When I was a little girl, success was when I recited the entire poetry “Johnny Johnny, yes papa” over the phone to my father who was miles away, working in the Gulf. My mother would be sitting by me, smiling at my enthusiasm and my father would be the most sweet and encouraging. So much so that as soon as I finished, I promptly started up again. Just so he would jauntily say “Good girl!” just one more time.
My parents were really generous with compliments. So were my teachers who always appreciated how quiet and smart I was at every open day. But I never quite got used to the praises. I wanted them but once I did get them, to this date, I don’t know how what to do with them. These fragile little things, which I was afraid will break, if I held them too tight, or if someone looked at them too hard. These things which were ornaments, but so essential.
Of the very few childhood memories I remember so clearly one of them is an evening at a birthday party. Of all the people who showered me with compliments, my mum’s best friend, whose daughter’s birthday it was, was a step above all of them. She doted on me and made it very apparent. So when that evening, I saw her raving about another little girl, who can dance like a superstar, I was so envious I cried. My mother not knowing what was bothering me urged me to dance with everyone so I would have fun and I did in spite of all my shyness and self-consciousness.
Later, as we sat around after the party was over, the guests mostly gone, empty glasses of cold drink spread out in the house, in all the possible nooks and crannies, my mum’s friend started up again about how amazingly well that little girl danced. And I guess my face fell because the next moment she ruffled my hair and said with all the kindness she was capable of “Everyone can’t be good at everything right.” Later when they thought I wasn’t listening, I heard her tell my mother how I have never ‘failed’ at anything and how I need to learn to cope with that too.
That thought kind of stuck with me and so the other day, nearly twenty years after that party, when I was talking to a colleague and sharing my inability to eke out something new in the aftermath of a lot of praise for my writing, she asked me a question that struck me, “Are you afraid of success?”
I have been thinking about that a lot lately. About what success means. About the amount of time we all spend in our heads, imagining ‘the picture’ of how we want our life to be, the money, the love, the accolades, the success. And about how in spite of what we hope for, it is still unsettling to “succeed”. For me at least. As soon as something happens that is anywhere close to an achievement, my mind starts reeling about whether it is REALLY happening. If it is true. And most disturbingly, do I really deserve it.
Most of the motivational quotes that one comes across, talk about how to not be afraid of failure. About reframing failure, looking at it as a stepping stone, as blah blah blah. Or about bouncing back after failure. But few words are said to motivate those who are struggling to deal with the opposite. Fear of success.
All of this is particularly on my mind because as I write this, I am a day away from a rather important examination in my life. One that requires a lot of “psyching myself up”. And even as I pore over my notes, plan my day and get my admit card printed, amidst all the what-ifs in my head, I can hear only one most clearly.
What if you ace this one?