I work at one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in the world.
The students, while they do come from all over the map, both geographically and academically, are, by and large, freakishly amazing people. They bring a wealth of experience and leadership to the table; they have collected more AP scores than anyone ought to collect; they ask intelligent, probing questions; they throw themselves into work weeks whose intensity level is far beyond what I experienced until I started studying for my quals in graduate school.
And yet, they worry about not being (interesting, smart, talented, whatever) enough. The other day, I sat at another awards dinner, this one for juniors who had been awarded a fellowship to spend the summer after sophomore year doing something that contributed to their personal growth and exploration: one followed Che Guevara's Motorcyle Diaries travels; another apprenticed to a jewelry designer in India; another studied traditional fiddle music; another traveled in the footsteps of her grandmother who was a Holocaust survivor, and plans to collaborate on an intergenerational book; another interviewed siblings of special needs children and adults; another--a countertenor--studied Baroque music both domestically and abroad. (And while the projects and students were not quite as polished as those at my previous dinner this month, they did make me wonder what I would do with carte blanche and $4000.)
When all of the students had delivered their versions of "what I did with my summer vacation," the two graduate recipients of a parallel award, who spent a year on a project, stood up to give their speeches. The first worked on women's health and health education in India, addressing everything from breastfeeding education to cancer screenings and shifting the cultural view of sick women as burdensome. The second stood up to introduce his novel, and after some tripping over his words (affected or not, we weren't sure), and making some self-denigrating comments, said: "I forgot what being at [X] is like. It's like ..." he gestured around the room " ... like this."
It's not the first time I've heard something along these lines. All summer long, as I talked with students applying for fellowships, I heard from them: I'm not good enough. So-and-so is brilliant. I'm not really sure if my project is compelling. I don't have grades like my roommate does. Etc., etc., etc.
The awkward thing about being at a place where everyone is freakishly amazing is that it's hard to take a risk to do something as a mediocre novice, even--ironically enough--in the context of a fellowship that rewards your exploration of something as a mediocre novice. And I get it: when I walk through the Common Room of our college, there is often someone at the grand piano, playing the equivalent of Rachmaninoff; it's no wonder that no one wants to venture a few bars of "Heart and Soul," and even when the room is empty, I resist the urge to sit down and work on my rusty rendition of Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu (I would never confess to these people that I played in Carnegie Hall, for fear that they might expect me to produce something impressive).
It can, if we let it, work the same way in blogging and writing. If you read enough freakishly amazing writers, you start to think that there's nothing much you can contribute to the conversation. Best to leave the work of writing and thinking to those who are more talented than you, you think, those who have something important and compelling to say, and who say it in innovative and impressive ways. Perhaps you stop writing entirely, and become a passive consumer of language, pining away, somewhere deep within you, for your lost voice.
It can even work this way in the kitchen: if you read enough recipes, you can start to wonder why you should bother coming up with something new, since it's bound not to be much good the first time around anyway, and there are probably already fifteen better versions of what you're making already out there, under contract for a cookbook.
On the other hand, you could look at it this way: if you're surrounded by enough interesting people, or if you are friends with enough fabulously talented bloggers, or if you immerse yourself in enough cookbooks, you can't help but swim in those waters eventually yourself. While my Chopin still isn't very good, it's better than it was at the beginning of the summer, when I didn't practice it, because I wasn't inspired to do so by the freakishly amazing Rachmaninoff-players.
The pressure to be interesting can feel like a two ton boa. But it could also be liberating, given a safe and judgment-free place to take risks. Part of me keeps thinking I should create a "Mediocrity Hour" at my place of employment, during which everyone can try or practice at something they're not very good at. Because we are our harshest critics, and naming a forgiving space would take some of the pressure off, allowing for the "interesting" to happen organically. Sort of like it did in my kitchen the other night, when I was desperately craving pumpkin spice cookies, but didn't feel like starting to play with butter at 10 p.m, and didn't want to commit to anything more elaborate equipment than a bowl and a whisk. Sure, there about a billion versions of pumpkin spice cookies out there. But these were mine. And I won't tell you how many of them I've eaten since they came out of the oven.
2 eggs (or flax egg to make it vegan)
1 c. sugar
1/2 c. canola or corn oil
1 c. canned pumpkin
1 t. vanilla
3 T. natural apple butter (no sugar added)
2 c. flour (any kind will do)
1 t. baking powder
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
1 t. ground cinnamon
1 t. ground ginger
1/4 t. nutmeg
1/8 t. cloves
chopped toasted walnuts, optional, or anything else you think they might need
Preheat oven to 350F.
In a large bowl, whisk together the wet ingredients (from eggs through apple butter). Sift in the dry ingredients into a small bowl and then gently fold them into the wet ingredients. Or if you're feeling extremely lazy like I was, dump the spices into your wet ingredients, stir to mix completely dump in the flour, baking powder and soda, and salt, and mix to stir again. Add in some nuts if you're feeling like you might want some. Or something else: white chocolate chips, toffee bits, raisins. Decide if you want more spice, and add it. No one will think less of you if they are not perfect, and you can always play with the rest of the batter if the first batch isn't exactly right.
Drop by generously rounded tablespoonfuls onto parchment covered baking sheets, leaving about two inches between cookies. Bake for 15-17 minutes, or until puffy and dry. Cool, and store in an airtight container for just a few days, if they last that long.