I’ve always been terrified to believe I’m talented.
It was easy to believe I was smart. School work came easily, so my grades were good. Everybody told me I was smart. I had objective measures that showed I performed better than other people.
But talent was a much scarier issue. I could take IQ tests or other standardized tests which seemed to prove I was bright. But there were no tests for talent. No matter what I did, I was always terrified that it wasn’t good enough. Even though other people told me they loved the creative work I did, I was scared to get my hopes up.
So I lied to myself. Maybe you do, too.
Writer V.S. Naipaul famously wrote, “The only lies for which we are truly punished are those we tell ourselves.” And my self-deception about my talent has held me back time and time again.
When I was a young newspaper journalist, I was quickly promoted — again and again. I knew I was being promoted. I knew I was making more money. I knew people were praising my work. But I came up with excuses to “explain away” my success.
Maybe I just worked harder than everybody else. Maybe the people around me weren’t really very talented, which made me look better. Maybe people thought I was talented because I worked at smaller newspapers and I wasn’t competing against the best talent at bigger papers.
Even when I was happy with my work — as I was at times — I would always come back to the same crippling self-doubt about the work a few months later. By the time a years had passed, I would look back on things I had done and hate them.
I felt like a fraud. I felt so untalented. I feared that others would figure out that I had no real talent.
This kept me from seeking the opportunities I should have pursued. Even when the editor of the biggest newspaper in the state — someone who was very experienced and very respected — asked me to call him when I was ready to come work for him, I never called.
When I won my first statewide writing award — for a sports feature story — I was floored. I had been 21 when I wrote it. I didn’t think it was anything special, so I went to great lengths to tell people (and myself) that the judges had made a mistake. My ego loved the praise, but I still feared they were wrong.
I have a feeling that a lot of creative people are very much like me in this respect. The irony is that the least talented writers I’ve known tend to have the most confidence and get the most freelance writing work — simply because they pursue it and most people can’t really judge talent — and the people who are most talented are full of doubt and don’t pursue the success they deserve.
Most people don’t realize this, but I still fear I have no skill in various areas. I see my writing as passable — just because I can write grammatically — but I fear it doesn’t connect with people’s hearts the way I want. I look at my photographs as I’m taking them and then editing them — and I feel like a fraud as a photographer. I feel as though what I do is never good enough.
Wednesday night, I had to scroll through my Instagram feed to find out when some particular photograph was taken. As I did so, I unconsciously found myself thinking, “Hey, many of these are really good.” (That’s a random sample above of some recent photos.) It was almost as though I was looking at someone else’s work, so I could admit to liking them.
Something in my brain resists admitting even that, because I hear the critic out there who says, “Who do you think you are to see talent in your work? You’re nobody!”
I read partial scripts and notes Wednesday night for several films which I started working on and never finished. And even though I’m scared to admit this to you, I found myself thinking that I was really good at constructing stories. In a moment of clarity, I knew that I could make good movies — commercially successful movies — and that an audience would actually like them.
In that moment of clarity, I felt talented. I felt good enough.
Not everybody cares about being talented in the areas I care about, but everybody cares about some sort of talent. I have a feeling that many people are a lot more talented than their fears are willing to admit. As I think about that, I wonder how many talented people are never heard from — and how many talented people never make the money their talent would allow — all because they are afraid they’re not good enough.
I shot another sunset picture tonight that I liked. As I did the editing of the raw file, I viciously criticized myself for not having done something — I’m not sure what — to make the picture better. There was a part of me which pointed a finger and say, “You aren’t very good at this. Why do you pretend to do good work. Talented people are laughing at you.”
But I eventually liked the finish photo. By that point, it felt like a good photograph that someone else must have taken.
So I suppose I’ll keep fighting this battle. I have a feeling that a lot of people fight the same battle. I don’t like fighting such an awful battle, but the only alternative is to ignore the work which longs to come out of me — to hide the things which might bright delight to others and maybe even some income to me.
A lot of people are scared that they’re not talented, but that’s not really my fear. No, my fear — the thing which has haunted me for years — is that I’m far more talented than I realize. My fear is that I could be doing great work — making an impact on the world and making money for myself — but I’ve been scared enough to hide most of it.
If I’ve been lying to myself about not being talented enough, I’ve brought punishment on myself. By hiding my light under a basket — so that few people could see it — I’ve paid a serious price that nobody else could have inflicted on me.
Is there a way out of this? I don’t know. All I can say for sure is that something in me wants to make a mark on the world — and make a lot of money doing it — and I still have a sneaking suspicion that I’m wasting the very best part of myself.