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The Issue with Modesty

The Heart of Life: The Issue with Modesty

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Issue with Modesty

Yesterday I attended a training workshop for my job, and in one of the presentations we were each asked to name one of our talents with the disclaimer that telling about your talents is never bragging. It’s only bragging when you are trying to make others feel bad. I won’t lie; I have talents. When I was little I was good at putting together puzzles. When I got a little older, I excelled at reading and was usually a few reading levels above my peers. At recess I was good at pushing other kids on the merry-go-round and digging holes pointed toward China that were as deep as my arm could reach. When one of my classmates lost one of her shoes while playing in the sand, I took it upon myself to organize a search party. I won my class’s Young Author contest nearly every year, and I got second place in the 2nd grade spelling bee. I was good at things, and I was glad I was good at things.
I still had those talents when I went to junior high, but they didn’t mean anything there. I was still a good reader, writer, and speller, but that only meant I got good grades. By the time I was in 6th grade, I was well aware that getting good grades did not make you special. In junior high nobody seemed to care that I was still creative, still good at memorizing details, and still had good spatial skills. Actually, all of these talents seemed kind of embarrassing. I qualified to be a part of the district geography bee in 8th grade, but I pretended to forget about it because I didn’t want to be that nerdy girl who knew what continent Mongolia was on.
During this time I began to be fairly proficient at the piano and the violin, but it wasn’t something I took particular pride in. I rarely let on to my classmates that I even played any instruments, let alone that I was any good at them. Oddly enough, the only instrument I took modest pride in was the trumpet, and I had very little talent in that arena. I never practiced, I never got very good, and yet I was conveniently one of the best trumpet players in my class. But when it all boiled down, the trumpet meant nothing to me. I dropped the trumpet the second I went to high school and haven’t touched it since.
While junior high served the purpose of humbling me into talent hibernation, high school served a different purpose. I hated to think I was good at things, but the thought never crossed my mind that I could be legitimately bad at something. In high school I got a healthy dose of failure. In high school I tried doing a lot of new activities, and many of which I was terrible at. I ran cross-country all four years and got dead last at meets more often than not. I also did track all four years with mediocre performance at best. I tried out pole vaulting and got a handful of medals, but only because there were usually only 3 competitors—last place doubled as 3rd place. On a random whim I decided to try out for the dance team and by the skin of my teeth I made it as an alternate. By the time I graduated I could pull off the dances moderately well—it definitely wasn’t my talent, but I blended in.
I knew I had legitimate talents, but they never seemed to be the talents I would have chosen for myself. Piano and violin were fine, and I liked playing them, but I knew my friends would think the music I played was boring. I knew I was a good listener. But no adolescent admits that for fear of the response, “Pretty much everyone can hear. It’s one of the five senses, idiot.” You might as well say you’re good at smelling things. I knew I was a pretty good writer, but again—a super lame skill unless you can write clever songs and sing them with your guitar (I didn’t take up the guitar until college, and singing solo isn’t really my thing). I really don’t think that my friends cared that on MSN Messenger I always used correct spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. I would never ever think of mentioning how incredibly awesome I am at putting together big puzzles with little, oddly shaped, pieces. No, no, no. You don’t tell teenagers that kind of thing. Unfortunately, I possessed only grown-up skills.
Now that I am a grown-up, I like having these skills. I don’t play the piano or violin as much as I used to, but I hope to one day teach lessons. I am a social worker, and the ability to listen—not just hear, but listen—is essential. As for writing, one of my professors—the one that was a notoriously harsh grader—told me that I was one of the best writers he’d ever seen since he had become a professor. Greatest compliment ever!
The past several months I have been trying to get a satisfactory resume together. However, after years and years of social conditioning that involved believing that I must be painfully modest about my talents and downplay them as much as possible, I have a hard time convincing myself (and my perspective employers) that I have something other people don’t. Now don’t get me wrong—I know I’m special and I know I have worthwhile talents. But starting in junior high, all I wanted to be was normal. Special? Please, no. I just wanted to blend in.
It makes me think about the one kindergartener from one of my body safety presentations who refused to raise his hand to indicate that he was special. This scares me a lot. It appears that this junior high and high school mentality that it’s not cool or socially acceptable to be special has trickled down into kindergarten. That’s not how it’s supposed to be! Kindergarteners aren’t supposed to want to blend in! Kindergarteners are supposed to think that everything they do is awesome, even if it doesn’t look like what everyone else is doing.
Naturally we grow up, and we realize that not everything we do is awesome. Sometimes we are absolutely no good at cross country or volleyball, even though we try. And we're usually ok with that. But for some reason, we're also ok with blending in. We like to seem average, even though by nature we are not.
The question is: How do we challenge this thinking in elementary children? How do we challenge it in high school and junior high kids? Lastly, and most importantly, how do we challenge this thinking within ourselves?

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