But I shouldn’t take myself too seriously, so that would you think, “That guy needs to knock it down a few notches,” if you saw me walking down the street. I should take myself just seriously enough so that you would think, “That dude is up to something.”
I’ve always wanted to be up to something.
This realization has been a long time in the making, but its seed was planted when I was taking the photo shown below—I was standing there, composing and adjusting camera settings through the viewfinder, and waiting for cars to drive out of the frame when I noticed that there weren’t any people in my shot. A few people saw my conspicuous composition process and avoided the direction that my rain-wetted UV filter was pointing. I realized that there is no reason for complete strangers to take my photography—a phrase I am still not comfortable with—more seriously than I do, no matter how many people are better than me, have nicer equipment than me, or have actually gotten paid for their work.
I’ve had delusions of grandeur my entire life. My aspirations have always been to become significant, in a significant manner. Now it’s time to stop telling myself, “You can’t do that. You’re not qualified. You’ll never be the best at anything,” not because I am qualified, and not because I am necessarily capable of becoming the best.
I have told people on many occasions that they could do anything they put their mind to, because based on personal experience, I firmly believe that. During my time on this planet, I went from zero musical ability to all but replacing the drummer at church in around a year. In three years, I played for the jazz band at my high school, and in five I played snare in a collegiate marching band. By year 8 I had gone on tour with a punk band. I went from earning a high school diploma to earning a master’s degree in engineering in five years. By age twenty-three, I owned a home. A year after starting my big boy job, I had designed from scratch, conducted, and documented an experiment, and then travelled internationally to present it. Five months after purchasing my first DSLR, I took photos at a concert put on by one of my all-time favorite bands, and was honored that the band selected two of my photos for use in the album art of a subsequent release. I took semi-unique self-portraits each day for an entire year. Now, finishing year four at my job, I have been lead author on two publications, second author on four, and am attempting to move forward with a promotion. Historically, I’ve put my mind to things that ended up getting done.
However, as a child, I would never, in my wildest dreams, have imagined I would have completed all of that by this point in my life. I imagined, in my wildest dreams, that I would have accomplished much more.
Indeed, accomplishment measurement by comparison inevitably results in perceived failure. My best friend was always better at drumming than me, by leaps and bounds. He got all the hard, desirable songs in jazz band (not only because he deserved them, but also because I wasn’t capable of playing them), and got a good scholarship at a school known for its yearly jazz festival. Many of my high school friends got perfect scores on their ACTs, and continued on to MIT, Harvard, and many other Ivy League schools. One friend is researching quantum computing, and several have gone on to medical and law school. Whenever I take my camera out in public, I constantly hear about a nebulous acquaintance who shoots for National Geographic, and my flickr stream is full of cameruosos. My boss is probably the most prolific researcher where I work, and I’m really just riding his coattails. I could be doing so much better.
If looking solely at that list of accomplishments, it seems kind of impressive. However, if focusing on those who are accomplishing more and doing better, it’s not hard to become jaded by context. This isn’t to say that there’s no value in perspective or that one should in any way inhibit access to inspiration. I only mean to say that, as a friend once pointed out, in a world of billions of people and instantaneous, global publication, being the best at any one thing or any number of things is not always a healthy expectation.
That said, it’s time for me to put that belief—that I can do whatever I put my mind to—to use in my present and future, rather than my past. There’s no reason you shouldn’t do the same. Seriously. Just make sure your metrics of accomplishment aren’t bullshit, like mine were for so many years.
Nothing is keeping you from slamming your front door after walking back from the bus ride home where your sizzling brain blocked out all the smells, sounds, and extraneous, harmful thoughts floating around in that steel hot dog of people and pounding out 1047 words that make you feel better about your existential funk. If you wanted to take out your old point and shoot out and put colored saran wrap over the lens, dress up in wigs, leg warmers, and mascara, and recreate the decade where your biggest problem was a mound of ripped leotards—inevitable casualties from long nights of partying—that is your prerogative. No one will know about you finding a piece of discarded cardboard and using a sharpie to make a drawing of the doodie your cute widdle doggiest of dogs just made in the open case of your “gaming rig” until you put it on a public bench, with a post-it note that says, “it’s yours, take it!”, and hide behind a bush to wait for some delighted fool to pick it up and take it to hang up on his dorm room wall.
There is literally nothing stopping you (or me!) from accomplishing something you can be perfectly happy with. You just have to give yourself permission to be okay with progress instead of perfection.