Sunday, 22 November 2009

Horizons Shrink To Fit Expectations

One of my ‘to dos’ on my Before 30 list is to write a book. For years now, I’ve had a nebulous idea for a novel and its central character floating around inside my head, but I’ve never started writing out any of my ideas. On Saturday night I sat in bed with an old school notebook and pen and finally began to turn the main character into a person, with a voice and a history. (Yeah, I’m not sure what happened to the twentysomething rock n roll lifestyle either.)

The title phrase was one that appeared about half way through my writing session, and whilst it perfectly describes the conundrum my character has found herself in, as soon as I wrote it I realised that is a problem I see every day, in myself and people around me.

Why has it taken me years to even start sketching out preliminary ideas about characters? Because my expectations, had, over the years been shrunk by the drip-drip effect of people saying that there was no point pursuing writing, as there was no way I’d ever be able to make a living out of it, or get published. It’s too hard, impossible, a fantasy. And I made the mistake of allowing other people to control my expectations, to fix my horizons.

Perhaps this haze of characters and ideas will never become a finished novel. Perhaps it will and it will never be published. Perhaps it will just be, well, rubbish. But at least I will have tried, overcome the most debilitating hurdle of thinking that you can’t do something and set my expectations of myself MYSELF.

I saw the same problem in most of my Chinese students. The real problem was not that they were incapable of decent spoken English, but that they had convinced themselves that it was too hard, that I would laugh at them, that it would excruciatingly embarrassing, that they JUST COULDN’T DO IT.

This wasn’t only the case with my high school students, where it took the entire first semester working on mainly overcoming the ‘I can’t do it’ block before we could really start working on their speaking itself, but even with the IELTS* classes I taught. These students had some of the best understanding of English I came across in Shijiazhuang, and were capable of formulating and expressing very sophisticated ideas in English, but stumbled because of their self-doubt and the ingrained belief that Chinese people are no good at oral English.

I could tell when a student, or even a class, had started to overcome their own externally imposed sense of limitations – suddenly there were smiles, an eagerness to talk to me outside of class, students volunteering to take part rather than having to be (almost literally in the first few weeks of class) dragged to their feet, a mischievousness and sense of fun in answers, even answers and opinions shouted out. To watch and to help this was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done in my life, and has not only inspired me to overcome my own ‘I can’ts’ but made me aware that they exist in the first place.

What are your ‘I can’ts’, how have you overcome them, was it worth it?

*IELTS is an exam that non-English speakers need to take before being admitted to universities in English speaking countries. Most of my students were aiming for postgraduate study in Australia or the UK, where the requirement of gaining an average of 6.5 across writing, reading, speaking and listening requires skills beyond those developed at university, with speaking being the area that often dragged down the average mark.


  1. I am quite good at thinking of titles without having a book to go with them!

    Overcoming limitations:- Although I understand completely what you are saying - and agree with it - when I think of my own limitations . . . I know them but haven't yet overcome them.

    Maths - I have tried to take my maths o'level four times and still haven't managed to pass.

    French - I began to get somewhere when I lived in Geneva for eight months. There were two obstacles though . . . one was that nearly everyone else spoke at least three languages and really weren't interested in hearing more than two words from me in French. They just flipped a switch and moved into fluent English as efficiently as if they were translating machines - so opportunities to use French were limitted. And my self imposed obstacle? That I could bash on in French as long as there were no English or Americans who spoke French well present. If they were - I clammed up. And political barriers? I got really cross about 'International English' and wouldn't speak that at all - which got people as cross with me as it made me cross with it.


  2. My "I can't" was "I can't do public speaking," no matter how brief the speaking was. I would be so nervous about giving an oral report in junior high and high school that my voice would be hoarse and trembling, my hands would be shaking and my pulse would be probably 90-100 bpm. It was total fear. I could hardly sleep the night before the oral report. I'd wake up with a dry mouth, hands cold and sweaty. I wasn't nervous talking to a class when I was a teacher (because I gave them their grade in the class), but only in front of my peers. I still get nervous when I have to speak to an audience of my peers, but at least I don't refuse to do it and my voice doesn't get hoarse and trembly. I just get an elevated pulse and I can feel my heart pounding. I do visualization and relaxation techniques as I await my turn to get up and speak.

  3. I have learned that adults who have an irrational fear of public speaking probably grew up in a home where it was not emotionally safe to speak your mind. My dad was a rage-oholic and every little thing seemed to make him angry, so my mom frequently would tell us, "Let's not talk about that in front of Daddy." I was afraid of his yelling and swearing and out-of-control raging.

  4. Lucy - I reckon maths is the school subject this is most common with. Maths Phobia is actually a recognised Special Education Need now. I've notice that when I cover maths classes, students often need hand holding way more than they do in other subjects.

    I can empathise with that, I often felt self conscious speaking Mandarin in front of native speakers, or foreigners who had a high level of fluency. I guess I was afraid of being laughed at - this one bare necessity forced me to get over, as otherwise everyday life would've been almost impossible. And yes, people did laugh at my Mandarin, but then I realised the world doesn't end if people laugh at you - which I'm telling myself was a good life lesson.

    Pat - That's something I'll try and remember if I'm every working with/teaching people who are afraid of public speaking. I think I'm incredibly lucky that I've never had any fears about public speaking or performing, in fact I'm a bit of a showoff and often quite enjoy being the centre of attention!

    I'm glad that you've managed to get your fear under control - it must have taken a lot of persistence and bravery.

  5. Go ahead and write your book, it doesn't matter if it doesn't get published.

    I wrote one, and two publishers rejected it, it guess they never even touch a page.

    It lies on my shelf, and occasionally read by friends.

    I am an ESOl teacher to children and grown ups. Yes, I have the same trouble with kids saying," I can't do it."

    How was your experience in China?

    I am ethnic Chinese, sadly i have not been there. My people left more than 100 years ago.