Why had I waited so long? Last year, I started taking guitar lessons, with the guitar that I’d gotten for Christmas. In 1999. If you’re counting, that was over ten years ago. Since 1999, had I been so busy and important that I couldn’t squeeze in a weekly half hour music lesson? I’ll give you a hint: I was/am not that busy and important. I was terrified. Terrified of not discovering I was a guitar virtuoso. Of not getting it perfect on the first try. Of looking like an awkward beginner instead of an awesome rock star. My guitar teacher intuited this fear, and he was polite enough to wait through several months of me timidly picking at my guitar before he told me, “You gotta stop being scared of your guitar. You gotta jump in and swim.”
Ah. Jump in and swim. I know something about this. See, I just love to tell the story about how I lived in Costa Rica for a year. Aren’t I so adventurous? Aren’t I just the coolest, leaving it all behind to go live in another country? The part of the story I don’t tell is about how scared I was to go. Secretly, I didn’t know if I could do it. Go to school in a language I didn’t yet understand, where I didn’t know one single person. And in the end, it changed me in ways that I am still discovering. A life-making experience. And after I came home, I started working in a restaurant (which also terrified me), and then later started working as an interpreter (which I didn’t know enough about to be terrified by until later), and did a million other things that I was scared of (including a repeat study abroad in another country where I didn’t know the language) that were a success. I think.
Success is funny in its subjectivity. Recently, a friend suggested I write a post about being a woman with a successful career (this is that post, by the way). I was really flattered by the implication of his suggestion, but responded with a self-depricating, “When I know what it’s like to be a successful woman, I’ll write about it.” In my working life, I’ve shared my passion for service and trained hundreds of interpreters. I’ve been an advocate for equality, something that is important to me. In less than a year now, I’ve been promoted twice. Is that success? What if, after being promoted, I feel like less and less of a success, moving further away from the work that connected me with social justice: Everyone deserves a voice. Now I ask myself, Can I change the system, Can I teach excellence, Can I inspire this team, Can I lead these people? When stepping out into unfamiliar territory, there’s always that I-don’t-know-if-I-can-do-this element looming until we do it, and overcome it. Or we don’t. But I suppose the success is in the doing, the trying.
After a few months of lessons, my guitar teacher told me to write down ten songs that I wanted to learn. I made my list, and put I put Blackbird last. You know, that Beatles song? (If you don’t know, I insist you look it up on Youtube.) It was at the bottom of the list, even though it was the song I most wanted to learn, but I was afraid to be told that I couldn’t do it, that it was too advanced, and so when the first song he picked to teach me was Blackbird, I was delighted, but surprised. And I learned it. I can even sing it, in my own special, off-key kind of way, “All your life/You were only waiting/For this moment to arrive.” This is all a metaphor for something bigger, and I know, it can’t just be me. It’s not just me, right? Finding my way, deciding how I measure my own success, not in “perfection”, but in the doing, the trying, the enjoying, deciding that I am enough, and discovering that this is success.
So, what scared you to death that turned out to be a success? Those are the best stories. When I was called to interpret for an end-of-life conference the first time, I thought, I can’t do this. As it turned out, I was the only one who could. When I was called to interpret for chaplaincy, and I was terrified that I wouldn’t have the words for the family’s prayers, there they were. When an interpreter was upset because a long-time patient of hers had died, I was afraid to ask how I could help, because what could I possibly offer? I surprised myself and gave her what she needed. What is it that you think you can’t do, but really, you know can? What are you afraid of? Go on, jump in and swim.