I'm pretty good at a number of things, but I don't have a special skill, talent, or hobby that I can really call my own. When it comes to my education and career path, I've managed to achieve many of the traditional markers of success. However, I'm fairly confident that's because I've chosen to stick within the boundaries of what comes easily to me, essentially avoiding failure by not challenging myself. It's also possible I'm adept at pretending that I'm better than I really am or know more than I really do.
Maybe I'm truly lazy and don't work hard enough to consider myself accomplished or skilled. Maybe I'm particularly attuned to the fact that there will always be people better than me. Maybe I'm just not cut out to excel at anything.
I'm not even sure why it matters to me. I don't want to walk around with a medal or read about myself in the paper. Am I so insecure that I'm seeking outside validation to make me feel good about myself —like my inner ten year old who wants to get picked first for the team at recess? I think having some sort of special talent would feel like a worry stone I could keep in my pocket and touch when I needed a little pick me up. Maybe what I really need is a worry stone.
Dear Just Ok,
It sounds like what you are searching for is greater meaning in your life—some kind of driving narrative about what you are meant to be doing and how you should shape your life.
Some call that a calling.
Recently, I read a book to my daughter (every day, several times a day, for two weeks) called Ella Takes The Stage. Are you familiar with it? In this children's story, Ella the Elegant Elephant is asked to participate in her school talent show. She gets really nervous when she looks up "talent" in the dictionary, and it says, "a special natural ability."
She tries out several (singing, juggling, etc.) but eventually she just ends up supporting everyone else—mending a ripped pair of tights on a dancer, baking cupcakes for all the performers, saving the day by getting the monkey to jump into her hat for the grand finale. Everyone claps for Ella, who does not win any medals but is appreciated as being the "wind beneath the wings" of all the people who did acts.
The message is: maybe you don't have special talent, or it could be that your special talent is supporting those who are actually talented! To which I was like, "Oh great, teach my daughter to be a shadow artist who caretakes those with 'real talent'. Awesome." Don't get me wrong. I want to champion all kinds of expression, even those who are more "behind the scenes." But a total support person is not a fulfilling or sustainable role. So, don't buy into any of that "maybe you're just a worker bee” bullshit.
Here's how I would have ended Ella the Elegant Elephant. Ella loves to sing, but is shamed out of it by people who think she's not good enough. In my version, Ella would find a song she feels highlights her unique voice, even though it may sound really odd, maybe writing it herself to make sure it works. Then she'd perform it at the Talent Show, and some people would get it, and some would cover their ears. Ella wouldn't win the top medal in the show, but she would start down a path as an experimental musician that was highly fulfilling even as she enjoyed supporting her fellow artists by baking cupcakes and painting posters.
Shit, now I want a cupcake. Anyway, enough elephants, more you. It is excellent that you are thinking about this—don't shame yourself out of it. It means that you are taking yourself, and your life, seriously. You are craving meaning and purpose, not just empty praise. You want to find something you're incredibly good at, not necessarily to be successful, but because it feels amazing to excel at something.
It sounds like you have gone down the "usual" pathways for finding that special something you are wonderful at doing, and have come up empty. So here's where we flip it on its head: perhaps you're not going to find that thing in education/work right now. Also, your idea of talent needs a re-vamp. Maybe what you are amazing at is being you. You need to find the medium to express your "you-ness", and follow that, even if you are not perfect/successful/praised at it. I promise you, this will scratch the itch that you have to be "great". You will get so much out of the process that your whole goal of life will shift.
The inimitable Martha Graham once said, “There is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.” So, I'm going to ask you, Just Ok, to go off the beaten path if you have to, to find that way to express your uniqueness. Don't let it be lost in the effort to obtain society's hallmarks of success (degrees you spend a lifetime paying for, houses that depreciate in value, climbing a job ladder you realize you want to jump off). That stuff doesn't last, and you're right, it's not worth caring about. But finding out what you are truly passionate about, and what you can do well and feel good doing, is worth pretty much all of your effort.
So here’s what I want you to do. Make a stream-of-consciousness list of things you’d like to try, even if it turns out you’re not the pillar of perfection at them. Then choose one to do this week. Laugh at how terrible you are at first, but see if you get the hang of it. What did you love to do as a child, before the idea of “success” entered your consciousness? Were you shamed out of it and into a smaller support role, like Ella the EE, or have you just never thought about what the adult equivalent of being a master at Light Bright is (I think it’s coding, or furniture design)?
The roof is about to be blown off of this “just okay” life you’ve built for yourself. It is going to be surprising and strange, and you may never gain the kind of external achievement that our culture so cherishes. But you will know where your strength lies, and that is something that no one can take away from you, and which you’ll need for the inevitable ups and downs of life.
It’s time for you to be your own worry stone.
P.S. I don't want to influence you too much on this search, but might I point out that your quandary letter was exceptionally well-written? From one writer to another... whatever you do next, you should write about it.