I often miss opportunities for one simple reason: I’m convinced someone else would do a better job.
For our high school Homecoming senior year, there was a t-shirt design contest. Inspiration hit me, and I drew something I really liked. Before I describe it, I’ll have to provide a little explanation: Our school was called York High School, so our mascot was the Duke. Get it? York Dukes? Duke of York? I never realized it was that weird until I graduated and got looks of disbelief. It’s true; our rich, white, suburban school’s mascot was an embodiment of the bourgeoisie: a man with a mustache, monocle, and top hat. He was the Planters peanut, if the Planters peanut had wished to become a real live boy.
I never thought the Duke was a strange mascot, but I still mocked him simply because when you’re that age, everything having to do with high school is worth mocking. “God, our mascot is so dumb. Ugh, our parking lot is the worst. What are these? Brick walls? Pssh, lame.”
Except during Homecoming. During Homecoming, the Duke is a revered gentleman who demands respect—nay, fear. Our battle cry became “Fear The Monocle.” And we meant it.
That year, our football team played the Trojans for Homecoming. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha….condoms. That was basically our retort against our opponent and our reasoning for why we’d destroy them. Because, you know. Condoms.
But when they announced a t-shirt design contest, I had a bolt-of-lighting inspiration moment. I drew the Duke (awesome mustache blowing in the wind) riding a Trojan horse to victory. In place of his usual top hat, I drew a football helmet. Then I added the top hat anyway, sexily perched atop the helmet.
I’m going to be honest with you: Michelangelo’s David would bow to this sketch, it was just that good. But my confidence level was low—again, for no other reason but that it was high school, and that’s just the way it was. So I drew this thing, this masterful thing, having no idea that it may or may not have been the next Mona Lisa (it was, trust me), and assuming that someone else had drawn something better.
As a teen, I never felt I was the best at anything, and had proof to back it up: other people got 1st place at the art fair, got better grades on the test, got the starring role in the school play. I was runner up. B+. Townsperson #2.
Now as an adult, I look back at this time in my life and say, “I liked drawing, I got good grades, and I had a blast acting in my spare time. And I was good at all of it! Why didn’t I just let myself enjoy these things?” But in high school, you are acutely aware of the people who are better than you. Maybe because adults tell you so often exactly who is better. They give out trophies and announce top grades. It’s all meant to encourage everyone, I suppose, to reach for the trophies and the top grades. But for me, it was just a way to say, “Here’s another thing you’re not the best at, Emily. Maybe try rugby.”
So my Duke picture stayed in a folder, never submitted. There are a lot of great artists at our school, I thought. I’ve met them. And they’ve already created something better. By the time I submit mine, the school will have framed something else and sent it to the Louvre.
When they revealed the winning picture, my jaw fell to the floor. That won? That?! They had chosen some art student’s half-hearted doodle (I know it was half-hearted because I was in an art class with the winner and I knew what he was capable of), which didn’t even look like anything, let alone a Duke riding a Trojan horse to victory. I wondered if anyone had submitted a drawing besides this one. And if those other drawings had been rejected, I wondered what they had looked like. Dancing condoms? Likely.
I have other examples from this time in my life when I chose to go for it, when I didn’t let my doubt get in the way of my accomplishments. When I said, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and then I did something amazing. But I still look back on this one time when I assumed I didn’t deserve praise (or certainly that someone else deserved it more) and I wish I could go back and reassure myself. I wish I could be my own cheerleader.
I never showed the picture to anyone. I know this because anyone with a soul would have encouraged me to submit it, and this story would have a different ending. Instead, that picture is lost forever. I think I actually threw it away.
So be your own cheerleader. Put yourself out there. When you hear your doubtful brain saying you aren’t good enough, tell your brain to suck it, and do it anyway. You never know—you might be a lot better than you think you are.
When you’re halfway to an interview and start thinking, “This is silly, I’ll just go home.” Tell your brain to shush. When you’re waiting to audition and look at everyone you think will get the gig instead, tell your brain to zzzzip it. When you’re thinking about buying blue eye shadow just to try it even though every magazine tells you that you’d look better in peach, tell your brain to hush it.
Tell yourself you can do it, and then freaking do it. Don’t wait for someone else to do it better. Do it your way, and kill it.