Very often, people don’t want to talk about their fears. When they do, it’s often talked about really in the context of how it’s a strength of some sort. Very rarely is fear, at least in public, confessed in its rawness.
Well, I have a fear. A real, raw fear. And as I write, in this moment, I am gripped with fear. It’s a fear that doesn’t make sense. At least to me. Especially because I have spent the last many years doing a lot of what I say I fear. But you see, this fear is so palpable to me. Whenever I have to confront it, my body tenses. Sometime my feet do that shaking thing. You know that shaking thing when you’re nervous, when you’re waiting to hear from that college application or internship application or job application? Yes, that one.
I am afraid of writing.
I never had this fear. It happened on me some years ago. I have a vague memory of the first time that it hit me like a bolt. It was my second semester at Harvard.
Before that, I had every confidence in myself. I remember very well, the one afternoon, when I picked up the phone in my residence at Waterford Kamhlaba United World College in Swaziland and called the Times of Swaziland editor. I wanted to write a column for his newspaper. In a few days, I was on it – both the writing and the newspaper. A few months later, I was writing for the Swazi Observer, the only other national newspaper in the country. In a little over a year, I had published 53 articles, each of which I had churned out in less than an hour. Impressive. But that didn’t last.
After this stint, I decided that I wanted to take a break from writing. I felt I was writing “fluffy” stuff. You know, that self-helpy, “inspirational and motivational” mooshy stuff. No offense. I wanted to up the ante and write “deep” stuff. I wanted to write about the politics of my country, religion, the excesses of a “development” paradigm in the Global South. I didn’t want to be an inspirational and motivational speaker; I now wanted to be a public intellectual, partly because I believed myself to be a good writer.
Back to that second semester at Harvard: I took this class called Expos 20. It was supposed to make me a better writer, one who is able to construct and substantiate and defend arguments. Looked at in another way, one who is supposed to build his arguments by ripping apart others’. I remember, quite vividly, walking up to my instructor after one lesson and asking why we always looked for loopholes in other people’s writing and arguments? Why did we always rip people’s arguments apart instead of inhabiting them, savoring what they said, really understanding it and then constructively engaging with it?
My writing and arguments received their fair share of criticism – of being ripped apart. It wasn’t particularly harsh. I was just given an “interesting” grade. All along, I had thought of myself as a good writer. I mean, I had written for two national newspapers, and each of the 53 articles in less than an hour. Until I got back that grade, which was, like I said – interesting. It got right to my self-esteem, or would you prefer if I said ego? I haven’t recovered (fully) since.
The first time my fear of writing was real to me was in the basement of my freshman dorm, when I was writing the next assignment after getting “the” grade (after all that Harvard grade inflation talk, you must be guessing it was an A-. No, it wasn’t. Not even a B+. OK, I won’t say). It’s all a blur but I remember this feeling in my body, that made me to – quite literally – run away from my computer. I was afraid of writing and giving my whole self to the task in front of me only to be chastised by a horrible grade later on. For the next four years, I let this fear carry me away from my work, often at the last minute.
Why am I telling you this?
First: this is about my relationship with writing but it’s not about my relationship with writing. It’s about my relationship with myself. I am not just afraid of writing.
I am afraid of myself.
That sounds weird, especially considering how a good number of people consider me to be “successful”. Yet, much of my outward “success” has been an accumulation of frantic, fearful last minute arrangements of words on paper resembling what could have been my refined articulation of “deep” ideas. A big reason why I haven’t put in the time, effort and thought into writing well is because I have had a fear of being confronted with my real potential of “deepness”. And it all goes back to my experience of critique and criticism in the Expos 20 class that I took.
There are a number of lessons from this experience, least of which is how silly I must have been to be scared of writing for years by a mere grade. However, deep in the silliness of that reaction lie two poignant lessons on authenticity and vulnerability.
Thinking deeply about my fear of writing, I have realized how my sense of self is attached to the work that I produce. When I got back that bad grade, I felt like it reflected on me as a person. That grade was not only a judgment of the paper I had written; it was a judgment of who I was as a person. And it wasn’t a good judgment – I couldn’t even make the grade-inflated A-minus! (Don’t take me seriously!) In fact, this isn’t my first experience of attaching my value to something as superficial as a grade. Some of you may have read an article I wrote and was published on Forbes.com (check it out here) where I talked about how my teenage sense of self was attached to my clothes and appearances. I had to work my way out of that and value myself based on my authentic self, based on how I used my God-given talents to make an impact on the world. Then I started a number of initiatives and organizations such as Lead Us Today to help young people transcend the limitations of their present realities, develop their leadership and entrepreneurial skills, and impact the world.
For me, all this is déjà-vu. I have named this blog, “The Deepness Project” to begin the conversation about how we can bring more of our authentic selves into the world. Sadly, when I look around me it’s not only teenagers who attach their own value based on superficial standards. Chances are that you do too. You may be assigning your own value based on the prestige of your current job, where you go/went to college, your weight, looks, bank balance or the number of likes you get on your Facebook photos and posts. You have your fears. Today I’m proposing that one of those biggest fears might be a fear of yourself.
Through this blog, I look forward to stepping into my own fear of writing in order to bring out the “deepness” that fear might be suppressing. I might fail in that endeavor and realize that, after all, I’m not as “deep” as I’d like to believe. What matters most is that I struggle valiantly. I hope you step into your fear too, in your own way, and embrace your deepness.
I know that right now my writing is very much like the “self-helpy, ‘inspirational and motivational’ mooshy stuff” I promised I would never write again in my late teens. In reality, though, it’s by going back to that kind of “stuff” that I have mustered the courage to write. Publicly. Remember the question I asked my writing instructor, “Why did we always rip people’s arguments apart instead of inhabiting them, savoring what they said, really understanding it and then constructively engaging with it?”. I think that’s a good question to ponder in itself. However, instead of protecting our own arguments (and especially ourselves!) from being ripped apart, there is a lot to be gained, I believe, from being vulnerable enough to bring our whole selves, our full deepness, for others to engage with. Taken in the right spirit, that “ripping apart” can be criticism that constructs us into people with deeper understandings of ourselves that have even more refined and valuable contributions to make.
I am writing this blog to liberate myself from a fear of myself. And writing.
Through this blog, I look forward to building my own freedom to think and write. I will write on a range of topics – personal issues such as this one, Zimbabwean politics, religion, leadership, social entrepreneurship – that interest me most. One thread that will go through all these different topics is that I hope it will spark conversations that enables us to share our deepest insights about the world around us, how it works or how we envision it.
Without denying the selfishness inherent in this blog, it really is a Project that looms larger than my silly fear of writing: it is a project to enable you and me to more fully embrace our authentic deepness.
I won’t have the last word. Please check out this amazing TedTalk by Brene Brown about vulnerability, which has inspired me to take this first step: