as part of the City Arts & Lecture series at the Nourse Theatre in San Francisco. It was an entertaining evening, and Roach is a great storyteller as she recounted funny anecdotes from her research. The Q & A portion was surprisingly interesting and absent were the typical gooey praise for the speaker. Through Roach's answers of a few different questions, she spoke about her own insecurities, self-criticism and general worry that her writing won't be good enough, clear enough, funny enough. But what struck me is how her insecurities became motivators. What makes one person's low self-esteem productive, and for another person, their low self-esteem creates paralysis? It seems like at the root of both people is fear—fear of being insignificant, fear of failure, fear of being judged. Roach commented that she only shares the drafts of her book with her trusted editor, because anyone else's feedback might cause her to abandon the whole project. That sounds like a lot of self-doubt for a best-selling author, and I don't believe that she was just being self-effacing. So how do her fears manifest in book after book, while for me and others I know, that fear results in not pursuing our goals?
One possibility may be that success could be a defensive posture to counter shame and lack of self-worth. But why does the insecure productive person's desire override their fear? Does their need for attention trump their worry about judgement? For others, those feelings of worthlessness compound on top of each other and create nothing but regret.
What are the qualitative differences between the insecure person who has found success and the insecure person who is stuck?
On television, reality show and celebrity interview after interview, low self-esteem and narcissism rear their ugly heads time and time again. I understand that fame attracts those qualities—the need for attention from your director or your audience offers reassurance and belonging—I realize that this is a gross overstatement, but for argument's sake, is that need for affirmation so great that it suppresses the fear of rejection? Shouldn't that kind of lack of confidence cause these stars to crawl up into a ball and hide, instead of pursuing their goals with such dedication? This is such a mystery to me. It's something that I need to unlock. I want to perform. I want to have the resiliency to go to auditions, to network and to slough off rejection, all the while building skills to help me get cast the next time. But it feels all too much for me, at least at this point in time. My love of performing does not trump these feelings of doubt. And the very fact that they don't, makes me question myself even more.
I've always thought that content people are the individuals who have healthy self-esteem, who feel uncertainty but move through those uncomfortable stages until they travel to the other side and complete their tasks. But listening to Mary Roach last week made me realize that many of these seemingly successful people are filled with more than just a little healthy self-doubt. How does she manage her apprehension to keep working, researching and writing?
Birthday boy with his girls at Smitten in SF.
How does one person's youth filled with lack of stability, financial insecurity and unloving relationships motivate them to become competent and wealthy, while for another, it just reemphasizes scarcity and keeps them down?
How does one person have enough belief in themselves to see their ideas through, while another lets the world pass them by?
How does one person decide they are an authority on a subject and become a professor, a mechanic, a surgeon?
At the heart of the situation, I think that we attempt to raise our children, to teach our students, to help our friends, our family, ourselves, to listen to our feelings (whether they are filled with fear, joy or something in between) and to have the emotional tools to act upon our needs. We try to not judge others and to not judge ourselves. We strive for empathy and to open ourselves to experience. And hopefully that is an easier thing to learn when you are a young person who has not lived through damaging relationships and disappointments. Maybe our children will be more resilient to those harmful situations and will gain strength from them instead of having their spirits crushed. But what of the folks who have been deflated. How do they aspire to their potential?
My real question is: What are the qualitative differences between the insecure person who is productive and the insecure person who is stuck? I feel that this is fertile ground for exploration and some answers could open a new path of inquiry for me to follow in my own efforts to release my uncertainty and embrace my aspirations. I know that not many folks read this blog (as I've been too shy to widely publicize my nascent writing) but if you have thoughts on this subject or know someone who might, please make comments below, pass the question along, or drop me a line!