Alternate title: “I have other talents” a meditation on fear and failure.
I’m a dreamer, a scientist and an artist. An optimist and a realist. I believe in the life-affirming power of contradictions and fear.
Fear is not the enemy. Fear is an acknowledgement of risk, of value, of vulnerability; an alert that your jugular is exposed. It keeps us alive both literally and metaphysically. If you’re not routinely afraid or failing, you’re playing it too safe or living an unexamined life. Like me (and apparently a bubblegum pink afro wig), It’s a contradiction worth pursuing.
A year and a half ago I decided to use failure as a metric for a life well-lived, I called it #MonthlyFail and endeavoured to start a community of people sharing their Failures (aka bold attempts at living) so we could all admire and be inspired by the beauty of the attempt. Asking people to be uncomfortable, and publically so, turned out to be the first and most ironic fail. I firmly believe my superpower is my ability to be honest and vulnerable in life and in my writing. It’s been as embarrassing and liberating to be confronted with my own failings as it has been a joy to embrace them.
My complicated relationship with failure started really young. I was a straight-A student my entire life before university. Even as a toddler I was precocious curious, an early reader, avid writer (and talker). I spelled: “Volkayno” phonetically after watching a documentary about them because I loved the characters of the alphabet (Ally Apple and Kicking King etc) and realised each letter symbol correlated to the alliteration in their name). The picture is still in my mother’s drawer/file (you know the one with random nursery school relics and old report cards). I found solace in being bilingual and was unperturbed by my inability to excel at sports (see: Miss Congeniality). I persevered in my physical mediocrity and sang in the primary school choir (that only took me to round out their dwindling numbers) and this healthy understanding of my limitations and excellence quietly shaped a mantra I regularly declare to this day whenever I’m not exceptional at everything I try: I shrug and say “I have other talents”. I like to think it keeps me humble. It’s really easy to look back at that carefree girl who regularly leapt without the parachute of natural talent and misconstrue her as fearless. In many ways that’s exactly what I was and am. But that’s not the whole truth.
I spent the first 18 years of my life without a mechanism to process unexpected failure. If I was supposed to be good at or cared about something from an ego-investment standpoint I could not fail. But I did. The next six years (medical school) where a constant education in the human body and in involuntary failure with an inability to process it. I have never been more terrified than in my first Semester Physics test where it became clear as the paper progressed that, not only was I NOT going to pass it well I was currently and incontrovertibly failing it miserably. I took no comfort in everybody’s assertions of “I totally failed that test” because I’m well versed in the bravado and faux-modesty of the type A crowd and academic high performers. I felt alone, and stripped of an entire identity. Nothing was going according to plan, this wasn’t how my story was supposed to unfold. Who was I if I wasn’t the “smart girl”? It dawned on me that every human in my new immediate orbit had the same story. My story. We were the very best in our respective schools for years on end, the stars in our families and towns blazing a blistering path that culminated in us training to become doctors at a prestigious university in the Southernmost tip of Africa.
It was the first time, in failure, that I asked myself: And? I had to learn to freestyle and lean into the reality of an alternative story. And it was much better. Like a revised draft, the magic was in the edit. I had to flesh out my protagonist because she couldn’t survive on just one gimmick (also, the gimmick looked like it had been taken away so it was more necessity than anything voluntary). It felt like my mom had spent my entire life paying people to tell me I was intelligent and the funds had abruptly run out. I’d long been wary (even suspicious) of the Academic metric of intelligence but it was my first time questioning this as a relative outsider. Fear and failure brought me to my knees, to my own attention and forced me to carve out the finer aspects of my identity by allegedly robbing me of my crown jewel. It took a long time for me to recognise fear for the ally it was because I first had to become comfortable with contradictions (eg. I am intelligent, even if it doesn’t feel like it right now. I am more than the just smart even if I’ve spent a lifetime defined by it etc). Fear made me take creative control. “I have other talents”.
Every visceral response deserves examining. What’s happening behind the scenes emotionally? Why did that comment hit a nerve? Why am I trembling, it’s not even that deep. This is what happens when we test our limits: fear is like a road map to deep pools of untapped energy. 2019 was an exercise in building the thing you’re supposed to want then finding that it doesn’t fit you well.
In 2019 I walked the walk. I had the community service year of my dreams (in that I truly became a Jack Of All Trades). I was becoming confident and compenent in a wide range of clinical skills, I was writing all the courses, I was teaching peers and patients alike, I reinstituted grand ward rounds whenever I was in the male/female ward, I pushed for an academic programme and to my delight, was speakimg my mother tongue (SeSotho) FULL Time. I did my own outpatient study (if it had been published, it would be been titled: The effects of extensive education, counselling and communication on patient care). There was no language barrier between me and my patients and I got to test all of my health hypotheses about what was wrong with medicine. And it broke my heart. I learned that medicine, one of the great loves of my life, was always going to be a bad lover because the system it operates in is dysfunctional beyond any individual’s attempt to repair it and it shattered me. It shattered multiple core beliefs I held in high regard (eg. The personal narratives surrounding Healthcare, the perceived barriers to good service etc) particularly when I realised exactly how much had to change before anything could change. It was akin to the day I realised that being black in a white supremacist framework was an inescapable life sentence (there is no country on earth I can run to, no industry I can hide in that will let me forget that I am are black and female and African). These truths were like millstones and they dragged me down with the weight of their (apparent) immovable nature.
