On Feeling Awkward And Inept At Things But Doing Them Anyway: The Lesley Kinzel Story

Think of all the opportunities that you have passed over because you were scared -- think of all the times your fear has kept these opportunities from even coming your way. What have you lost?
Publish date:
February 4, 2014
growing up, fear, awkwardness, taking a chance

I was a blogger. What happened was that I finished graduate school, for the second time, right around 2003, and for awhile I mooned around in a depressive fog because I no longer had to write papers for classes.

Not that I was all that great an academic. My many PhD rejections from some of the nation’s greatest universities bear that out. And I’ll admit I was pleased to have time to read things that weren’t class assignments. Have you ever tried to read “Gender Trouble” in a single weekend? It’s not a good time. I would even go so far as to call it the opposite of a good time. Maybe you’re different from me. For me, it is a not-good time.

But I loved writing those papers. I missed writing those papers. I missed losing myself in research for literal days and then forsaking sleep to sit in front of my computer, the display lighting the thick atmosphere my compulsive chain-smoking produced, giving it an internal glow like sentient fog -- I would just keep writing while all the ideas and analyses were revealing themselves to me like religious epiphanies in a temple of thinking. I paid a lot of money for this opportunity, this privilege to live as a brain on legs for several years, and yet I never appreciated them -- the cost OR the experience -- until both were long over.

Most of all, I missed the fear -- the terror of putting ideas down and then passing them out for others to read and dismantle. Because it was through these experiences that I got smarter.

So I got a LiveJournal, which what with all the politics and overwrought intellectualism, was remarkably similar to grad school, just without semesters or due dates. I had a Real Job by this time, in college admissions, because I figured if I couldn’t be a faculty member, I could at least stay close nearby to where the faculty were.

It worked for me, and it didn’t. Faculty didn’t see me as a peer, or anything even close. I was an administrative assistant, and many of the highly educated people I came into contact with every day assumed that I was rock stupid. Like the time I made a slight typo in an email to a professor, who not only immediately emailed me back identifying my mistake, and explaining the true meaning of the wrong word I had inadvertently typed but which was not caught by spell check. Said faculty member also took time from her busy day to lecture me on the importance of paying attention to the words I was using, and to see that they are spelled correctly and used correctly, because faculty have high standards for that sort of thing and I would not be taken seriously by them if I failed to attend to my written communication skills. Included was advice to purchase a good dictionary.

I had two Master’s degrees at the time. But it was easier to pretend that I didn’t, because I thought I was a failure for not “using” them in the expected and intended way.

I was an administrative assistant for almost ten years. When I say that now, it seems absurd, but it’s true. I felt deep apathy for my job; if I had hated it, it might have been easier to find something else to do. Eventually my apathy extended even to the prospective students I was employed to assist, a role that I did find marginally fulfilling for a long time. I stayed in that job because it was familiar, and comfortable. I stayed even past the point of my own relevance, when I had begun to slack off to the extent that I barely managed to do any work.

I knew I was underemployed. I didn’t care. I was safe. I was afraid to try anything else.

That need to write things worked itself out on LiveJournal, and later, on my blog, a site I moved most of my writing to after LiveJournal’s dramatics started to wear thin. I wrote on the same topics I write about today -- mainly body politics, self-esteem, eating disorders, and fattery/weight issues -- with a mixture of pseudoacademic research and a winking, snarky tone. I wasn’t trying to impress anyone. I just enjoyed having an outlet. I worked at my apathetic unchallenging stagnant job all day and then entertained myself by writing at night.

(I had the same schedule during the worst years of middle school, now that I recall it -- go to school, feel horrible, get no satisfaction, come home, sit down, write things all evening, feel better.)

I had spent many years before this trying to make fat stuff an academic subject. I took risks. I didn’t apologize. I let my work stand for itself. Many of the faculty who worked with me were far more supportive than I ever could have imagined. Some were less so. Some clearly thought I was wasting my time. My classmates split down similar lines.

As a blogger, at first, things weren’t much different. There weren’t that many of us then, specifically writing about fat stuff -- far fewer than there are today. Every time I mounted an argument, about weight loss, diet pills, the cultural meanings of fat, and so on, I had pet trolls, regular readers who had taken it upon themselves to pick my every idea apart. We developed an uneasy truce when they realized I wasn’t above engaging with them and responding to their points, because I had decided that any argument that can’t withstand intense critical analysis is hardly an argument worth my defense.

