I’ve been thinking about these words by Theodore Roosevelt a lot lately, so I made a simple paper cut.
I don’t like to compete. Deep deep down, I’m sure I’m fiercely and frighteningly competitive and will claw my way to the top while gnashing my teeth and leaving detritus in my wake, if given the chance. But I clearly remember the day I consciously decided not to compare myself and not to compete if I could help it in any way.
I was about eight or nine, and like many first-borns of immigrant parents, I was the designated family translator and was somewhat overly responsible for my age. The phone rang and my mom picked it up. I could tell she was very confused so I automatically reached out to take the receiver from her. She mouthed to me, “What’s genius?”
It turned out that my younger brother had scored so astonishingly high on his IQ test that it put him smack-dab in Einstein territory. I listened to the school administrator gushing about my brother’s brilliance and placated my worried mother with smiles as I “uh-huh”ed into the phone.
It is a seminal moment for a young girl to realize that her little brother is light years smarter than herself. I won’t lie, this left me with a mother of all complexes. For the record, I’m not a genius. Not even close. I will admit that I used to have a photographic memory that would last about twenty-five minutes, which is pretty useless if you think about it. But I could consume crazy quantities of information and recite it all back perfectly as long as it was within the time it takes to heat up a Swanson’s chicken pot pie in the oven. This made me an expert crammer and this cramming method lasted throughout my educational career. Sadly, since the birth of K, I’m more of an Alzheimer’s patient.
Anyway. About the phone call. From that day forward, I started to identify myself as a not-genius, seeking ways in which I wouldn’t be directly compared to my brother. As expected, he is an outstanding artist, so the arts were out for me. My girlfriends breathlessly told me that he looked like an Asian Johnny Depp, so I was also out of luck in the looks department (not that it was an area I wanted to excel in – how do you even do that? Beauty pageants?). He wasn’t exceedingly athletic, but neither was I. I struggled to come up with something unique to me, my own brilliance.
This makes me think of a friend from college – actually, “friend” is probably too strong a word since I’m not sure that she knew my name. We were in some of the same organizations because she was in every campus organization, and she was a National Merit Scholar, the captain of the cheerleading team, president of her sorority (the best sorority on campus, natch, though I wasn’t in a sorority so I don’t know what that means exactly), and her major was pre-med. Of course. She was beautiful and super nice, making it hard to hate her. And trilingual. Without a single bad hair day. The kind of person that really makes you realize how unfair life is and she will definitely be ruling the galaxy in the near future. My old not-genius-complex reared its head whenever I saw her, and I felt myself quietly folding into a wall flower. I bet her siblings had similar complexes; or perhaps they are of the same ilk and will all be galaxy rulers.
Even the recent fabulous sewing swap momentarily tempted me to throw in the towel because I suspected my skills weren’t cutting it, and it was nerve-wracking to be compared/judged, albeit in the friendliest, most supportive way.
But here’s the thing.
I think I’ve done a huge disservice to myself for many years by freezing up and then running in the opposite direction of things I want to try because I’m afraid I don’t measure up. I’ve really missed out on a lot because of my not-genius-complex. I loved the swap, and it challenged me so much more than just sewing for K — so glad to have done it. I love to blog and am often nervous about being compared to other blogs, but keeping at it has been more rewarding than I can describe. And I’ve been so much happier pursuing all my creative outlets and only wish I had started earlier (“But when are you going to earn money?” I hear the husband begging – a topic for another day).
I think about this stuff more now that I have my own child and see her trying to forge her own identity…
At the end of the day, trying so hard not to be like someone still involves measuring, gauging, pitting myself against another. The extreme avoidance of comparison looks an awful lot like comparison and is just as much a thief of joy.
Besides, I’m a genius in my own right. No one, and I mean no one, can rock a kid’s fashion Pinterest board like I can. Don’t even try to compare yourself.
Just for kicks, I also wrote the quote on our kitchen chalkboard wall:
A bit random, but my mom is coming into town tonight! So excited — it’s going to be an amazing spring break!