Does anybody fail anymore? I don’t mean celebrities, journalists, politicians, businessmen, diamond merchants and other such people of a high profile. But I refer to the "normal" people around us. Friends, family, neighbours and other acquaintances. Does anybody fail anymore? Make mistakes? Has misfortune befallen them? Do they express regret for bad choices?
Wait. What I mean to wonder is: does anybody admit to the fact that these things happen to them? I doubt this very much.
Increasingly I get the feeling that none of my friends or relatives or acquaintances ever talk about the stuff that goes wrong in their lives. Things are either successful outcomes of hard work and innate talent: great jobs, excellent bonuses, fantastic trips to Naples, good schools, excellent marks in the kids' exams, healthy babies, big houses… Or they are the disappointing outcomes of misfortune or other people’s mistakes: leaking roofs, scam jobs, schools that lied in the brochure, trips ruined because of weather…
Which is to say, that nobody actually admits to making poor decisions and even suffering from terrible luck.
And I think this is beginning to drive all of us nuts. Especially when you combine this tendency with the very public triumphalism of our social media feeds, Facebook timelines and Instagram pictures.
Let me give you one example. Some years ago, I spoke to a friend who had recently suffered a heartbreaking miscarriage. I met her after she’d achieved some closure. And we were talking about how unbelievably hard it is to have children these days. “You know there are couples all over the place having all kinds of problems with conception. But nobody talks about it. You only hear from them when things have gone to plan and when the baby picture goes up on Facebook. Otherwise nothing.”
This meant, she said, that she often felt like they were the only couple undergoing this tragedy. Everyone else was so lucky and so sorted and had been dealt the right cards. But the both of them… It all just seemed so unfair to her. Yet over and over again websites and brochures would tell her that miscarriages were entirely normal, happened to a large percentage of all couples, and was a tragic, if mathematically prevalent, part of the process of trying to have children.
“For f!@#’s sake I get that,” my friend said, “but where in hell are these people? How come none of my friends has these problems? These f!@#$%^ are just popping out kids at will...”
And I thought she has a point. And not just about gynaecological problems. But about all kinds of things. When was the last time, I thought, a friend admitted that they had made a wrong career choice? Or that their child didn’t get accepted into a good school because the child ballsed up the assessment event? If I got an LoU every time a parent said, “She didn’t get through to St Alexis but then we didn’t really like the school, and so we told her just chill and don’t take it seriously and in a way, I am glad she didn’t make it.”
So being the shameless blogger-Twitter type who just regularly lays out his personal life for all the world to see online, I’ve started being much more honest about the inglorious stuff that goes on in my life. And you’d be amazed how many people are just itching to share the turmoil in their own lives… if only they could find someone else to confide in without feeling inferior or judged in some way. How many? Almost everybody.
Let me illustrate with a simple conversation.
“You know our Aryamaan is just super chilled out at home. Really well behaved. We are blessed. Sidin how are things with your daughter?”
“She is great. But she has this irritating habit where she hates me having a conversation with the missus. She just keeps butting in… and it ends up taking two hours to tell my wife that I am thinking of getting funky contact lenses or something…”
“Oh my god Aryamaan is the worst! Honey do you recall the last time when we had a proper conversation at home… I remember it was about cricket… is Atul Bedade still playing for India?”
So nowadays if I ever sense there is an "issue" in the room that is getting glossed over, I try to bring it up and admit my own problems. And more often than not it takes the conversation to a place that can often be quite frank and intimate and useful.
I don’t do this out of altruism of course. Often I need help to cope with stuff too. Life isn’t all milk and honey if you’re a work-from-home journalist-columnist-trainee-historian type with a penchant for retro video games.
In fact, it gets very lonely. Especially when you are so far away from the frenzy of the newsroom, and the heat and light of editors who are processing your work. Am I any good? Was that story any good? Could it have been better? I have this idea for a column, can I bounce it off someone? Shrug.
Indeed for many months I have been crippled by a severe case of impostor syndrome. Is this work any good? Does this submission make sense? Are my research questions worthwhile? Is this column just weak, utter tripe or diabolical?
All around me are these dashing scholars and columnists and journalists pitching great ideas, speaking with great resolve, and writing phenomenal pieces. Meanwhile here I am writing comedy novels…
The next day things will start nicely enough and then… boom I’ll read an essay or op-ed piece somewhere and suddenly feel the infinity of my vacuity. Sometimes the attacks are so severe I have to force myself to go for long walks away from all my books and notes and archives and the internet.
Some weeks ago, however, I found some succour in an unlikely place: the line for buffet lunch at a conference. An experienced, young professor queuing in front of me asked how my research was going. I said it was OK, I was able to balance it nicely with the rest of my life, and the reading is going nicely. But the impostor syndrome was driving me mad…
Oh, that never goes away, the brilliant fellow said. You suffer from it too, I asked. But you are a star.
Of course, he said. Every time I sit in front of a class I feel I am one poor lecture away from total humiliation. Someone is going to ask a question that will not only flummox me but also potentially upend all my years’ worth of research and writing.
So this is fine?
Totally normal, he said, reaching for a salmon wrap of some kind.
Oh super. And then I came back home. Started work, and then suddenly thought to myself: Wait, did he just say that to make me feel nice, was that a lie, a fabrication, a ruse, was he lying, how can someone like that have doubt, maybe he was just trying to comfort me because he knows I am hopeless….
And I went for a walk.
Umm… so do you feel like an impostor too? Want to talk about it?
Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.
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