Thursday, March 14, 2013

Is it okay not to win?

Elizabeth Zelvin

In American culture, we have a peculiarly ambivalent attitude about being good at something. We adore those with talents and accomplishments, but we expect them to disavow at least some of the pride and pleasure they may feel in their success. And in recent years, we’ve been encouraged to idolize “celebrities” whose visibility has nothing to do with merit or achievement, but rests solely on the accident of their attracting media attention.

I fall somewhere in the middle along that vast continuum between humble, self-effacing saints and narcissists in love with their own importance. For better or worse, I care what people think. In the many years I spent as an unpublished writer, I didn’t exactly doubt my own abilities, but I feared that others would conclude my writing wasn’t good enough.

I learned many valuable life lessons from my mother, an energetic high achiever who went to law school in 1921. My mother faced the world with confidence, no matter what, because she could always say, “I am a lawyer.” Yet she didn’t practice law successfully. Like most of the handful of women lawyers of her generation, she had to find a niche on the sidelines, in her case writing and editing legal books. But so powerful was the illusion created by her sense of her own identity that she was always “my mother the lawyer” to me.

My father, a lawyer too, was one of those crossword puzzle demons who did the Sunday New York Times puzzle in ink every week. When I asked what something meant, he would say, “Look it up.” In those days, this meant not a quick romp through Google but dusting off the Webster’s Unabridged or worse, plodding down the wooden stairs to the cold basement to consult the multi-volume encyclopedia.

In seventh grade, I became a spelling bee champ. We were all natural spellers who played fierce family games of Scrabble when it first came out. I still remember the sense of triumph I felt—I must have been nine or ten—when I gave the correct spelling of “exhilarated” after my mother insisted that middle “a” was an “i” and my dad thought it was an “e.” We settled the argument by looking it up, and I felt—exhilarated.

At my junior high in Queens, we were invited to participate in the National Spelling Bee. It was a big deal back then and is still an annual event that’s covered by the media. Nowadays, they even televise the finals.

I had never had a significant failure in those days. I got high grades on tests and was praised by teachers, and I did well enough in sports to please my intellectual family. I easily won the seventh grade spelling bee and then the whole school’s, competing against older kids in the eighth and ninth grades. I remember studying long lists of abstruse words with more pleasure than anxiety. Spelling came easily to me: if I’d seen it, I could spell it. I instinctively fell into the pattern of spelling with pauses between syllables to break each word down into manageable parts.

I remember my class breaking into spontaneous applause as I returned to the classroom after winning the schoolwide bee. It had been announced on the PA system. They did the same when I won the competition for the whole school district. Overhauling my paper files, I recently found the newspaper article in which my name was listed—one of only five kids in Queens who qualified—as a participant in the citywide bee. I was proud of my achievement. Why shouldn’t I be?

Then came the New York City bee. Alas, I lost it. I fell afoul of not one of the difficult words I’d studied but a simple one I’d never heard before: “intermittent.” I got that second “e” right, but I failed to double the “t,” and that was it. No trip to Washington DC to compete in the national finals against kids from all over the country. And no applause when I slunk back into the classroom that afternoon.

I’ve never misspelled “intermittent” again.

Since then, life has provided plenty of disappointments and only occasional applause. As a culture, we still love a winner, whether the arena is the Super Bowl, the Oscars, the Edgars, or the Agathas. There’s even a certain cachet in being nominated for an award or making the finals of a competition. But with so many others clamoring for attention, we’re in trouble if we can’t find self-esteem and validation from within.


Marina Sofia said...

I come from a family somewhat similar to yours - very high-achieving parents and me a single child, I felt early on that failing was not an option. By failing I mean, of course, coming second or third instead of first. I am trying hard not to impose this worldview on my own children now.

Sheila Connolly said...

I spent some of my formative years (kindergarten through third grade) attending a Quaker school in Pennsylvania. While I was not aware of it, my mother often told me of the battles she fought with the administration there because the prevailing philosophy was that no one should stand out or be labeled "better" than anyone else. I was a smart child and was easily bored by this middle-of-the-road approach--and then I got into mischief, dragging my friends along with me.

Still, while I always did well in school and then college, there has always been this little voice inside saying, "aw, shucks, it ain't nothin'." Like it was wrong to draw attention to myself. And boys didn't like smart girls (not that I dated anyway).

Maybe it's a pack thing: the pack members distrust anyone who is "different" and in the worst case will tear them to shreds, because they feel threatened by what they don't understand.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, that's an aspect of it that I was lucky never to experience. I was surrounded by other bright kids in "special progress" and "honor" classes, and I had a more prococious older sibling who took the flak for using big words at an early age.

Sandra Parshall said...

I hope it's okay not to win, because not winning is what I do the most. I grew up in a working-poor family that didn't greatly value education, and I was the odd duck, always reading. I never felt anything was expected of me, so I have always set my own goals. I can't imagine what it would be like to be part of a amply like yours, Liz.

JJM said...

Tall poppy syndrome, as recounted in several ancient texts (Herodotus, Aristotle, Livy), with a varying cast of characters. Livy's account is the one that brings in poppies specifically: the son of Tarquin, the Roman tyrant, sent a messenger back to his father to ask for advice on how best to deal with a city he'd just conquered. Tarquin said nothing, simply went to the garden and, with his stick, whacked off the head of any poppy that stood taller than the rest. The messenger, puzzled, went back to the son and described Tarquin's reaction. The son interpreted the message correctly and had all the leaders of that city executed ...

Same thing, really. Moral: don't stand out in any way. Pernicious sort of attitude, really ...--Mario R.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Ouch. In our society, we reward tall poppies (Shaquille O'Neal, Magic Johnson) and pay a lot of attention to folks like Paris Hilton and those Kardashians, who aren't poppies at all--or only in the same sense in which the Emperor has clothes.

JJM said...

"In our society, we reward tall poppies (Shaquille O'Neal, Magic Johnson) and pay a lot of attention to folks like Paris Hilton and those Kardashians, who aren't poppies at all ..."

Well, there's poppies and then there's poppies. (I'll have to look up the first two names you mention; the second two I've heard but I've forgot who they were / are. That's *my* way of dealing with celebrity poppies: I pay no attention to them, and only occasionally look up their names when people on FB keep talking about them -- then forgetting who they are within five, ten minutes.)

The sort of poppies that are the moral of the story are the ones who are brighter -- I was reacting not so much to your article (a lovely one, but that goes without saying) as to Sheila Connolly's "the prevailing philosophy was that no one should stand out or be labeled 'better' than anyone else." The ones who stand out are held back to keep from standing out.