So I was applying to schools for next year, and I got one of my least favorite essay prompts.
What is the best advice you have ever been given, and when have you found that advice helpful?
(Sadly, what used to be a short list of bad prompts is now a mile-long, thanks to APPLICATIONS. But I’m not frustrated or anything…)
Of course, instead of writing, “You stink. Go get ideas from the University of Chicago“, I tried to think of incredibly strange advice. At first, I thought about using “leave the shower curtain on the inside of the tub”, which is what Conrad Hilton said when asked on his deathbed if he had any last words of wisdom for the world. And yes, I probably could have written about how a shower curtain and a wet bathroom floor was a metaphor for life, but then something much better came to mind. Something so good that it made me laugh and my mom say, “Don’t say that; it’s offensive!” And here is that piece of advice and essay.
The novelist Maureen Johnson once said, “Give yourself permission to suck”. Now, I know that it sounds like lousy advice. Advice is supposed to encourage you, teach you to persevere, help you become a better person or improve a certain skill. However, as dubious as Maureen’s advice might sound, she is absolutely right. You have to “suck” to eventually succeed. You cannot sit down at a piano and expect yourself to be able to play Brahms’s Hungarian Dance #5. No, you have to spend years learning, making mistakes, and being terrible. And if you don’t give yourself permission to initially be horrible at it, you will never make it to Carnegie Hall.
Young children never seem to have any trouble with repeated failure. They fall down constantly when they learn to walk and they stumble over words and write their letters backwards while they’re learning to read and write. But as we grow older, the fear that we might fail and look “stupid” prevents us from trying new things. Like any teenager, this is entirely true for me, and it consistently works to my detriment. For example, when I sit down to write an essay or a speech, I can become so nervous that I can’t type a single word. But then I step back and say, “I give myself permission to suck”. Suddenly, the anxiety fades away. I can write an awful first draft and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all. I’m not turning in my first draft as a final product. I can end all of my sentences with prepositions or write entirely in the passive voice, and no one will ever know. And with this knowledge in hand, I put fingers to keys or pen to paper, and the words pour out. Being awful just becomes part of the process, and “sucking” is what ultimately leads to my success in anything that I try. So, as crazy Maureen’s words might initially sound, I can’t think of any sounder advice.