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Stella and the performance bubble

Afraid to fail

Everyone is successful and knows what they want. Except for RUG student Stella Vrijmoed. Stella doesn’t know what she wants. Stella fails all the time. Or so she thinks. She wrote a short series of personal stories about the performance bubble and the fear of failure.
By Stella Vrijmoed / Photo Leonie Coppes / Translation Sarah van Steenderen

I’m a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Science. I’m doing a master in journalism and am enrolled in an honours programme at the university. I feel like I am living in a well-educated, urban bubble. A submarine, if you will. I am expected to excel at something. On top of that, certain milestones, such as graduating, moving in with your partner, and getting a ‘grown-up’ job, appear to have a deadline.

If you miss those deadlines, something is wrong with you.

‘We all live in a yellow submarine’, a famous group of twenty-year-olds once sang. Everyone knows the song, of course, but I recently started seeing it in a whole new light. Here we all were, all my friends and peers, all of us in our own little submarine. Under water, and under pressure.

Portholes

The submarine’s small portholes represent their CVs and their social media profiles; they only show their successes and their highlights, presenting themselves in the best light. What they don’t show, however, are their failures, fears, and shortcomings. Those they keep hidden, out of sight.

We only get to see a minuscule part of someone’s personality. But each of these windows contains an entire individual life, with its own character, talent, and ambitions, but also with its own shortcomings and fears.

I don’t like living in this performance bubble. It’s giving me fear of failure, makes me feel pressured to perform. It’s making me look for something I excel at. I try not to get swept away, try not to let it influence me, but I don’t always succeed.

It used to be much worse than it is now. But I still get the feeling that everyone has their shit together, except for me. That I should be as successful as everyone else. That I also need to take a long trip, like this one Facebook friend is doing. Or that I should get an internship at that one large company that everyone wants to intern at.

Packed schedule

So what happens then? I get a job to try and save up for that trip. I join a committee or sit on a board for a year, padding my CV and giving myself a better chance at that internship. And I try my darnedest to get good grades, because they have to be above average as well. This leads to a packed schedule, and then I also have to find time to have a social life.

All these different submarines are trying to beat each other in the rat race to success. Everyone is trying to outdo everyone else. It makes me anxious. I’m so afraid to do something wrong. I want to get everything right on the first try. If I don’t succeed immediately, I feel defeated. I end up thinking I’ll never be able to do it. It is paralysing.

Apparently, this fixed mindset of mine matches the one described by American psychologist Carol Dweck in her book ‘Mindset: Changing The Way You Think To Fulfil Your Potential’. A fixed mindset means that you’re convinced that talent and intelligence are fixed qualities that cannot grow or be developed. According to Dweck, students would do better to have a growth mindset.

Be unafraid

With that mindset, you believe in learning from your mistakes. And from learning from your failings, as Remko van der Drift at the Institute of Failures writes in his book ‘Fouten maken moed’. ‘If you don’t believe you can do something, you never will’, says Van der Drift. In short, you have to be unafraid to fail, or you’ll never learn. His book argues that we should make mistakes. Not that we should to things with the intention of failing, but as a means of getting somewhere.

Books like this bring me back to reality. They allow me to tell one submarine from another. They show me that we don’t need to be prisoners, stuck in these stuffy vessels.

We can decide to rise to the surface, go ashore, and fully expose our individual desires, capacities, and especially our shortcomings to the rest of the world.

Let’s fuck it up!

Nederlands

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