Michael Holmes

As the runners lined up to take their positions, I was involved in the typical prerace banter.

I was running the 400-meter section of a medley relay, representing Yale Club Running. One of the competitors was particularly chatty and looked like he was ready to tear the track apart. He stood tall and muscular, wearing a headband that could absorb all the sweat in the world, and breathed hard as if preparing for battle.

“I did a 54 over summer,” he told me and another competitor, referring to a 54-second race. “I’ll try for a 56 today. I’ve gotten less fit over winter.”

The other competitor was a head taller than me and sported a Scandinavian accent. He laughed.

“It’ll be tough keeping up with a 56; winter really got to me as well.”

I decided to keep quiet because my best ever was only a 58. At least it was only two seconds shy of their predicted times.

The gun sounded, and right from the start it was already apparent that they were going way quicker than 56. And I trailed behind. I thought that they would slow down, that perhaps a 56-second 400-meter runner meant that they misjudged the pace. But they did not misjudge the pace, and they did not slow down. My legs would not move any faster, and I looked on as I fell further behind. They were definitely much faster than your everyday winter-chilled 56. As I passed the baton to the next runner I decided two things: that I had tried my best and that people didn’t give themselves enough credit.

Who are these “people” I write about? And what does it mean to not give yourself enough credit? Just thinking about this while taking a post-run shower unearthed many instances when many of us are quick to tell people that we haven’t achieved much. When someone tells us they admire our GPA, we quickly tell them that we got lucky or that many people are as good or better. We tell them that stuff like “I have been watching way too many episodes of ‘Stranger Things’ last semester, so I don’t know how I did it.” On social media we tend to document ourselves in outrageous acts of procrastination followed by shallow self-blame. A typical caption could be “test in 12 hours but oh hello Stranger Things,” followed by a picture of a laptop bursting with Netflix brightness. We tag our friends in memes that show the struggles of keeping our lives together. When people ask us what our 400-meter timings are, we sometimes add a few seconds to the times we know we are actually capable of, citing setbacks such as winter.

When people ask us about our progress we instinctively point towards our frailties or setbacks. When asked if we have studied for a test, we talk about how we took 50 hours to go through two chapters. When asked if we attended a lecture a typical answer might be: “No, of course I didn’t attend because I am a little shit” or “Yes I did, but I used Facebook the whole time and didn’t listen to much of the lecture.” Even if you did listen, it would be safer to tell a friend that you didn’t really understand most of the lecture. We say these things to downplay our progress in much of what we do.

Many of us do this with good intentions. We believe we are being honest, and to be honest means facing up to our flaws and shortcomings, to get up close and personal with our imperfect skins. In the process we think we are able to make our friends feel better about their own shortcomings and struggles and also take some pressure off ourselves to overachieve. We are able to feel better about our failures as they come, because we’ve set up a safety net of underestimated abilities and insufficient effort. We tell ourselves that we deserve this for the amount of work we put in, that since we were greedily scrolling through social media the night before instead of keeping focused and that we shouldn’t be that surprised, really, that we underperformed.

We take ownership of activities that impede our progress to downplay our potential in an attempt to escape feelings of inadequacy when we encounter failure.

But do we really end up feeling better about ourselves? Does convincing oneself of one’s shortcomings really help one’s heart settle? A few months ago I ran in a cross-country race. As we walked to the start line, I told my teammates that I probably wouldn’t perform so well, that I didn’t sleep well the night before and that my legs were still slightly sore from training. I held all these excuses in my lungs so that when I was out of breath, I could have something to blame it on. When the race started I let opponents overtake me. When I felt tired I didn’t push harder but told myself that today was not the best day to run.

I could only hate myself once I crossed the finish line. I knew that if I hadn’t made those excuses for myself, the race would have turned out differently. I wouldn’t have any excuses to use as a crutch; I could only face the challenge with grit and determination. The outcome is usually better when we choose the latter.

What I learned from that race was this: When we downplay our abilities, we fall short of our potential. We spend too much time finding excuses for what we lack, but not enough actually building ourselves up. Our conversations with friends are too often about our mutual failures and acts of procrastination, never about what we’ve done to help each other. When people praise us we deflect this praise to elements of luck and happenstance. We don’t credit ourselves because, when we do, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, giving ourselves the chance to feel disappointed when we fall short.

This might all be OK if we were truly ignorant of our abilities and lived our lives in stress-free ignorance. But I believe that deep down in our psyches we have a good idea of what our true abilities are. At the very least, we are able to immediately tell when we haven’t done our best. Think about the time you got an A minus but still felt a tinge of disappointment. Think about how you cannot help but still compare your results to your peers despite the walls of self-deprecation you’d built up. Think about the times you skipped that gym session and couldn’t find any good reasons as to why you did. We sell ourselves short and in turn underachieve. Our minds have to struggle to justify this and in doing so surround ourselves with the same old narratives that got us into this mess. We don’t dare to take ownership of our successes, so we do so of our failures. The cycle is a self-perpetuating sob-fest.

The bigger thing we can do is to be honest with ourselves. Not just honest in our shortcomings, but our triumphs as well.

The first obstacle in being honest with ourselves is the hesitance to admit any real progress. We paint a grandiose narrative with well-curated subplots to describe our shortcomings and obstacles, but summarize our progress and effort in a few short words. “I studied at Starbucks today.” “I went to the gym.” Simplifying our achievements into one-phrase trivialities does us no favors. Short of telling everyone around us about that awesome study session, we should at least take a moment to ruminate on the things we have done in the betterment of ourselves.

We could start by really appreciating something simple like our run at the gym. We could think about moments during the run we wanted to give up but didn’t. We could think of the mileage for the run and how it had increased over the weeks. We could even think of how we were in bed at first, contemplating whether to run in the first place but got up anyway to put on our shoes. The same can be said for any small achievement: an hour of studying, a theater rehearsal, a tough muay thai session or even waking up early to have breakfast. We can start by appreciating these small achievements and work our way up to bigger ones.

And this works out for us, because in building up a small space for ourselves to feel good about our achievements, we aren’t as crushed when we fail. And even if we are damaged, we can pride ourselves in knowing that we are facing failure head on and not hiding ourselves behind a veneer of inflated self-blame and wounded pride. Essentially, we are failing with the full knowledge that we have succeeded before and have the capabilities to improve, to be better than we were.

When we give ourselves more credit, what we’re really doing is giving ourselves a pat on the back, telling ourselves that though we might give up on a lot of things in life, we will not give up on ourselves.

And we are made better for that.

Justin Ong justin.ong@yale.edu