Grit and imposter syndrome
20th October 2019
This piece was first published by the ABC in 2019. Update: I’m still plugging away at the manuscripts, they are still unsold, and Pillow Tummy remains soft, billowy and delicious.
I’m writing at a café located at the mid-point of a seven kilometre loop around my house, a route that includes some juicy hills, and after completing the first half, I’m a bit of a sweaty wreck. I have a plan, you see, to walk the Camino De Santiago next year. This ancient pilgrim trail across Spain requires me to manage about 20 kilometres a day for five weeks, an adventure way out of my comfort zone, which is, in truth, comfort. My active wear is sub-par, I’m a lover of the couch and a proud sporter of a protuberance the children call (with great affection) Pillow Tummy.
Nevertheless, here I am at the Fireworks Cafe, rosy-cheeked as Miss Piggy and fishing the strap of my cheap sports bra out of my sleeve. (Sensual.) I haul my laptop out of my backpack, order a flat white, and start tinkering with my ‘France’ manuscript. As I wrestle order out of my wild mess of notes, every once in a while I add a random thought to the ‘Camino/Convict’ manuscript (embryonic) and the ‘Baby’ manuscript (completed to third-draft stage). Not one of these books is commissioned, comrades. I am Imposter Syndrome writ large. But nonetheless, I beaver away, happy as…well, Miss Piggy.
From one perspective, this scene is a pathetic snapshot of a deluded dilettante. But I’m not choosing to think that way. Lately I’ve been enjoining myself to ‘practice confidence’, and enjoying watching people on Instagram display their ineptitude. Lena Dunham, ‘voice-of-millennials’ writer, is learning to paint, and posts her portraits without qualification. To me, they have an amateurish, slap-dash charm, but who cares what I think? Dunham, early adopter of cultural moments and recipient of outsize criticism over the years, cares not a whit for the opinions of others. I think she’s onto something.
I am truly enjoying watching Jonathan Van Ness of Queer Eye fame learn to ice skate. Van Ness, who teams his lustrous beard with high-fashion frocks and a six-inch heel, is taking ice-skating training very seriously. In the early days Van Ness rolled some comedic stacks, but he now completes flips, spins and complex gymnastics, and skates with real skill. Van Ness is a living – and hilarious - demonstration of how practice pays off.
In a delightfully left-field moment, Kim Kardashian West, reality-TV original gangster, businesswoman and mother of four, is in training to become a lawyer. With a net worth estimated at 350 million, Kardashian West might still pay staff to peel her grapes, but she’s also spending 18 hours a week in a four-year apprenticeship to a firm in San Francisco, and is part of a national bipartisan advocacy group on criminal justice reform. She’ll Instagram the stack of law books with a glamour-beige filter, but it doesn’t make torts any easier to learn.
Dunham, Van Ness and Kardashian West are bringing a sort of edgy-glam vibe to the notion of ‘grit’, a trait seen as a marker for success in creativity, sports and business. Grit is critical, but we don’t like the idea of it, researchers say. We prefer the notion of ‘genius’ because it lets us off the hook, allowing us to see a person as incredible at their skill because of their magical, innate talent. The practice hours - the discarded novel drafts, the time following a black line at the bottom of a pool, the useless theories tested before the mathematical algorithm is cracked – are invisible once we are presented with the finished novel, the medal-winning 800 metre freestyle performance or the completed, elegant theory.
All these successes require many hundreds of hours of what psychology professor Anders Eriksson calls ‘deliberate practice’, or the beavering away at a goal with an end-point in mind. Passion is important, but perseverance is the key to reaching proficiency, and even -if you’re lucky – ‘genius’. The painful sitting with one’s own inadequacies is also necessary. In my case, that includes an ill-fitting sports bra and three unsold manuscripts.
Experts say that grit can be learned, like any skill. It’s in the interest of installing some grit into my flabby character that I have been plugging away at these books and hauling poor Pillow Tummy up and down those hideous hills. Just maybe, if I put in the work, I can transform these manuscripts into polished, successful products. Grit into gold. At least I will have tried, an effort that is valuable, in and of itself.
In our shiny online worlds, anything can be made to appear perfect with a little face-tuning and some judicious clipping of the shabby corners. But we are all craving the connection that vulnerability brings, and we all dread embarrassment – the most anxiety-provoking emotional experience of them all. Allowing oneself to be seen in the raw, fraudish early reality of a project; ugly, moronic working-out on full display, is like arriving at the ball scaffolded into your tummy-sucking support undergarments without your frock on top. It’s an act of anarchy. While Dunham presents work in progress, Van Ness falls on the ice and Kardashian West puts herself in the position of failing the bar in an epic, public humiliation; they are showing us their humanity.