Why are other people not like me?
Why am I a nerd and why so many other people simply not care?
What makes me different than them?
Do I care too much?
These were some of the questions that were running through my brain as I was growing up. I was a quiet, shy, I read quite a bit, played video games, read fantasy and science fiction, wore glasses and was taught to love life and ask why.
As I went to school, I realized that not everyone was like me. It seemed like many students didn’t like school at all, were interested much more in leaving, and mostly cared about sports and cars.
So, this made me ask these questions of identity:
- why did I care so much?
- Was this love of learning silly?
- Why did I meet so few people that were like myself?
This made me obsess about apathy: I realized that some people chose their attitude towards life. Honestly, we all go through this, right?
It’s about finding our identity as teenagers.
So, from that point on, I made it my mission to look at the world with eyes of abundance: in what ways can I make my life more meaningful? Is there evidence beyond what I want to believe that shows that there is value in the things I choose to do?
As a kid, I was often given praise as I was able to learn many things quickly. I did well in all the AP courses and often learned things in my free time, but I was convinced I had a fixed amount of talent. I always feared that someone would finally show I was a fake — that I didn’t deserve all the nice words people said about me.
Talent vs. Growth
There are certain parts of my life that I always believed I would be bad at – drawing is a great example. My dad often would talk about himself how, “I’ve never had any talent for drawing, whatsoever!”. I internalized my dad’s thoughts of himself to myself over time but applied it to several different things: playing french horn, my math skills, writing. Honestly, it was all over most of the things I did. I was convinced that I had talent, but it was fixed and not something I could change.
Now, Carol Dweck has written an amazing book about this called Mindset. But, I didn’t know it existed yet 😢
Fortunately, I had a really good senior English teacher, Mr. Martinez. He enjoyed EVERYTHING. He was like the teacher from Dead Poet’s Society:
He wasn’t as dramatic every day, but he had a fierce love of life I wanted to emulate. I thought, “how does this person feel so strong about life?”
So, I stayed after school and asked questions:
- Why do you smile so much?
- What makes you so lively?
- Where do you find the energy?
- Why do you like learning so much?
- Aren’t you every afraid of being wrong or showing you’re not as smart as people think you are?
Question by question a shadow of an answer started to form. I realized 3 things gradually:
- I did not have a fixed amount of intelligence! Life was not a battle about protecting how smart other people thought I was but was rather an opportunity to become a stronger person.
- The key difference was Mr. Martinez believed in the growth mindset: the idea that some of my skills initially may be in one place, but with focus and discipline, I can increase my ability beyond what I started with.
- Mr. Martinez was the first adult who genuinely showed a sense of wonder about the world as an adult. I would call it the Joy of Discovery as a kid and as an adult I realized it to simply be fierce mindfulness. He simply enjoyed experiencing things for themselves as I’ve written about here.
Growing Out of Genius Compliments
I was naturally good at a few things growing up: I could read quickly and I understood ideas well.
But over time, I grew to believe that’s who I was. I felt really depressed if I didn’t have the right answer.
I had identified myself as the really smart, nerdy kid and if I didn’t have that, I felt like I didn’t have anything else.
I started to realize this was incredibly limiting: I learned to make failure my friend and tried to emulate Mr. Martinez. I tried to visualize it: I had this picture of how every little thing I did added up to this picture of who I was and that if I really did things with care, I could turn that picture into something beautiful.
I kept this picture in my heart.
But that doesn’t mean I did it perfectly 😂😂😂
Fixed Parts of a Growing Mind
Just because I know had an optimistic view of the universe, doesn’t mean it magically worked everywhere in my life. I still thought I couldn’t draw (though I got slightly better as an adult: here’s my self-portrait from Graduate School)
I thought my skill at the french horn was finite. I didn’t have enough talent and could never catch up because I was too focused on it.
I thought my social skills sucked (I was quiet and I just didn’t have anything to say!).
Sometimes, we may believe one thing, but have carryover from our previous experiences or attitudes. I had to explicitly think:
What skills do I think I can master?
What are the things I am truly terrible at?
I realized, many years later, that this is how I treated my french horn playing. I believe I had a limited amount of skill and it was far beneath my colleagues. Instead of considering what was possible, I was boxed into what I saw. I obsessed about playing as they played instead of what the next thing I was capable of doing.
In the case of drawing, my wife taught me that it wasn’t that I was bad at it, but rather, it was that I had never tried to really teach myself or allowed myself to fail.
She continually inspired and pushed me until we grew a habit together of going out for a night of painting and giggles:
So, for me, it was a gradual process. I did not overnight go from having low-self-esteem to suddenly loving all parts of myself today. I got there piece by piece.
Are there parts of your life you think is fixed and can’t change?
I challenge you to think about a small way of changing it.