When Ideas Get Under Your Skin

I had a very intimidating social studies teacher in High School named Mr Savage. 

He would walk into the classroom, silently go up to the blackboard, scribble a provocative open question, like “What is democracy?” in his chicken-scratch handwriting and then stare back at the class with his beady little eyes. (can you tell how much of a fan I was??)

He’d smile slyly with pinched lips revealing a little scar alongside his mouth. Then he’d gesture to the class to let the debate begin. 

I dreaded that moment. I was a shy and insecure adolescent and that kind of intellectual dogfighting made me shrink even further into my shell. 

Mr Savage didn’t give homework, but he did assign two big writing projects per year that were famously tough. For one project we had to propose our ideal presidential candidate and then argue and defend why we thought he or she should win.

Feeling totally overwhelmed, I asked my dad for help. He’s a school teacher and a very opinionated liberal. This kind of thing was totally his cup of tea.  

He suggested Ralph Nader. This was back in 1990 and Nader at the time was a relative unknown. It seemed like a cool, underground pick. I let me dad run with it. 

My dad wound up writing most of the paper. I was nervous handing in the assignment and felt a bit guilty about getting a great grade on something I didn’t write on my own. Then I was thrown a curveball: I got a really shitty, grade on that paper. Or rather, my dad got a really shitty grade. 

And what was the message that stuck with me after this experience? Not, “cheating is bad”, or “Ralph Nadar is a terrible presidential candidate,” or “failing with your own ideas is better than failing with someone else’s”. 

No, the one that stuck for me was:

You’re a terrible writer, Zeva. Your dad thought so, that’s why he wrote your paper.  

I lived with this belief for a long time. In college, writing assignments were torturous. I’d spend double the time as my peers on my papers. I was ashamed every time I handed something in. Even when I got positive feedback on my work I was convinced that someone was just being generous and feeling pity for me. 

The belief penetrated under my skin and became my ugly little secret:  I was a terrible writer and a fraud for getting into my school. 

Five years after graduation I moved to Paris and went on an interview at a magazine where a friend of mine had worked. Rebecca, the editor-in-chief of the magazine who interviewed me asked if I had any writing experience. I said “not outside of the writing I did in college.” She answered back,  “well, you seem smart, and if you got through Vassar I’m sure you can write.” 

She hired me on the spot. 

I was thrilled to get a job, but terrified that my ugly little secret would slowly reveal its disgusting face and she’d realize that I was a total fraud. 

But it was my job. I had no other choice. I had to write. And I started to get better and better at it. 

Over time, I got some extra freelance jobs. People started to pay me well for my words. 

I was slowly and steadily growing into the person that I was convinced I was not. A writer! Go figure. 

Where am I going with this?

I speak to a lot of people who feel like they’re not credible or capable of doing something because long ago they had a bad experience, or were told that they weren’t great at it. 

Over time, those feelings grow into beliefs and get more massive, dense and resilient until they become as real and unquestionable as the nose on your face.  

How does this happen? 

“Ideas get under your skin, simply by sticking around for long enough”  explains the neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett in her book (that I’m obsessed with), How Emotions Are Made.  “Once an idea is hard-wired, you might not be in a position to easily reject it.”

Some of these hard-wired, unshakeable beliefs could be:

I’m bad at writing 

I’m bad at relationship

I’m bad with numbers

I’m bad at business

I’m bad with conflict

I’m bad at confrontation

I’m bad at making decisions

I’m bad at making changes

I’m bad at being bad….

There is nothing concrete about these beliefs. They’re just dirty little secrets that prevent us from taking action on what we want. From seizing opportunities to igniting change. 

What dirty little secret prevents you from moving forward with meaning?

I promise, I won’t tell :)