Still, nothing I did seemed perfect, ironclad. It was terrifying. I was writing about things that were not simply intellectual exercises now; I couldn’t hide behind a detached facade of academic inquiry. These things were about my life. I wanted to write them so meticulously, so error-free, so perfectly bricked up as there was not a chip or fingerhold of doubt to be found. I wanted to make them immaculate, to tell my stories and share my ideas but stay safe and protected at the same time.

You can’t do this. You cannot put yourself and your life raw and vulnerable into the world without leaving all those soft spots open to be kicked.

And then one day Jane Pratt called me at my dead-end administrative do-nothing position and offered me a job, and I felt sheer raving terror, as I imagine I might feel if someone had literally put a gun to my head. That was how I knew I had to do it, to leave my apathy behind and go somewhere frightening and new. And I subsequently learned how to do this all the time, for my job, and I don’t know if my skin got thicker or if I just figured out how to live with my life all out there for people to see.

I still feel awkward and inept about it all, pretty much every day. I do it anyway. Because it is by the feeling awkward and inept that I know I am doing things right, for me.

But it isn’t happy endings that I wanted to talk about -- I wanted to talk about the trembling dread of new beginnings. I know not everyone confronts life changes big and small with fear, but I certainly do. And I wanted to talk about how feeling safe can be wonderful and necessary and so precious, but too much safety can also keep us from taking strides to become different, maybe better, maybe wiser, but definitely different people than we once were.

I started writing this piece a couple weeks ago. I do that sometimes, just start writing something aimlessly with no idea of what purpose it will serve. Most of this stuff languishes in a half-written state forever. But then, last night, the inimitable Kate Conway sent me a link to this video, “Kid President’s Letter To A Person On Their First Day Here.”

Kate and I wondered why we were both sobbing like freaks over this, and I think it’s because some of us need permission to screw up sometimes; some of us need reminding that it is okay to make mistakes if in doing so we stretch ourselves beyond what we thought were our limits and learn important new things to make us better in the future.

Life is full of scary, not-safe experiences to try to hide from. It’s full of people who are vastly different from you, who have different backgrounds, different circumstances, whose social standards and expectations are unfamiliar, whose bodies seem strange and distant, whose daily lives seem so diametrically opposed to your own that you might believe it is impossible to connect on anything, so why even try. You might even feel scared by all these differences. You might want to ignore them, or walk away from them, especially when people are trying to tell you how you’ve inadvertently hurt them, or spoken out of turn. It’s far easier and safer to fear these bad feelings, these potential repercussions, and run, run, run as quickly as you can, back to the places where you feel comfortable and protected.

But if I have told you anything, it's that it is so important to confront the things you're scared of -- even when you think you're going to mess them up. Even when you're quite certain you're going to mess them up. When you’re worried you’re going to do or say the wrong thing and be embarrassed and upset.

It’s important to do this because nobody learns anything from repeating the same safe approaches every day; nobody grows by keeping to the paths they know. Nothing changes.

When I look back on my life, I don't remember all the times I did things in a perfectly adequate way, acceptably, passably, worth neither praise nor reproof. Instead I remember the times I did things that turned out spectacularly and I was astonished by it, and I remember the times everything fell apart and I thought I wouldn't survive it. What these two circumstances have in common is that both of them were terrifying -- and yet I did them anyway.

Think of all the opportunities that you have passed over because you were scared -- think of all the times your fear has kept these opportunities from even coming your way. It's not worth it. Fear is useful sometimes, in a fire, or when confronted with a hungry bear, or faced with any number of social situations in which we may not be safe. I'm not saying fear has no purpose. And I’m not suggesting we forget everything that has come before. I know that’s impossible. We all have joy, and trauma, and damage, we have scars and tender spots and trophies that all the cheery inspirational videos in the world cannot erase to start again, and we wouldn’t want to erase them anyway.

But sometimes, we lean on our fear too heavily, and too often. In much of our lives fear can keep us silent and still, watching the world from a distance, holding us back from taking chances and facing risks out of the fear of what might happen if we fail.

We evolve into better people by spending each day as new kids on our first day here, trying to make friends, trying to understand the world not from the perspective that we already know everything we need to, that we are established experts in our own lives, but from the perspective that the world still has so much to teach us, no matter who we are. What are you still so afraid of? What do you still have to learn?