Friday, 22 April 2011

Please Yourself

For years and years, I have noticed how those who merit success do not always achieve it. I remember so many people from both school and university who could dazzle you with their intelligence in normal circumstances but somehow didn't shine when the heat was on. They were far more interesting and clever than the very nice but uncharismatic swots who won prizes, but, when it came to the crunch, they were unable to pull the rabbit from the hat.

                                            (From the New Yorker, 11 April, 2011)

One friend I had at university perfectly illustrates the kind of character I'm talking about: when she could summon up the confidence, she wrote poetry so brilliant that even the world-renowned poet, the great AD Hope, expressed his admiration. Despite this, my friend was unable to sustain momentum. She shook her head and insisted she wasn't much good really. She wrote things and then tore them up and threw them away. Other more minor talents rushed on to such fame and fortune as Australian poetry offers. Meanwhile, my friend continued not quite producing the work she was capable of, insisting her stuff was useless, that she wasn't as good as the others and eventually giving up.

And after university, when I started working, I found things weren't much different. People who were by far the best at managing and planning and all sorts of other things that mattered in their work, could not summon up the necessary skills when it came to interviews for promotion or dazzling the powers that be. The useless big noters - or, to be fair, the perfectly okay but slightly dull and mediocre types - would scurry up the rungs of the corporate ladder instead, leaving their betters loitering below.

I've always wondered why things so often turn out in that odd way. I've thought about the problem on and off for years. And then yesterday it suddenly came to me - I recognised the answer. I realised what the ones who fluff the important tests and challenges, the ones who don't appear to believe in themselves and their own abilities, need to understand. Of course, instantly I had visions of myself becoming a self-help guru, selling millions of copies of the book I would write to explain my new perception, having it translated into several dozen languages so I could spread my wisdom around the world.

But then I realised I'd have to waste three months of my life padding out what is essentially little more than a sentence or two, in order to make a book that would be thick (in all senses) enough to sell. I decided that I had better things to do with my time and that I would therefore provide my insight (such as it is) free to anyone who reads this blog. Here it is, in all its wonder:

The worst thing you can ask yourself when starting any kind of project or walking into any kind of interview or facing any sort of challenge is 'What if I fail?' (or, indeed, 'Am I going to fail?')

That's the essence of my 'amazing' insight, based on a sudden realisation that all the people I'd witnessed being successful had absolutely no self-consciousness whatsoever. They were people for whom the idea that they would not succeed never crossed their minds. Failure was not something within their imagination - and that was precisely why they never dried up in horror when hit with a sticky question. Instead, like a keen horse facing a big jump, they would just square up to the thing and tackle it head on.

They approached each challenge with only one question: 'What am I trying to do here, what am I planning to achieve?' They lacked anxiety about the opinions of others. If they had any thoughts about the people they might like to impress or emulate, they excluded them from their mind. They also kicked out the gang of creeps who'd made them feel small and stupid when they were at school. They shut the mental door on all of that and pushed home the bolts.

They had no fear of failure because they never even envisioned it. Because failure is only failure when someone else decides it is and the ones who won the prizes didn't think about what anyone else would think of them, they were immune from the sudden panic that they might not succeed. They didn't use anyone else as a measure or consider anyone else's opinion. They just ran at the gate and leapt.


  1. Here is your mantra; repeat:

    *I will not think about failure, I will not think about fai...*

  2. Thanks, David.
    Bill, hmmm. I think failure must not be allowed to enter the room, even within a mantra. Don't entertain it, that's the plan. It's not important, it's not relevant, it's not what it's about. That's how I see it anyway.

  3. Much truth in this, I'm sure, but it leaves out one perennially entertaining type: the successful schemer tortured by premonitions of faiure but so adept at intrigue and manipulation that failure is kept waiting.

    Also, is your offering really advice, in the sense that it can be acted upon, as opposed to analysis of two utterly different temperaments, neither of which can be learned or implanted?

  4. Nasty sounding type, that one. I think it is advice, but advice is usually not heeded.

  5. Well, then, I will not countenance failure in attempting to follow your advice.

  6. Yotro - I guess the flaw in my argument is if the answer to 'what am I trying to do here? what am I trying to achieve?' is 'to impress others and become a much-admired celebrity.' But, if that's the plan, it's a bad one, I think. Not that it isn't the motivation we're all rather encouraged to have a lot of the time

  7. I think they teach this stuff in MBAs - you should consider getting one.

  8. Hey, Polly, you can go off people you know.

  9. Yes, especially when they are far away and becoming increasingly irrelevant... I am having fun trying to think of sounds I don't hear anymore, though, and wondering if they're all machine/device related. Here in China, might they miss the sound of buzzing flies???

  10. Shall we skype soon? David never got in touch, but I presume that is not because he has fallen down in the house and broken both his legs and is even now trying to drag himself toward a telephone to get help

  11. I gave him the wrong phone number and email address I think, which may not have helped. Yes, can we skype today?

  12. I'll switch skype on. Not sure what time it is with you - still three hours earlier?