Updated: Jun 18, 2021
Everyone wants to be better, right?
A better friend. Better partner. Better singer. Better writer. Better human.
Goals. Strategies. Vision boards. Life coaches. That deep yearning that drives you forward.
No, thank you.
I’ve always hated goals. If I set a goal, I am putting myself in a position to possibly fail. If I have a general idea of something I’d like to do, and happen to actually accomplish it, then it’s a surprise and cause for celebration.
Except that when I actually accomplish something, I turn immediately to minimizing the accomplishment, muting any accolades, and creatively devising an elaborate explanation for why it’s really no big deal. Anyone could have done it.
But I digress.
For most of my married life, when my husband, Judah, has asked, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” I’ve always answered the same thing, “Married with two cats.”
And for thirteen years, I have been right.
I love being right.
If I hope, I risk being let down.
If I forecast, I risk letting others down.
If I put myself on the line, I might not have what it takes and expose myself as a fraud and a failure.
I don’t want to be better because I don’t want to need to be better. I want to be perfect from the start.
Several years ago, my friend, Amanda, recommended Carol Dweck’s book Mindset which explains the fixed versus growth mindset. The fixed mindset views intelligence (and ability) as fixed. You’re born with all you’ll ever have. The growth mindset views intelligence (and ability) as being able to be developed, improved upon. You may have certain proclivities, but you have the innate ability to increase your proficiency at anything.
Most of my life, I have lived in the fixed mindset. I have the talent I have. Period. If I don’t get hired, it’s because I’m not good enough. And I have no hope of improving. If I get hired, it’s because of this natural gift I’ve had since I was born.
Growing up, I heard that Ethel Merman never had voice lessons. She was naturally gifted.
I decided that I, too, wanted to be naturally gifted and not need voice lessons.
As if she got to choose.
My grandfather told me I had perfect pitch.
Score one for “naturally gifted”.
Was he right? I couldn’t risk asking.
I’ve felt the push and pull of this limited view of myself and my abilities throughout my life. My very worth hanging in the balance. Am I enough? Do I have what it takes? And if not, who am I?
In 2015, I was in a musical production. The music director was a jazz pianist. Not a musical theatre anything. He was out of his comfort zone.
I brought my own insecurities to the contract, and I needed a music director. His lack of knowledge and experience sent me into a tailspin.
The cast was made up of only four people: two men and two women. During one rehearsal, there was a vocal line that was split between me and the other woman, but we had sung it in unison. He didn’t catch it.
How could I trust him to notice if I did something wrong? What if I was terrible, and there was no one there to catch it?
I went down a horrific rabbit hole of self-doubt. I wanted to quit the show. How could these other actors work with me if I might ruin their show?
I lived in cast housing with the two men. I found myself wondering how they could even be friends with me, how could they be nice to me when I was so profoundly terrible?
I questioned every note that came out of my mouth. I dreaded going out on the stage. Why would anyone want to put themselves in such a position? Why would people choose to expose themselves in front of large groups of people? Risk failing so publicly?
I didn’t quit, but I didn’t enjoy it either. For the first time in my life, I didn’t enjoy performing.
This experience exposed how much of my self-worth I put into my abilities. I was horrified by the thought that people shouldn’t be friends with me if I was untalented. Was that how I viewed other people? I honestly wasn’t sure.
Fast forward just a few months, and I was helping run auditions for a theatre where I’d previously worked. A girl I knew and had worked with came in to sing. The choreographer behind the table with me also knew her. After she sang, he glowingly said, “Victoria, you sound amazing! You’ve improved so much over the past three years.”
My stomach shriveled up inside me. My butt scrinched. I felt my body slightly collapse in on itself.
What was he thinking? Why would he say something like that in front of the Artistic Director?
He may as well have said, “Wow! You used to really suck. Thankfully, you’ve gotten better.”
He was totally exposing her for not always having been that good. And in front of everyone in the room!
Hold your horses.
What was I thinking?
What was the alternative? If he had known her for three years, and she came in and was exactly the same as she had been three years prior, what would that say? Isn’t it actually a good thing to improve over time?
This struck me to my core!
My whole life, I have struggled with feedback because any constructive criticism was only received as criticism. Exposure. Lacking. Being called out.
I couldn’t receive compliments because I only heard them as expectations for the future. If someone said, “You’re so funny”, now I had to be funny. All the time. Or else I was letting them down. They expected funny, and I better deliver. Or else.
What a way to live.
But I didn’t know there was another way.
I still struggle with this. My standard default has been to expect perfection from myself and to heap shame over my head if I fell short.
Thankfully, I am married to someone who lives out of a growth mindset, so I have a front-row seat to a life lived differently from mine. It used to make me angry. How dare he roll with the punches? How dare he not get his feathers ruffled when something didn’t work out the way he planned? Life looked so easy for him, while my emotions were jerked around all over the place and my self-worth hung in the balance.
With each passing failure or shortcoming, I get the opportunity to rewrite my reaction. Because my nose isn’t stuck in a pile of dog poo for being “so terrible”, I’m able to see the beauty in mistakes. The freedom in not having to have it all figured out. The impossibility of perfection.
I can also see that when I fail, and own it, it gives others permission to fail without fear too. Or at least with less fear.
It usually feels like trash to mess up. Especially if there’s a sizable audience. But we all mess up. It’s the human condition. There really is no alternative.
So, I guess the reality is that the little girl inside me doesn’t want to be better because she doesn’t want to have to be better. But the big girl I’m growing into values that this isn’t all there is. I can grow and change and become things I have yet to even dream of.
The idea of that used to scare me. And it still does sometimes. But, mostly, it excites me. It gives me the courage to try new things. And it draws me forward.