• April 23, 2014

The Joys of Being the Dumbest Person in the Room

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Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

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Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

Last summer I won a marathon. You might think that is the kind of thing that I could look back on and use to fluff myself up when I'm feeling too lazy to put on my running shoes and get out the door.

The race was on trails in the boonies of Idaho. The marathon happened concomitantly with a number of other races—a half-marathon, a 50K, and a 50-miler involving different numbers of loops on essentially the same course. A bunch of folks were doing the half-marathon, and all of the fast people—the hard core—were racing 50 miles.

Four of us entered the marathon. We were all women age 40 to 49. I won even though I ran 11 minutes slower than I had in a marathon two weeks before. But winning didn't make me feel great.

A few weeks later, I had just the opposite experience. I went off to teach at a short-term residency master's of fine arts program, kind of like a writing boot camp. Faculty members and students come together twice a year for 10 days packed with readings, classes, talks, and conversations that you don't usually get to have in the press of daily life.

Each faculty member in the program had to give a talk and read from his or her creative work. And, of course, we all worked with the students in classes and workshops—and then talked and drank into the night. We're writers, after all.

Throughout the residency, I felt like the dumbest person in the room: I was the least accomplished, the least literary, the least glittering in terms of prizes and honors. I am not a dynamic reader, so people didn't swoon when I was finished and swarm me the way they did some of my colleagues. I didn't have stacks of books that students begged me to sign; they didn't bring old, battered copies of my work and tell me that they had loved me for years.

It was great.

Feeling like the fastest person in the race had been strange and had done little to motivate me to keep running. But feeling like the dumbest person in the room at that writing program was energizing.

In middle age, after certain kinds of success, it can be easy to coast. In all the discussions about abolishing tenure, there is always the suggestion (sometimes overt, sometimes not) that getting rid of deadwood is a good thing, and that universities are filled with cords of it. But do any of us think of ourselves as deadwood? Most of us know that, at a certain point, we get a little soft and lazy. We don't work as hard as we used to. If we're not trying to achieve promotion or tenure, to win teaching awards, to make a difference in our academic culture, it's tempting to do what we know how to do—what we're good at—and then go home and watch Dexter, or play with the dog, or change diapers, or cook a meal for the family.

Don't get me wrong. Having started a tenure-track job in middle age, I'm not at a point in my career where I can cruise or take anything for granted. But my experiences at the marathon and at the master's residency—both in the summer of 2010, within a couple of weeks of each other—reminded me of something obvious: Winning in a small field is much less exciting than feeling like a loser among a bunch of superstars.

Beginning your first year of college, entering graduate school, and starting a new job are all times when the expertise curve can feel alpine. Second-guessing yourself ("Who made a mistake and admitted/hired me?") comes naturally to some of us, even, or perhaps especially, to super-high achievers. But when you're on the upslope of learning, life is rich and exhilarating.

One of the most appealing pleasures is novelty. Academe affords us the opportunity to wade into new intellectual waters, where rogue waves threaten to take us down, where we may have to drift for a while before finding our way. The thrill of being lost, of not knowing, is something that it's taken me decades to appreciate.

Sure, when I was 18 and didn't think I was good at anything, I quaked when friends made reference to any of the many books I hadn't read, talked about important historical events I'd never heard of, mentioned scientific principles I didn't understand. My coping strategy was to be arrogant and dismissive, to feign a confidence I didn't think I would ever experience.

One of the greatest gifts of aging is that you can let go of the idea that you have to know everything, that you always have to be the smartest kid in the class—or, at least, let go of the notion that you should try to convince others that you are. At a certain point, you're no longer threatened by your inadequacies, but grateful to find people who can shore them up.

But an even better gift is to enter an arena in which you think you're fairly accomplished and end up having your butt kicked. Athletes know that being around people who play the game at a higher level can only be useful. Good keynote speeches at conferences can make me swoon. Even a really smart job talk will inspire me, and make me plop myself in front of the computer and go to work.

In middle age, I find it thrilling to be overwhelmed by someone else's brilliance. It makes me want to work harder, to be better. It sends me back to that desperate time of seeking to prove myself worthy—though now without (as much of) the accompanying self-hatred. And it makes me more generous.

"Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little," said Gore Vidal, expressing something that most of us would be too embarrassed ever to confess. Worse, of course, than having a friend triumph is witnessing the smashing success of someone you feel superior to—in other words, competitive with. There are people who cannot speak without spitting about former classmates who have found professional success. I'm not saying I'm immune to those petty feelings, but these days, I'm more likely to be happy for those who do well, most especially my friends. Their successes take nothing away from me. That is a hard thing to realize.

Maybe years ago, winning a marathon would have felt good, even in a field of four oldish ladies. Maybe, when I told friends about it, I wouldn't have mentioned right away the fact that there were only four of us, or that we were doing the wimpiest race. Or maybe I would have made a joke about it.

But I know for certain that, years ago, I would not have been thrilled to feel like the dumbest person in the room for 10 days at a time.

And I would not have realized that everyone else who stood up to read felt the same way—that no matter how much critical acclaim they had received, how many zillions of dollars their books had brought in, no amount of awards and acclaim can ever make someone who does something as scary and subjective as writing feel safe from the judgments of others, especially those they respect. We put ourselves in positions where we have to prove it, and we keep wanting to do better instead of resting on wilted laurels. It's not easy. But if it doesn't destroy you, it will surely make you more hardy.

This summer I'm looking forward to going back and running faster on that same marathon in Idaho, regardless of who else is in the race and where I might place. And a week later, I'll be happy to mingle with writing students and authors who will make me want to teach and write better. I'll try to leave my delicate ego at home with the dog and look forward to feeling inadequate.

Rachel Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University's writing program in Spokane. Her Web site is http://www.racheltoor.com. She welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com.

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