“Ok, if you could just not be modest for the next thirty seconds, tell me just how tough this race is. It’s 268 miles; it’s not flat, it’s tough, and the weather is pretty brutal…”
— BBC interview with Jasmin Paris shortly after she smashed the overall Spine Race course record in January 2019
We see it all the time. People downplaying their achievements. The athlete who is “Just a normal person really”, notwithstanding the hours, days, months and years of pure grit, sacrifice and dedication that lie behind an incredible performance.
Disclaimer: this blog is full of questions. It’s a topic I’ve only recently started trying to grips with, and as such, I have zero answers. Do let me know if you’ve got any!!
“There’s no talent here, this is hard work. This is an obsession. Talent does not exist, we are all equal as human beings. You could be anyone if you put in the time. You will reach the top, and that is that. I am not talented, I am obsessed.”
I was at a Plas Y Brenin talk by James Mchaffie a few years back, when an audience member – presumably a new climber – asked: “But how do you hold onto bits of rock so small?
It can be fairly hard to discern the complete lack of handholds from a few epic pictures on a slideshow, much less an “ordinary looking bloke” (who happens to be a phenomenal climber). Mchaffie’s response? “I’ve been climbing every day since I was three.” The room fell silent, having caught a brief glimpse of what it takes.
And this sort of (excessive??) humility is typical. Is it a British thing? (No, look at the ever-modest Irish legends Carol Morgan and Steph Dwyer). Is it a female thing? Evidently not exclusively; see above. Is it linked to our excessive apologies, as Brits and women? Why do we come across as sorry – or even embarrassed – for things we should be so, so proud of? Well yeah; I did a 105 mile ultramarathon, but I walked most of it; I was pretty slow and only just made the cutoffs (I like to think the two obnoxiously bright fluorescent orange t-shirts in my possession go some way to counteract this. Probably shouldn’t have worn one to yoga, not very calming.) Am I just preempting the naysayers? (“You’re not an ultrarunner if you walk” – oh f*** off…and yet I don’t call myself an ultrarunner; despite having completed 10 for 10 ultramarathons and done quite a bit of running.)
When Jasmin Paris rushes to point out that the weather on the Spine this year was relatively good – i.e. ripe for a course record – is she diminishing her achievement, or just saying what she knows people are thinking? When people faster and stronger than me say they’re “slow”… “not an athlete”… how does that relate to others behind them in the field? Why is modesty a virtue? Is it a positive that we’re making it look like anyone can do it? Are we making it look too easy; minimising the hard work that it took? Or are we making it more accessible?
And how does modesty affect the headgame of modest badasses? How can you be mentally tough if you believe you’re “nothing special”? Or is there a persona at play? One voice for the media, one for friends & family, one for the race? Is this misrepresenting what it takes to achieve your goals?
Is that what we think we’re doing when we reach our goals; getting away with it? Is it a case of imposter syndrome?
Because it’s a common trope that no one’s ever done enough. So many of us are chronic over-preparers. It’s a rarity to hear “I’m really pleased with my training. I’m excited to see what I can do”… but that’s what we’re supposed to tell ourselves. How can we do that when we refuse to say it to our friends?!
As someone who’s working hard to be less self-deprecating (although I have joked that if I lose friends to my newfound “arrogance”, I’ll have more time for running), I’d love to know: how do you stay grounded but strong? How can you be a modest badass, when people are telling you you’re a badass? Should we all just grow our egos a bit more?
I’ve been reading about self-presentation and impression management, and while it doesn’t mention modesty or humility by name, it may have some explanations for us.
“When you’re on the receiving end of someone else’s in-your-face impression management, it’s annoying precisely because you’re on the opposing team. Shrinks call this a self-evaluation threat. It sends the message that their social standing is higher than yours… And it’s f*cking irritating. Sometimes it’s really overt, such as someone literally telling you how great they are… Some people prefer to reverse engineer the process entirely by faking inadequacy…portraying themselves as deficient in order to catch opponents off-guard and gain an advantage.”– The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion – Simon Marshall, PhD and Lesley Paterson
It appears to be all about a balance between self-criticism and “self aggrandizement” (which Marshall and Paterson describe as “telling people how awesome you are”). I have a sneaking suspicion it’s got a hell of a lot to do with what’s socially acceptable, for unknown and probably very complex reasons.
So is it to do with what we say in different situations, and marking a distinction between how we present ourselves and what we actually believe? Is it all just to do with confidence? They say arrogance can be over-compensation for lack of confidence of ability, but of course so can modesty.
There we are. Lots of questions. 28 to be precise. Very few answers. Care to help me answer some?