Someone in my life once noticed that I tend to sabotage myself. Sometimes the problem is simple: I don’t have enough time to dedicate to something so I simply opt out of doing it at all, which is what happened when I dropped out of a high-level internship at a law office in Los Angeles after juggling school, work, university sports, and the internship. I felt like I was stretched too think to produce good work and rather than doing my best, which I felt wasn’t enough, I quit. Other times, I simply lack confidence. I’ve missed important interviews because I didn’t think I was qualified enough even though I was. The examples of this are countless and the reasons various. However, the common thread among them is obvious: fear. I was afraid of this, or afraid of that. I was afraid of doing my best and still coming up short; I was afraid others would laugh at me after I had left the room.
During my time at UCLA I completed two graduate courses. In those classes, the intellect was high and, as an undergraduate student, I lacked confidence when sitting in a room full of seasoned graduate students. My first course was a Portuguese literature and translation course taught by author and translator Benjamin Moser. Moser translated most of Clarice Lispector’s writings and ultimately wrote her biography, Why This World. We talked about the theories of translation work, the processes involved, and were tasked to translate some of Clarice’s work from the original writings in Portuguese, which we later compared with one another while discussing our decisions. Clarice’s prose embodies the post-modern and is challenging to translate. Her syntax, word choice, and overall structure– or lack thereof– is everything but normal. The final for the course was an individual assignment, which went well. A semester later, I enrolled in another graduate-level course, this time in contemporary Russian literature. The intellect was even higher and this time I was the only one who didn’t speak the language. Everybody else was reading the texts in Russian and knew the underpinning historical and cultural contexts involved; I did not. I always felt like I was three steps behind. For our final assignment, we were all asked to consider the readings done throughout the course and teach the class for an hour. I was terrified. Even though I had done well in school and in the previous graduate-level course, I could not convince myself that what I would teach these graduate students would be of any importance to them or interest them in the least. I was afraid, even, that they would disagree with me entirely, or outwit me in my own arguments and thoughts, or think that I was unintelligent simply because they were more intelligent.
Over the course of two weeks, I labored for hours and hours, doing research, designing a lesson plan, selecting readings, practicing. It wasn’t enough to convince myself that I what I was about to do was good enough. When the day of my presentation came, I had the presentation in my hand, on my hard-drive; it was 100% complete, ready to go. What did I do? I lied. I told my professor that I had accidentally left my flash-drive at home and somebody else volunteered to go in my place. Since the class met once a week for three hours, this bought me another week. So, for another week I labored, tweaked, and practiced the new presentation. However, I had already shot myself down. I couldn’t shake the nerves of presenting to these proven academics. So, during the moment in which I was to prove myself, I failed. I approached the professor before class the day I was to present. I told him the truth: I was terrified and had undermined myself to the point of no return. I felt like shit for doing that and it seriously shook my confidence during my last two quarters at UCLA. I admitted defeat… but, again, the enemy was myself. I don’t know if he understood. However, he allowed me to make it up by writing a 15-page paper. Even though I had already spent more time on the presentation than it would take me to write a paper of that length, I was was both relieved and ashamed. I wrote the paper and got an A in the class, but the feeling of defeat stayed with me.
It wasn’t until I decided to travel that I began to confront fear again. During the months before my trip I honestly believed that I would die abroad. It was strange feeling that I couldn’t explain. My mind simply latched onto that idea, that fear. Perhaps I shouldn’t have watched Into the Wild. I went anyways, telling myself I was just being paranoid. Despite this, I didn’t really gain confidence until I came to Hanoi and began teaching. I really didn’t want to teach because I had never really taught before, I didn’t feel like I had the proper skills and experience to get paid for it. I had tutored before but for me tutoring and teaching were worlds apart. I let my fear get in the way of my first demo class, which was a room full of Vietnamese kindergartners and teachers who were watching me as if they were just waiting for me to slip up. I was to teach two demo classes that day and after an uncomfortable first class, I realized something. These are kindergartners. That time, the fear that I had to confront came in the form of children. Go figure! I left the building thinking that I never want to do that again, telling myself that I wasn’t made for teaching, blah blah blah. I was getting into my head again.
Out of necessity, I was forced to attend more demo lesson, interviews, etc– I had traveled to Thailand and Laos, and ran out of money in Vietnam. I thought about crowd-funding my way out of Vietnam, to Australia or New Zealand where I could work as a laborer or work in a bar and not have to go through the discomfort, fear, and self-doubt. I got a little depressed, looking for ways out. Ultimately though, I couldn’t throw in the towel. I owed it to myself. Fear of what? I decided I would keep doing this until somebody finally told me I was a shitty teacher and didn’t belong in a classroom. That never happened. The school I did my first demo class with invited me back, the new schools I taught viewed me as a valuable resource and wanted me there as much as possible, and soon I found myself literally overbooked and turning down jobs simply because I could not be everywhere at once. The kids loved me.
I was relieved, motivated, and felt renewed. Now, almost two months later, I have groups of kids whom I have taught for almost 8 weeks who genuinely miss me on the days I am not there. I have kindergarten students, adults, teenagers, and everything in between. One month ago, I never would have thought this but I am really enjoying teaching. Overcoming this challenge has been good for me. Now, I embrace this particular type of fear; I invite it. I know I can do it, I just have to want it and accept being vulnerable in the moment.
So, if your reading this and unsure if you should go out in the world and travel alone, I invite you to test yourself. Embrace fear. Do something that scares you. Go to a different country where you know nobody and take a chance. You will overcome it and be a better person for it. You will succeed– but first, you must be willing to fail.