Fresh on the heels of listening to the recording of “You’re Already Good Enough: How Embracing Imperfection and Cultivating Confidence Frees You to Influence and Lead,” I’m putting together an expressive arts project for homeless youth. As I work, I’m thinking, “That’s what these kids need to hear: ‘You’re already good enough!’” Then I pause. While I suspect this is, in fact true, is there anyone who can’t benefit from a bit of reassurance?
I know I need it. Lots. Most of the time, I have some in stock. I just reach into my mental pantry and grab a jar of Hey, I got this. Or a whiff of the idea does the trick. I glimpse evidence that some part of my life is OK and get the needed boost. This is why I love having a clean kitchen and a stocked fridge. It reminds me that whatever chaos is going on, I’ve got decent prospects for survival.As a creative writing teacher, a lot of what I do is help people manage fear. Putting your ideas out there for the world to see (or ignore) can be terrifying. I coach my students to reduce the unknown by reading and research. To outwit their inner critics by breaking projects into bite-sized chunks. To nurture their momentum by celebrating small victories like hitting a word count or completing a session. I remind them as often as necessary that if they do these things consistently over time, their work inevitably improves. As a writer, this mental practice runs alongside and through my writing practice. I rely on it daily, whether I’m working on a short story, a grant proposal, or (ahem) a blog post.
Yet there are times when I’m too freaked out by the enormity of the gap between me and a goal to apply my own advice, like when I started studying for my doctoral qualifying exams. The written component I was fine with. I’m a writer. I have a decent idea of how to make written things happen. The three-hour oral component that I had to pass first was another story. Have you ever seen that Food Network show, Chopped? In my department, oral exams consist of committee members taking turns giving you questions, each of which is like a basket of mystery ingredients that may not go together. Your job is to whip up a cohesive, tasty answer that includes the basket items while your judges look on and, well, judge. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel at least some passing discomfort at the prospect of undergoing this rite of passage, but I couldn’t have been more nervous if you’d told me I’d be giving birth to twin Buicks.
My husband, a lovely and encouraging partner, tried to convince me I was already good enough to pass my oral exams. He meant that I already had whatever skills and knowledge the occasion required. I told him (strenuously) that I wasn’t good enough. In a sense, I was right: I was still preparing when we had this exchange. I wasn’t merely nervous: I really wasn’t ready. But in the sense meant by the panelists in the “You’re Already Good Enough” event, I was: the need to build my oral exam skills and master some content wasn’t a reflection of my worth past, present, or future. It was just a stretch along a path I could choose to keep climbing if I wanted to reach a particular destination.
This time in my academic life required me to truly, deeply understand, accept and embrace the distinction. I was good enough—regardless of the outcome of the test. I don’t mean this acceptance was perfect or complete. On a good day, I was maybe 84% sure my worth as a human had little to do with that exam, with the remainder varying between suspecting that it did and ignoring the question altogether. But it was sufficient to let me see how even my mental outlook could be just one more subject in which I could, with knowledge and effort, improve.
This took extra, ongoing labor, which included adapting some exercises from a sports psychology book to my academic goals, then doing them almost daily. This was not my idea of fun. My idea of fun is watching Chopped with my nine-year-old, who makes hilarious and astute observations. But I thought of this like doing reps at the gym so I can run farther without hurting myself. While I wasn’t transformed from a neurotic basket case into a serene professional academic, I was settled enough to do my job: read, review, remember (repeat daily for numerous weeks). On the fateful day, I performed with at least enough poise and wit to convince my committee to let me through to the next challenge.
Would I love to have had an effortless self-assurance in facing those exams? You betcha. But my confidence for that particular challenge had to be cooked from scratch. The goal was important enough to me to invest that effort and not to worry that the cool kids in my department didn’t have to go to such lengths. It was worth accepting the radical notion that imperfect me was perfectly good enough to take the next step I needed toward my academic dream.