On Being a Fraud (Like Me LOL :) )

I suppose there are moments in everyone’s life where we feel like frauds. It might be because we don’t feel we’re working hard enough. It might be because we feel like we don’t belong in the place or crowd we spend most of our time in. It might be because we told a small lie or impersonated someone we weren’t. It might be because we stole something from a store or deceived a friend There are so many ways to be fraudulent that Dante Alghieri devoted the entire eighth circle of hell to the various methods we can use to deceive others.

For me, this class is one of those times, and my lack of contribution to these blogs shows it. Not that I don’t enjoy it immensely. Writing is something I’ve felt a tremendous amount of passion for. Story ideas are constantly floating around in my head, and almost anytime I decide to sit down and read, I feel this tremendous urge to start writing fiction again. There are plenty of documents on my computer that are the start of story ideas that I want desperately to finish. The problem–outside of a few psychological disorders–is that writing isn’t my only passion, nor is it my primary passion. That honor belongs to my beloved gaming habit. Ever since I was six years old and got my first video game system, I’ve been so entranced by the idea of controlling things on a TV screen. Over the years, I’ve developed an even deeper appreciation for the worlds we can craft in this newest of all art forms. Not to say we can’t be just as creative in books; only that the control gives a dimension to the worlds of video games that just appeals to me more.

This brings me to an interesting phenomenon I’ve had as a student and writer: I keep getting consistent praise for what I write. And as an extension of Erin McDowell’s post on getting too much praise in elementary school, I think this is a problem.

I’ve been struggling for the last three terms to keep up with my schoolwork. Often, when I write, I don’t have much time to edit. Granted, this is partially because I compulsively edit as I go, but it’s also just because I procrastinate a lot. A couple of years ago, I wrote out a ton of personal reflections about my psychlogy class, turned it in for extra credit at (roughly) the last minute, and got back the comment, “You’re a great writer!” at the top. Okay fine, you might say, but what about actual ENGLISH professors? Well, Dr. Terry DeHay, whose class I effectively bombed–and by bombed I mean turned in almost everything at the last possible second, only did half the work, and had to finish an incomplete right up to the end, earning only a B when I’m capable of an A–told me I was a really good writer as well. This is a woman who is rather old-fashioned in her adherence to deadlines and classroom etiquette–though simultaneously a very nice, understanding woman–and she said that I was good at this, “though I could benefit from editing my prose more.”

So apparently I’m good at this, right? Well, I’m someone who has difficulty processing reality for psychological reasons, and our world has become so afraid of hurting children and providing necessary criticism that I can never tell when I’m getting honest feedback and when I’m getting the “politically correct” commentary. As an individual who relies on a lot of outside info to determine what his personal reality is, dishonesty–whether well-intentioned or not–seriously handicaps my ability to do things correctly. For all I know, I’m just an average writer–I refuse to believe I’m bad at this, cause I’m not–who has received inaccurate feedback about his abilities.

To broaden this past personal experience, what exactly is the solution to this problem our society has with honesty if it hurts someone? Is it to be brutally honest and hard on potential writers to weed out those that won’t be able to cut it or handle the heat? I don’t know, but here’s what I do know. A study was conducted by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck that gave surprising insight into what motivates children. In the study, one group of children was told they were smart every time they succeeded in a given test, and a second group was just told they did a good job. As the study was conducted, Dweck started out with easy things and gradually moved up to areas that the grade levels of the studies children wouldn’t know anything about and would most likely fail at. What she found was that the children told they were smart with the easier stuff were more likely to quit when the harder stuff showed up and they inevitably failed. The children not given the extra compliment were more anxious to keep trying new things. The conclusion drawn from this was that being told they were smart encouraged them to fall back on that instead of putting forth effort, which is what is really needed to succeed at things.

I have a personal anecdote that reflects this phenomenon. When I began playing the piano around the age of 7 or 8, I was told I had natural talent for it. Though it bored me to tears to spend time practicin each day, I was encouraged–sometimes pressured–to stick with it. I remember my mom sayin she never knew of anyone who could turn his eyes away from the piano and continue playing with so few mistakes. Then I had to change teachers because my original instructor retired, and though I wouldn’t describe her as ruthless in any sense of the word, she was a stickler for making me do things correctly. I received more criticism from her on how to play pieces than I ever did from my first instructor, and gradually my mind began to think she was not overly impressed with my abilities. Then, in the final year of my piano syllabus–roughly five years after I started taking lessons with my new teacher–I caught wind from someone that my teacher was bragging to the other piano teachers because I was her student. Given how much time I’d spent listening to her critique what I was playing and how much time I had to grind my teeth in frustration during lessons, I found this extremely surprising. In retrospect, it’s not so surprising: if she’d let me know that she was proud to have me for a student, that I was extremely talented, I’d have given up easier. And the funny thing is, though there are plenty of other reasons why, I actually don’t play piano much anymore.

The ideas of “talent” and “intelligence” are not made up. Some of us are smarter than others and some of us are more talented than others. But intelligence and talent don’t make someone good at anything. I especially think this is true of talent, a completely intangible quality that is mostly subjective in our views of it. Some will see talent where others will see nothing, and determining who gets a “job” or a shot at “show business” or anything else based on such a vague idea just doesn’t seem fair to me. What should really count is effort, and what we seem to be discovering is that failure is better at encouraging effort than success is. What I’ve personally come to believe is that when we tell people they have “talent,” we are essentially saying, “You’re already good enough at this,” and telling someone the work they do is good enough is not conducive to making them work harder.

In the early 2000s, I received an audiobook by Stephen King titled On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. It’s an excellent book that provides some good advice on being a writer. Among the advice it provides is that one should avoid the passive voice, limit adverbs, study the market–and get a copy of the Writer’s Market, our textbook–and, unsurprisingly, turn off the TV and read. Stephen King is absolutely blunt and unrelenting on this last point: you have to be well read if you want to be a good writer, and you have to write a lot. In other words, you can have all the talent you want, but what really counts is hard work and effort. That’s where my whole problem comes from. I do plenty of reading in magazines and online, but I’m not a fiction aficionado. I have limited knowledge of what has and has not been written in the realm of storytelling, and I don’t write enough to be able to make a career out of it. At least, not yet.

So I suppose in a sense I am a fraud, but it’s only because I haven’t put forth the necessary effort this term, and the ironic thing is that sitting here writing about my “being a fraud” in and of itself shows that I’m not. What I am is a victim of what I call the “talent paradigm,” as well as a student who just needs to work harder and try to lose his severe perfectionistic tendencies.

I’ll be sure to get right on that…as soon as EVO 2012 is over… 🙂

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