In 2019 I travelled to 5 countries (3 continents), went to several delightful concerts and festivals, was wildly in love by the closing of the second half (all things I adore doing that being me immense joy) and this failed expectation of how my professional life was supposed to go sucked the light and goodness out of the entire year. Something fundamental died last year. A core belief. And the first stirrings of life in the middle of that catastrophic year were born from fear.
I applied for something mind-meltingly big (for me). I had to channel every single white man, boy and male child that had ever crossed my path. I had a hard time convincing myself I was worthy or even qualified. It took several breathless (fear, excitement? Unclear) phone calls with my close circle to get me to even pull the trigger on applying. Then, to my horror, I had to get 6 (SIX) people from my undergraduate years to sign off on my exceptional potential. They had to write detailed glowing recommendations. I’m sweating just thinking about it. Asking each of them made me dizzy. I’m a whole entire black girl: I did not routinely find myself chatting and sipping tea with my professors in university. My power distance index is way too established for that (see: Learning). Writing my own letter made my palms slick with sweat. I spent that entire application process in a near constant state of panic and dehydration. I took up jogging (me! Jogginig on purpose!) to release pent up energy, I had to listen to a motivational Playlist that my friend made for me every day in my car before every important step of the application process, I will never not hear Nicki Minaj’s I’m The Best the same way. Everyday the internal monologue was “where do you get the liver/audacity?!” vs “what would a white man do?”. Every. Single. Day.
In the midst of this drama, I found hope. I rediscovered some personal truths (even things I hadn’t been able to articulate about myself before), my life’s mission statement was lifted out of me and mapped out in my admission essay; an essay where the first draft (a whopping 1000 words over the limit) made my mother call me crying (she, like me, rarely cries) and say: “I am not saying this because you’re my daughter girl, I’m blown away” and made my boyfriend who’d known me for years tell me he “didn’t know I was magical like that”. I never would’ve figured it out without the terrifyingly high stakes. It was a strangely life-affirming process. I even asked myself whether to omit this blog from my application (because I have been very vocal about my feelings about a certain ‘founder’ (see: UnLearning Part II) and decided to be myself unapologetically, win or lose.
On deadline day, one of my references didn’t submit her letter in time (after weeks of suddenly ignoring my emails and phone calls and messages) and I wept. It felt like the sun had been extinguished after “a year of only pouring rain, oh my soul*”. Initially I accepted the defeat, gave in to my fear that it was too long of a shot anyway and that I probably wouldn’t have gotten the scholarship. But I’d come too far. I couldn’t let months of literal blood sweat and tears be snuffed out without a definitive answer. The application was very clear about the deadlines = automatic disqualification. Other referees managed to send in their reference letters whilst on business trips to China for goodness sake. I contacted everybody. And they set up a limited online window for my late letter. My submission went through. When the interview dates were announced they landed smack bang in the middle of a vacation I was planning with a friend. We moved the trip up (just in case). I cleared the cosmic path and fought the fight. And I didn’t get it.
I don’t know how to explain it but this was one of the highlights of my year. Soon after that I ended a formative friendship and the girl’s trip became a solo one. And I dragged my heartbroken ass to Kenya (see: KenyaGoSolo). I read the rejection letter in its entirety for the first time in a gorgeous beachside hammock in Lamu. I had two different types of alcohol with me (on an island where alcohol is quite scarce) and that’s all I did that day. I sat on a beach, drank the best beer I’ve ever tasted (Tusker, and I generally dislike beer) and read my letter. Over and over again. And I cried different tears that were bittersweet and difficult to explain: I had dared to do something wildly incredible. I had dreamed beyond my borders (and in doing so discovered that my borders were too small). I moved heaven and earth to make it happen. I fought through panic and fear and imposter syndrome and unearthed a version of myself I hadn’t known existed. My heartbroken self found peace in the wholehearted attempt. In the failure. And I would do it again. It opened doors I haven’t walked through yet. One day I’ll read this and be able to connect dots that lead to places I can’t even dream up yet. It set me on alternate path and I will always be grateful for that.
So now, I will always lean into fear. Fear was the crucible that led me to myself. I will jump headfirst with audacity and optimism into every desire that makes my heart pound. I am forever changed (and will one day own that bubblegum pink afro wig, please let me know if you have a plug!). That’s my 2019 #MonthlyFail. What’s yours? Share them with me!
*Corinne Bailey Rae, Caramel
Dreams & Contradictions Part II to follow next week!