Something I’m beginning to understand, which I mentioned in this post, is that Timor-Leste is teaching me to expect less of myself. To shed the stories I’ve unknowingly layered over myself for fifteen, twenty years, to be less, and to be comfortable with that.
On being less capable.
There’s an Australian artist whose work I adore, called Gorkie, who regularly posts these sharp wry erudite little illustrations on Instagram, and from whose T-shirt I took the above sentence: Be Less Capable.
(Before I go on: this post is not the boast of a high-achieving wunderkind; rather, it’s the sheepish confession of a former Good Kid.)
Growing up, I was a Good Kid. I was quiet, polite, well-mannered; a voracious reader whose greatest childhood crime was switching the bed-lamp back on to re-open my book after lights out; a hard-working, intelligent student whose early school reports are littered with adjectives like conscientious and diligent; a teenager who forgot to have a moody adolescence. I slipped straight from straight As and a school captain role at my primary school to extra-curriculum activities, clarinet practise and English awards at my competitive, academic private high school.
That’s not to say I was profoundly intelligent, nor to gloss over my forgetfulness, selfishness, or my lack of athletic ability. But by and large, for fifteen years, I was a Good Kid; a capable person.
I tried hard and I did well.
That continued with my acceptance into a law degree at university. Barely sixteen years old, staring down the barrel of my high school exams, I said yes to the uni offer because it sounded ok and I didn’t know what else to do so why not. (Not going to uni wasn’t mentioned.)
Somewhere in the six years of my degree I forgot that early lack of certainty and convinced myself that I did, in fact, want to be a lawyer. It it, of course, the path of least resistance in law school — the entire thing’s designed on the assumption that it’s churning out fresh lawyers, and the very vast majority of my high-achieving classmates were applying for clerkships and grad jobs and showing up to lectures in suits fresh from interviews and talking about the high-school law and politics classes they’d taken that made me feel like I was already behind for not doing the same, let alone even contemplating a post-school path that wasn’t legal practice.
There, my lack of drive and my relative low intelligence saw my marks settle at a decidedly average level and my own clerkships at small, family firms, rather than the skyscraper top-tiers and justice defenders my friends worked with.
I loved my experience of studying; I loved my friends and the town my school was in; and I loved the volunteering and writing I did outside of uni just enough to decide not to apply for graduate jobs when I finished in 2014.
That remains one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made and I still think about it near-weekly; tendrils of poison doubt seeping into my mind to taunt my choice, are you sure though?
I am sure. But I can’t shake the feeling that if I really want to try and help; if I want to use my skills and experience to help others, to redistribute power, to tackle inequality and unfairness, to make a difference, to speak to power, using the law degree I’m privileged to have is the clear path forwards, regardless of how much or how little I’d enjoy it.
A clever friend from Melbourne visited Timor-Leste with work late last year, and I congratulated him on finishing his own law degree. What’s next, I asked, assuming news of a plum position with Legal Aid or ALS or the law reform commission. The friend, who worked and volunteered for five years with me at the anti-poverty organisation, Oaktree, said he’d applied for the DFAT graduate program.
I ventured he might share my unease; that he too might feel the obligation to put to good use the opportunity and privilege of holding a law degree.
“Oh, I don’t think I’d be very good,” he said, simply, of legal practice, leaning back in the bamboo chair on my verandah. And, he said, he liked the idea that his five years of informal experience could count for more than the strict academic study and its corresponding certificate, and that it could be a more useful tool for change than his prestigious piece of paper.
It was one of the first times in twenty-five years I’ve paused to consider the fact that just because I can do something, doesn’t mean I have to.
Be less capable.
In that post I linked above,about boredom bringing clarity, I wrote:
I cram things full and then get surprised when nothing more fits, I thought.
I’ve been thinking lately about stress, work, achievement, busy-ness and boredom, trailing thoughts floating lazy in my mind as I turn my mind to an uncomfortable idea. I’m just now beginning to realise my decades-long conflation of worth and achievement; hazy morning eyes blurred surfacing from sleep; only recently as I’ve become less and less competent against the standards I’ve always known am I beginning to see how strictly I’ve held myself against them, how I’ve not been good enough, a good enough person, if I haven’t met my goals.
Now, I feel like I’m failing in everything, and it’s revealing permission to be less.
For decades I’ve reinforced for myself, in a deep-seeded and sinister way, this idea of being a Good Kid. If I’m not performing, I’m not worthwhile. And if I don’t mess up, if I place my feet perfectly on every rock as I step-step across the river, I won’t slip.
But if I stay upright, but fail to see the view because I’ve been staring at my toes, have I really succeeded?
No matter what I do, regardless of what I achieve or what I write or where I intern or how many certificates sit framed on the wall of my childhood bedroom, I’ll be a good person; I’ll have worth, I’ll have inherent value.
While my work isn’t always about me, if I’m a political lefty because I believe in the inherent dignity of every person and their right to flourish, I can include myself in their numbers. I must divorce the idea that success means worth; that achievement defines, or defies, character. I am enough alone.
Dumb, dusty, hot, hole-y Dili has done wonders for that. Prising off, dissolving in sticky midday sweat the insidious layers of perfectionism and expectation I’ve cloaked myself with for years. Getting on the wrong microlet, mis-understanding my colleages and relying on their patience, walking backwards and forwards blinking uncomfortably in the sun after failing to understand simple directions, slopping bottled water and greasy roadside fish over my pants in the car’s front seat, every awkward accidental half-hug when I’ve kiss-kissed the wrong way, being rude and awkward with my neighbours, feeling greedy and indulgent and impolite for having so many things, the clumsy Tetun and my inability to express myself. The diarrhoea attacks and the spectacular trips on the rocky roads.
In Timor-Leste, I’m incompetent. I’m cringe-worthy. I’m hopeless. I don’t know much and I struggle to do the easiest, most embarrassing things: wash my own clothes, buy phone credit, visit a friend for a cup of coffee.
It’s humiliating and anxiety-inducing. But it’s also liberating. I’ve never been so dim; so lacking in competence, so out-of-place, so clumsy, so I’ve never been in a position to realise that’s ok. It’s ok to not know. It’s ok to get it wrong. For the most part, people are gentle and kind and forgiving and respectful. (Why am I not like that to myself?)
I’m still good even when I’m not Good. I will hold on to this Timor-Leste lesson for life.