I started playing the saxophone in middle school because it was a boys’ instrument; girls played flute and clarinet. I played saxophone and I made sure I was better than all the boys, which didn’t necessarily change anyone’s mind about saxophone being a boys’ instrument but did earn me a little bit of respect, and a little bit of self-respect for doing something unexpected and unique.
Playing music taught me that it feels fantastic to be recognized for being good at something. It feels especially fantastic when you don’t have to work too hard at it. I was fortunate to pick music up fairly quickly — to slide by on “‘talent.” I never had to practice as hard as some of my bandmates, which came back to bite me. When I reached the point where I needed to practice to reach a higher level — in my case, being a good improvisational soloist in jazz band — I didn’t know how to put in the work. Frustrated and uncomfortable at not being the best anymore, I started selling myself short to avoid rejection. I decided I was a good accompanist. That was true, it was also an excuse to skirt the fear of not being a good soloist by never trying. I deferred my soloing opportunities to other people in the band. Eventually I chose to stop playing entirely rather than grow through the growing pains of becoming talented. In the process, I failed to learn that talent is something you develop, not something you have or don’t.
Shortly thereafter I went off to college and into a variation of the same process. I’d always been at the top of my classes, the “smart girl,” again without having to try too hard. I was unprepared to go from a high school with a graduating class of five hundred to a university where one of my classes might have five hundred people attending lectures and competing for grades. I’d been a big fish in a smallish pond, and someone had dropped me into a big, deep, cold ocean. To further complicate things, I’d decided I would study science because it was important, because I thought it would be the most prestigious choice, not because I felt a driving passion for it. Biology fascinates me, but it doesn’t sparkle in my blood the way books and language do. Being average and having to work my ass off for something I didn’t love was uncomfortable and unpleasant. I got my first C+, then my first C-. Flashcards didn’t help, home-drawn posters of organic chemical molecules didn’t help. I called my mother and cried.
Eventually I switched over to study language. This made me happy, and I thrived in the new program. Still, I couldn’t let myself off the hook for changing paths — for “failing” at science. I spent a damn long time selling myself short by making excuses. Science had been too hard. I wasn’t as smart as the other students. I was too poor; I had to work, so I couldn’t study enough to be competitive. By switching to the humanities I could have two majors and a minor, not just one major.
All these barriers to success. All these barriers to admitting that I wanted something, and going for it. All these barriers to being myself. I was getting my ass kicked over tiny little things, but I wasn’t learning anything except how to be stuck. I wasn’t learning to fail gracefully or how to risk until I earned a reward. I was following one safe path until it turned rocky and narrow, then cutting across to a new one. I never had to ask myself what I wanted, or what I was good at, or what it would take to combine those two things. And now it’s ten years later, and I still feel stuck.
It feels so personal and isolating, but there’s really nothing special about this struggle. I’m not the only cog in the machine that thinks she’s the only one keeping everything going, but I’m not. None of us are, really, which should be more liberating than frightening. Everything goes on without us; except to the people we love, we’re each completely unnecessary. And to the people we love, we’re each already everything we need to be.
I had that thought alone in the middle of a rainforest, and it was the most beautiful and liberating moment of my life so far. I have that thought here, back in the middle of the machine, and I freeze up in fear. Why the difference?