Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Weight of Being Interesting, and Pumpkin Spice Cookies

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.

Pumpkin Spice Cookies

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.
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  1. Great post, J! I am too tired to formulate a coherent response, but wanted you to know I was here and read your words. Also, those cookies look amazing. I know I've said this before and not followed through, but they might be the first of you recipes I actually try to make. :)

  2. THIS: "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."


    Thank you for putting voice to my recent struggle.


  3. I actually love those first moments of learning something new, when you are clearly setting yourself up for an uphill battle. That's where we are right now with coding. I am terrible at it, understand very little. Yet we sit with the books every day because it's enjoyable. It's just nice to look at so many numbers on a page.

    It's interesting: I think the general consensus is that if you can go to a gifted school, you should go to a gifted school. But sometimes when you post, I think that maybe gifted schools have a lot of drawbacks; maybe more drawbacks than benefits?

  4. I think there's a lot to be said for experiencing what it's like to be average, even "boring", as early as possible in life. Struggle is important, perhaps even more important than excellence. Persistence is important. Doing something that needs to be done only because it needs to be done and not because anyone is going to laud you for it is important. Doing things that bring you joy even if you're not "great" at them is important. I will never be on the cover of a yoga magazine, nor will I ever be a featured soloist, but I still do yoga and sing along to the radio because I can and those things make me happy.

    What if we spent a year trying to be useful and happy instead of interesting?

  5. Jennifer: Part of what people experience here, I think, *is* struggle, and finally knowing what it's like to be average. Because they've been above average all of their lives. And that's a good thing, because it makes them more humble. But it's a blow the first time, if you've never really been in that position before.

    And I'm not sure we're *trying* to be interesting so much as we're trying to fulfill our human potential. Which is, in the end, about being happy. Or at least, I hope it is.

    And Lollipop: I think that going here does have drawbacks, but those drawbacks are temporary, helping people to gain perspective. It does require a little more support, though, than those same students would if they were the biggest fish in a smaller pond. In the end, one hopes it makes them better people for their contact with each other.

  6. Ugh. Now I feel extra boring. My work sucks so much energy out of me that I have no desire to go a whole lot in my downtime.

  7. Interesting post. I went to a school like that as an undergraduate, and now teach at a VERY different kind of university (many mediocre students, a few brilliant ones), and I can definitely see advantages and disadvantages to both. In addition to the amazing opportunities and stimulation that comes from being in world-class surroundings, there is a kind of entitlement that comes from being one among the Officially Superior, even if one is an utterly average member of the OS, that is grating at best, and deeply damaging in some cases. (I sometimes amuse myself my counting how many times my colleagues who went to Harvard can bring it up, apropos of nothing, per half-hour of conversation). On the other hand, I often wish that my students, members of the Officially Mediocre, would at least TRY to do a great job, rather than a merely adequate one.

  8. One of the things about growing up is learning to be comfortable in your own skin, and ignoring what others are doing. Sure, some are more successful. (The former mayor of my city was a year older than I was!) Some are richer. Some are way better at X than I am (where X is literally everything I do). We're all middle-of-the-pack, it just takes some of us longer to realize it than others.

    That said, we all have something interesting to say and something interesting to do and something interesting to think, even if that's just becoming the local (or hyper-local, think "household") expert on bean farming.

    If you can't do the thing you love, love the thing you are doing. Data entry, here I come!

    P.S. Love the cookie recipe. Little N will also love it, sans canola oil and eggs. And nuts. And with homemade non-"natural" apple butter. If I ever make apple butter with no sugar, please point and laugh.

  9. Love, love, love this post, and I love the idea of a "Mediocrity Hour." I think social media has contributed to our fear of being mediocre because we have such greater exposure to larger numbers of people than ever before, and it's easy to compare yourself unfavorably to others as well as to fear letting anyone seeing you at anything but your best.

  10. I, too, love the idea of Mediocrity Hour.

    For much of my life I wouldn't try anything that I wasn't already good at.

    Kind of a limiting paradigm.

    Somewhere along the way, though, I discovered the interally generated joy of the process in addition to the external kudos I would get for an accomplishment.

    These cookies are on my ToMake list.

  11. The intimidation factor of freakishly amazing people is too real. And yet, I have read so many bad blogs lately, my confidence was booming! Thanks for knocking me back into reality with your wisdom and wordcraft. I love your thoughtful post and blog.


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