On talents and tryhards

Woman running by riverI’ve always had a bit of a knack for spelling. I realised this during my first year at middle school, aged nine, when we would be subjected to a weekly spelling test. Every Monday, we’d be given ten words to learn to spell by Friday. Every week, I was too lazy to bother actually learning the words. And every week, for an entire year, I spelt (or spelled; both are acceptable) all ten words correctly in the test. This was mainly because I read a lot and was familiar with most of the words anyway; but it was also because I just have knack for spelling. Some people can run fast, others can draw beautifully. I can spell. It’s a talent of limited use, but a talent nevertheless.

During the course of that year I developed an impregnable spelling confidence. So much so that, when the school announced that it would hold a monumental 100 word spelling test with lots of difficult words, I told everyone who would listen that I was going to spell all 100 correctly. Easy.

Nothing could possibly go wrong. Even though the list included such alien words to me as “onomatopoeia”, I was utterly convinced that even with my usual no-revision routine, I would still spell every word correctly. I had a track record. I’d proven that I could outspell anyone, any time. I was ready to claim my crown and I made sure everyone knew it.

To only get 97 right was probably the greatest humiliation of my short life to that point. I paid for my brazen overconfidence with the smug, quiet smiles of my classmates. To many people it would have been a crushing lesson in modesty. But did I learn it? Did I fuck.

Two years later, the school repeated the test, with a different list of 100 words. This time, mindful of my previous embarrassment, I was more circumspect about my chances but still happy to declare that I could get all 100 right if I bothered to learn them. I hadn’t misspelled a word for two years. Even so, I worked through the words I hadn’t come across before and I was sure of my forthcoming success.

In some ways, 99 was more humiliating than 97, particularly as I made the lone error while correcting a misspelling of the word ‘professional’. In making it right, I had made it wrong, but in a different way. That was hard to take, because I had been careless rather than incorrect, but there you go – it’s what’s on the page that counts.

Both times, it was a case of “Close…but no cigar”. You’d have thought these two near misses might have taught me the importance of preparation and concentration. But my belief that you should just be able to do things well, without practice or rehearsal, was so entrenched even by the age of nine that I spent the rest of my schooldays repeating the mistake over and over.

I never revised; therefore, I never did well in exams. In my adolescent brain, however, these two obviously related facts didn’t seem to be connected in any way. If you had to revise, prepare or train, you were clearly lacking talent; and if you had no talent, then you may as well not even bother to try. It was a self-reinforcing circle of hope and disappointment, repeated time and time over.

Adding to the pressure was the fact that if you appeared to be making any effort at all at my school, you were mocked as a “tryhard”. I’m actually smiling as I type this – I still think it’s incredibly funny. But it didn’t occur to me until years later that the most scornful boys were the ones who were working hardest behind the scenes to ensure they did well. They set a trap and I walked into it blindly, because it suited my belief that effort was a sign of weakness.

My confidence plunged. From being able to score 99 in a spelling test with minimal effort, I was now regularly coming last in geography and chemistry exams. Even when I did well, I was still comparatively mediocre – I once scored 81 per cent in a Latin exam and came just 15th out of 23 boys in my class. I was still good at spelling, but this was now a tarnished talent and it was dismaying to think I had no other gifts at all and little of the native intelligence I had been brought up to believe I possessed. I underperformed consistently and then failed, with devastating emotional results. It’s fair to say that adolescence and early adulthood was quite a painful time for me.

In 1990 I swallowed my pride and joined the ranks of the tryhards. I did well enough to finally get into university where, buoyed by this modicum of success, I became a super tryhard and excelled spectacularly, but briefly. With a first class degree all but in my hands, all the stress-inducing soullessness of making myself work, all the pressure of trying, finally burst out of me in the form of a massive nervous breakdown. Close. But – cough –  absolutely no cigar.

It’s a pattern that’s been repeated throughout my life: suggestions of talent, so much hope invested in the prospect of success and then so little finally delivered because of my unending capacity to derail myself when on the verge. But I’m just not a tryhard. I’m not. I’m not a Paula Radcliffe; I can’t mould myself into a different shape through sheer force of will. I can’t take that extra step from the ranks of the reasonably good to the ranks of the rather excellent because, frankly, all the effort that would involve would suggest to me that I had no right to be there in the first place.

God bless Paula Radcliffe, but she’s turned running into a grinding exertion of will that masks any natural brilliance she may or may not possess. Paula Radcliffe is not just a tryhard, she is the Empress of Tryhards, endlessly eliminating the unpredictables one by one, over and over and over until there is nothing much left but the obsession itself. I couldn’t live like that.

Nevertheless, I should know better than to over-promise and under-deliver. But I still fall into the trap of believing that I might do something so suddenly and surprisingly brilliant that people will shake their heads and laugh at the wonderful audacity of it all. I was at it again last week, telling everyone who would listen that I was about to do my first 25-mile TT on a fast course. Never mind that this was just my sixth ever time trial and only my third 25. In my head, last Sunday was the day I was going to break the hour mark for the first time, with verve, ease and a certain amount of style.

1:00:38 is close. It’s a good time. But it’s like getting 97 words right in a mammoth spelling test; and when you’ve told yourself – and others – that you’re going to get 100, it feels as though you’ve fallen disappointingly short.

Sheep in the AlpsPerhaps if I was a tryhard; perhaps if I could stick to a training regime and do it properly; perhaps if I had that capacity to focus on a goal and do all the preparatory things that might be necessary to turn aspiration into completed action – then I might have got that 38 seconds and be celebrating now instead of feeling a little sheepish.

But that would make me a Paula Radcliffe which, as I’ve explained, would be horrible. I can’t imagine myself grinding out the miles and the hours over and over, reducing the beautiful unpredictability of sport to a series of tedious accounting processes. I bet Paula wouldn’t have misspelled “professional” and I’ve absolutely no doubt she passed all her exams first time. She probably even has a first-class degree (ah, she does – I checked).

But I don’t care. I’d rather be the guy who turns up one day on a dirty bike with ill-fitting tri-bars and scorches to a fabulous time in poor conditions. I’d rather leave the space to do something that has more panache than predictability. Of course, I’m probably not capable of this – I have some cycling talent, but I’m not overburdened with it; but I do know what my body can do and I’m convinced it can take me under the hour. That, for me, would be a hell of an achievement.

And if I can do it without having to become a tryhard, then so much the better. I’ll doubtless be missing out on a lot of cigars on the way, but when I do get a smoke you can bet it’ll be a good one.

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6 thoughts on “On talents and tryhards

  1. ‘Diarrhoea’ was a hard one to crack, but once I did, I managed to bunk off school several days (successfully!) per year.

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