I’m just taking a break from writing a paper for a class and thought I’d head on over here and tell you about something that’s been on my mind for awhile. It relates to writing, to academics, to conversation – it can pretty much be relevant to almost any situation. It’s the idea of discovering that maybe you DO have something to say.
I’ve been a nerd since the dawn of time. I’ve always loved reading and writing. I never thought I was particularly good at either of them. They were just things I did. Then my second grade teacher Ms. Ford told me that a story I’d turned in was really well-written. It was based on a nightmare I had about a disembodied hand that had snatched the covers off of me. In the story, I’m freaked out until I realize that the hand is friendly and we become pals (Freud would have a good time with this one). Anyway, the point is that this was the first time I had ever thought about the possibility of being either good or bad at writing. More than that, it was the first time I’d really thought about people being interested in my words or that I might have something to say.
Many years later – ninth grade, to be exact – I’m tasked with writing a paper in which I investigate a potential career. I’m smart enough at this point in time to realize that school is a goddamn worker production factory that intends to spit us out the other end ready to take part in the glorification of capitalism. And if I had any doubts about that, we are given career aptitude tests to help us, as though being good at something or interested in something are in any way a good foundation on which to base your life’s work (I’ll save that for another post). Anyway, I dutifully took my test (I admit, I was curious) and it turns out that my ideal future career is either as a priest or a – get this – historian. I snorted at the first, being a loudly professed atheist at the time, and was gratified by the second since this was indeed what I wanted to be. (Another aside, I could just become a nineteenth century atheist Anglican clergyman historian, an actual thing that was very common).
But here’s the thing. I loved both writing and history but I thought I had nothing at all to contribute. I’d read enough history to know that a good historian adds something to the conversation. They don’t just write a history of XYZ saying the same old bullshit. They need an angle, a new source, or a new way of looking at XYZ. And I had nothing. I assumed that all the good stuff was taken. And so, I decided I’d be the next best thing – an archivist. Twelve years later, that’s exactly what I became.
And ten years after that, I am no longer an archivist and am instead pursuing a history-focused PhD in religious studies because I realized I was wrong. I made the mistake of thinking that everything I thought was the same as what everyone else thought. When I imagined writing history, I assumed that my ideas were so elementary that they’d definitely been done at some point. I figured, who was I to position myself as someone with anything important to say? Who am I to gainsay an expert???
My journey in academia has taught me a lot but perhaps the most important thing it’s taught me is that ALL OF US think we’re faking it. We all think our ideas are shit. We all sit around waiting for someone to walk into the room and point at us and say, “YOU. GET YOUR THINGS AND GET OUT. YOU DON’T BELONG HERE.” And we believe this because we perpetuate the idea of untouchable expertise ALL the fucking time and in every area of life. Do you want to know the truth? The truth is that academia is just a bunch of enthusiasts sitting around arguing with each other. No idea is off limits so long as you can back it up. Even if your fellow academics disagree with you, you’ve at least opened up a discussion. More truth? All those ideas I thought were elementary? No one had actually explored them the way I want to. I assumed that there was no way I could be an original thinker. My ideas have gotten a positive reception and better than that, I’ve had input on them that make them even better ideas. Where once I thought I had nothing, I now have approximately twenty-five folders on my computer, each dedicated to an idea for a book, presentation, or academic journal article.
So, I guess what I’m saying is that this idea that we have nothing to contribute, though DEFINITELY pronounced in academia where all of us have raging Impostor Syndrome, is actually something that shows up all the time in life. Take writing. I meet so many people who say, “I’d like to write but I don’t know what I’d write about. I don’t have any ideas.” Ten bucks says they have a fuckload of ideas but they have probably dismissed them before they have even reached their consciousness because who are they to think they have interesting ideas? I’d like to remind any readers who can identify with this that 99% of the classic literature written by white males in the mid-twentieth century is about absolutely nothing. You really can’t go anywhere but up.
I’d also like you to consider this concept in conversation. All of us have been at a party where some guy, probably in glasses and a ponytail and holding an impossibly complex drink, is holding forth on some shit book that is somehow considered a “classic”. Rather than feeling stupid and keeping your mouth shut, tell that fucker how much that book sucked. Or, if instead he’s talking about St. Richard Dawkins and how amazing his ideas are, don’t feel like you’ll sound like a pre-Enlightenment troglodyte for disagreeing. Tell him you disagree. Get into a discussion. Admit when you don’t know something or are willing to consider a different argument but don’t allow yourself to be talked out of your opinion or knowledge by anything less than an intelligent discussion not predicated on pretension or aggression.
In other words, don’t assume that what you know is what everyone else around you already knows.
That’s all. Thanks for coming to my TED Talk.