How do any of us end up doing what we do for a living?
My standard answer was always the well-rehearsed elevator speech, engaging but unrevealing…until a potential client said something so painful and candid that I was thrown off guard. The seven-second delay inside my head — a holdover from my days doing live television — malfunctioned. When I opened my mouth, something unexpected and honest escaped.
In that moment, it hit me.
I’d become a writer, radio talk show host, and public speaker to compensate for something I was ashamed of.
“Not very smart”
“I hope you can help me write copy for this project,” the client said when he first contacted me. “It’s hard for me because I’m not a very good writer.” He paused, then blurted out, “I never went to college. I guess I’m just not very smart.”
“No, no! Don’t say that. Some of the smartest people I know never went to college.” I tried to reassure him, to connect, by sharing my own story. “My mother was very bright. She spoke two languages but still had a hard time writing and speaking English — even after years in this country.”
And then I paused. Startled. Unsure. Frankly scared by this thought and where it was coming from.
Too ashamed to ask
Yes, my mother had been bright, but that didn’t stop me from being embarrassed for her — and by her. She never achieved fluency in, or comfort with, this second language she’d learned in her late twenties. Her broken English sounded stark compared to the flowing, musical Japanese she spoke with friends. I grew up wishing I could understand her in a language she felt confident in.
As hard as speaking was for her, writing was even worse. Composing a school absence note was always a struggle, and she labored to get every piece of correspondence right. It often took hours. I could have helped, but she was too ashamed to ask.
To compensate for her inability to speak and write clearly, I pursued a career that forced me to purge all accents, flaws, and errors in my language. I had thought I’d wanted to be a writer when I grew up because I was such a voracious reader as a child. And for many years, I fooled everyone with that reason, especially myself.
The real reason
That ended when my client said, “I’m not very smart.” I forgot where I was and who he was. Instead, I saw my mother sitting across from me, apologizing for her inadequacies.
I didn’t end up working with him after all. He skipped a meeting, didn’t return my subsequent phone call, and never contacted me again. I want to believe something other than his insecurities interfered, but I’ll never know for sure.
Emblems of accomplishment
He got me thinking, though, about how my mother’s struggle must have looked from her end. What I saw as her inadequacies were actually emblems of her own hard-won accomplishments. It took me decades to gain sufficient wisdom and experience to understand. By then it was too late, as she’d passed away.
Now when I look back I’m ashamed of how I felt about my mother. But good or bad, her struggles are the foundation on which my career has been built. If she could succeed in two languages and two cultures, the very least I can do to honor her memory is succeed in just one.