I’m learning to listen to all the dreams I whisper and “joke” about so that I don’t have to to reckon with the extent of my longing. The whispers are like seeds: tend to them for they’re trying to tell you the things that you’re not ready (or willing) to know about yourself yet.
Excellence doesn’t need to be loud
I’m really baffled by the framing of excellence sometimes. I find that we spend a lot of our time accumulating things that we can present to other people as proof of and proxies for our worth. I’m smart, see, here’s my degree (or several degrees). I’m not naive (well, I am but that’s a different chat for later), I know how social capital works. I know that based on the cards I’ve been dealt, no matter where I am in the world, if I’m to be a black woman who plans to have a decent life or career its better to be a formally educated one. It gets me into more rooms, and gives me a fractionally higher chance of being listened to once I’m in them. Twice as hard for half as much yada yada. I KNOW. I get it but I don’t have to like it. I’m aware of the mountain peaks but when can I start savouring the sweetness of the lovely fruitful valleys? I’m tired of existing as a She-Hulk (I’m always angry). As the great philosopher Stacie Orrico said: “there’s gotta be more”.
Can we diversify the face of excellence? Nicki Minaj changed the face of Hip Hop (fight me) and kicked down doors for the female faces of rap and she has less than 10 grammys (less than one to be exact). Does she not deserve her place on the Mount rushmore of her genre because of this? Did she not do what she did? Because I think she did! Everybody thinks they want to be the Beyonce of what they do (and more power to you) but the amount of single-minded all consuming sacrifice that is the path of the greatest of the greats is a hefty bill. She has a wonderful life now I’m sure and she seems to be coming into her fullness and softness as a human being but she cannot walk in the street or go to the mall; she can’t meet strangers on planes or meet people unguarded (literally). Her childhood and formative years were an excellence boot camp and normalcy was and will always be hard to come by for her. I don’t wish Star Wars fame on anyone (that being said: John Boyega, I’ll break my rule of not dating men my age just for you boo, those light saber people don’t rule your life anymore!). And I think she’s happy but I’m comfortable saying I wouldn’t want that life. Well, I used to whisper it but now, I the nerd and bookworm and scientist who has been surrounded by type A humans my entire life & career want to boldly declare that I’m not interested in the trade off of all-consuming excellence. I don’t need anybody to know my name. I don’t want to be the GOAT of what I do because I’m not willing to eat breath and sleep one thing for my whole (I’m open to and accept happy side effects). I just want to be great.
I want to be very good at what I do, nay, excellent. But I’m finally OK not unconsciously striving for the number 1 spot. Because I, Ntoetse Lerotholi, am a proud Jack of all trades master of none OFTENTIMES BETTER THAN MASTER OF ONE. I want to be consequential, the Regina King of what I do. I’m OK being number 2 or 3; of many things. Excellence and normalcy coexisting? That sounds like heaven to my weary heart. Even when I was at the “top”, it felt very fragile and my heart wasn’t in it. I can go on the record and say that throughout school I was never competitive. I didn’t want to predict the academic top 10 or compare test scores after marks came out. Even when I was in that lane, sometimes leading it, I recognised that it wasn’t mine. Excellence doesn’t look like nunber one to me. And if I’m honest with myself it never has.
How many of us don’t start or try new things unless we know that we’ll be exceptional at them? How many fun and lazy Sunday afternoons being a mediocre painter have you passed up because it’s not your natural gift? How many things have you whispered “that’s looks fun” but then quickly countered with “I won’t be any good at it?”. By all means nurture your gifts and talents, be disciplined and focused, ambitious and determined. But don’t forget pleasure for pleasures sake. Elizabeth Gilbert changed my life in 2017 when I was struggling with the fact that my career wasn’t fulfilling all the aspects of who I am. She made clear distinctions between the definitions of job (sole purpose is to pay the bills; have as many as needed, needn’t be tied to talent, career or vocation but nice if it does), career (the long game: ambition + skills/talents), vocation (the calling, the Why you’re here. Contrary to popular belief, it needn’t be tied to job or career but is lovely when it is) and hobbies (their ONLY obligation is to bring you joy, you don’t need to be good at them at all!). That gave me permission to open up to multiple streams of happiness. It’s the opposite of the comodification of joy and gifts and I’m here for it. I’m sharing this to let you off the hook: your job can’t fulfil your every need, you don’t have to make money off of your talents (though that would be pleasant) and you don’t have to be good at the things that bring you joy. So, that whisper that tells you you want to learn how to fly? Follow it. Pilot is a Job title but it’s also a skill. You don’t have to quit your job and enrol with Kulula airlines to follow this whisper. You can learn just enough that it makes you happy.
I used to whisper that I was a writer all the time. I thought that I shouldn’t put anything out until I was as good as my heroes. Novel and all. I thought I couldn’t risk not being a NY times bestseller. I was using “excellence” as my only metric. I thought I had failed when this blog didn’t reach 5 000 followers in its first year (despite my personal aversion to self-promotion, lol). I’m happy with the pure creative freedoms that come with being unknown and unbeholden. It’s a gift that allows me to explore and take risks with mine.
I seldom surprise myself. Very little of what looks like a sudden spontaneous pivot is news to me because I’m usually surrendering to a whisper (I often whisper before I shout). I’ve joked for years about being a farm girl that just happens to not be a morning person. I’ve considered selling my car and house and disappearing to Costa Rica way more seriously (and frequently) than I care to admit. I want own a whole entire tractor but I’ve killed just as many plants as I’ve kept alive. My thumbs are lime/light green at best thus far. But gardening is a skill: how amazing that one can learn how to coax life and nourishment from the freaking earth?! And my living in a city (for now) and hating rooster calls at the crack of dawn isn’t a good enough not to learn how. I “joke” about it too often to not start listening. Maybe because my days are spent doing meaningful work that takes more than it gives and I’m embarrassed, disappointed and disoriented by the fact that that the transaction of energy is so unbalanced. Maybe its because I’ve finally realised (and stopped whispering) the truth: that medicine, and my undying love for it, is never (ever) going to make me as happy as I had hoped it would. Definitely not nearly as happy and nourished as I intend to be in this life. And that’s OK. I’m outsourcing (insourcing?) my fulfillment now. So if you’re looking for me I’ll be tending to my literal (and figurative) garden.
I’ll be spending my days cultivating a definition of self that is entirely my own. I want to focus on my adjectives instead of my nouns. I want to be known for my kindness, my brain, heart and imagination. Not all these other titles that saddle me to another human or my education. They’re nice and I’ll probably be getting more (humans and degrees) but I don’t want those things to dictate my identity or what brings me joy. It’s why I’m gravitating towards being a farmer, a creative (no longer restricting myself to only writing), Kind. Even within my job space. Who is she? “she’s kind”. Have a conversation with her “she’s blonde but brilliant “. Ask her “she’ll teach”. She has a lovely garden and in her light beautiful things grow. These are things I want known about me now.
Listen to your whispers, they are the deepest desires of your heart, your intuition, your Truth. No matter how silly, simple, humiliating, huge or humble. Tend to your garden, it will feed and nourish you and you will bloom.