A friend of mine who is contemplating a career change asked me this a little while ago. What if you pursue your dream and find out that you suck at it?
The month of May was pretty much all roses for me on the writing front: high creativity, fair amount of productivity. Everything seemed pretty possible because it was actually happening. The past few days, however, have been completely different for no explicable reason. I wondered what is this all for? What am I doing? What’s the point? What if I do suck? Or rather, I started to believe that I did. Eventually instead, I decided to hang out with my perfectionist insecurities and fear of failure – I observed it, invited it in, fed it some milk and cookies, and we colored. I was essentially waiting for this period to pass and I think I’m near the end of it.
So I’m posting below a minorly modified version of the response I sent my friend, partially because I need to hear it for myself again:
“Excuses, was my initial reaction. That’s what I said to myself in hindsight – all these fears and worries were just excuses. Of course I’ve worried about doing what I want and plain sucking at it! It’s a normal natural phase. I spent the first few months of Xoogler life shrouded in self doubt. Luckily, through it I identified and learned who to go to for reinforcement, reassurance and to challenge this notion that I was going to suck. In the end, like all things, what people tell you will only go so far, you really have to start asking yourself those challenging questions, answering them for yourself and believing your answers when you do find them. Do you really suck at it? What actual concrete proof exists that you suck at it? And what actual concrete proof exists that shows you really don’t suck at it? When I look at other challenges in my life, I have almost always done well. Sure, I shred my confidence to bits in the process (which, it turns out, completely unnecessary step) but oftentimes the scariest moment is just before you start (I think I stole that from Stephen King).
Most of my decisions have been made like this: If I am on my deathbed, what am I going to regret more – having done X or not having done X? Figure out the question you need to ask yourself that will really clarify what you want – it might not be the same as mine, another friend doesn’t like my approach but it works for me. Maybe another way to ask it is, if you die tomorrow what have you done that you’re going to be really proud of?
You’re only going to suck at it if you believe that you will. I know this is easier said than done but start gathering evidence that supports the fact that you don’t suck at what you want to do.
Then ask yourself, even if I suck at it, so what? What does sucking at it mean to you? What’s the thought behind sucking. Does the next thought go “I sucked, so I’m a failure”? or does it go “Okay, so I sucked, on the upside I got that idea out of the way and now I figure out what’s next”? If it’s the former, examine why you believe that sucking means you’re a failure. I’m sure that’s tied into some unhealthy, negative (read: Chinese) belief [My friend who I wrote this to is also Chinese]. All that badmouthing is counterproductive. Once you identify the core belief, chuck it out the window. Or start proving that core belief wrong.
One of my favorite quotes is this: “If you’re not happy with what you have, what radical changes are you willing to make to change what you’re getting?” About 2 years ago, I was so not happy with how I perceived my life to be going. Whatever I had been trying and doing for years on end wasn’t making me terribly happy. So eventually I cleaned house on anything I was questioning, I tried new things that I had always been curious about but never “had” the time. I did stuff I wanted to do and cared less about what people would think (somehow this was revolutionary for me), started asking a bunch of people about what they saw me doing, then asked myself that, started looking at everything as an experiment (even returning from leave, even during tough circumstances). In retrospect, some of the most terrifying moments of my life have turned out to be really great turning points that broke in tons of change. You don’t really know at the time how it’ll work out, so it’s a little bit of blind faith, trusting that you’ve thought it out as well as you can (which you will have). Then you just have to take a leap because you’ve done all the thinking that you can at this stage.
When I was questioning whether or not to leave my last job these following realizations kind of started to help convince me more of leaving.
- Education: I looked at my education and all that (nerdling in high school, Ivy League, blah blah blah). Then I looked at the education of the founders. Similar top tier schools. They’re slightly older than me. Relative to what they’ve accomplished, I was at a desk job that was completely unchallenging with little hopes of getting higher. And even if I did get promoted again and again, was it what I really wanted? Hellll no. Okay, so not everyone is Sergey or Larry. And I’m not looking to found the next Google or next big idea or to be a multi-billionaire (though positive cash flow can be good), but this exercise did remind me that I am as capable of thinking up creative solutions, testing new ideas and pushing myself as they were/are. The only barriers are mental barriers and determination to try it out. Or for me they were. I had no responsibilities that I could blame (no mortgage, no kids, etc) for not leaving. I had enough saved to float for a while. As for the determination, I eventually came around to the belief that, if I’m going to fail at pursuing my passions, then I’d rather fail miserably than be too scared to try.
- Family: The next thought runs a little in conjunction with education. Given my education and all the opportunities that my parents provided for me, was I groomed for a job as a localization project manager for the rest of my life? No. Of course the majority of the US population would kill for my job, but I might not be the average American. I also thought about my parents and all the challenges they endured and sacrifices/choices they made to get to where they are. My dad was born in China, fled to Vietnam, educated in Taiwan, couldn’t get to the US so he went to Canada, then eventually got into the US. My mom was born/raised in Taiwan and did her graduate studies in the US. Both of them worked long and hard in their own ways to get to the US. And while here, they managed to assimilate, learn the language, and do really well for themselves. That’s when I asked myself if I was groomed for this – an uncreative yet super comfortable cubicle job? I guess I felt like I was capable of more than just being complacent. And if genetics was any sign, I was capable of much, much more. Then I thought of my paternal grandmother. She had been raised in China in a family that had a decent living, then lost it all, then went to Vietnam and start anew, ran a ceramics factory, raised 4 kids, worked in the hotel/hospitality industry in Vietnam, eventually got to the US to try her hand at a bunch of different businesses. In her 70s she started her own company – a half way house and she ran that up until 2 years before she passed away at 86. Given all that family history, I kept realizing that I was capable of more or capable of at least trying for more or for what I think would make me happier.
Since leaving, I have, surprisingly, had these conversations with my dad where he has gradually revealed that when he was young he wanted to write, speak, etc. It’s probably his way of saying he’s glad I’m giving it a shot now. On my mom’s end, she’s been able to voice her amazement at my courage to try to pursue my passions. I dunno, I remind myself of these snippets because in some ways, I think I’m doing something they wanted to do but couldn’t at my age.
I read this article today on Someday Syndrome and found this quote that might resonate with you.
Pursuing dreams isn’t always easy – in fact sometimes it can make you feel downright cranky and even angry. In the post Why I’m Angry All the Time, I talk about how by taking myself out of comfort and pushing myself into a pursuit of happiness, my resistance (and temper) flares. Fortunately, a walk or run releases endorphins and quickly the bad mood vanishes.
And here’s a quote a friend sent me last week:
If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are — if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.“