Impostor!

It’s hard being awesome. Seriously.

Just recently I’ve had a spate of incidents at work where I’ve written some code, it’s gone through testing, and as soon as it’s gone live it’s had to be fixed or backed out because something went wrong, we missed a test case, or we didn’t realise what would happen in the real world once real people (or robots) got hold of it. I’m not so sensitive that I’d have a meltdown over something like this; I get annoyed at myself, I get annoyed at the system, and I get on and fix it and make adjustments so it doesn’t happen again. But when it happens three times in a row, I start to question whether I’m actually worth what they’re paying me.

So it’s pleasant to be called into the head of department’s office and be told that I’ve been doing good work, I really fit in well with the team, and here’s a massive pay rise. Wait, what? I was thinking I’d be sitting at the bottom tier for another year while I carry on learning how not to screw up so often, and I was considering leaving a few months ago because I was bored and under-utilised.

The fact is that I’m an amateur. At almost everything I do. I was certainly pro-level at juggling, while it was my living, but since then I have relied on my innate flexibility to get ahead. I know a bit about sound, so I’ll be an audiobook engineer. I have some IT skills, I’ll do some Excel work. I reckon I can write, I’m a pretty good editor, so I’ll do a bit of that too. And then I kind of work out how to make a piece of software do clever things, based on the fact that I studied Computer Science, briefly, 20 years ago, and suddenly I have “Software Developer” as my job title and I’m in a team of people who have been doing this kind of work exclusively, for years, and I know full well that I bullshitted my way in by being confident, putting the charm on, and overselling myself. And then I make mistakes, and I wonder how much longer I can get away with it. I obviously can get away with it, but that’s not the point.

What I’m dealing with is the dissonance between how I’m perceived, and how I perceive myself. I’m pretty sure I’m no superstar developer, and I am hypercritical of my own performance. I dislike being told that I’m good at something that I don’t feel I’m good at, because using charm and personality to advance myself, in the absence of real results, feels a bit like cheating.

Impostor syndrome is a real thing, but I’ve evolved systems for dealing with it. First among them is that I use my intellect and actually get good at what I’m doing. I look at the organisation, the whole system, I work out what its weaknesses are and how I can improve what I’m doing to fit in better – while simultaneously working out how I can stand out. I find it helps to be six foot one, dress all in black, and juggle at corporate events, but that’s just me. The rest is practice. Intelligent practice, not just doing things over and over in the hope that I get better, but really examining and drilling through the things that I need to work at. A lot of people have called me “arrogant” for whatever reason, but I’d just say I’m confident enough in my own flexibility that I can say: “Sure, I have no idea what I’m doing, but I can learn.” It’s a risk and reward equation: I do risk abject failure, falling flat on my face and being ridiculed by my peers, but if I get it right, the benefits are massive. I think that most people just never get past the risk, whereas I’m prepared to go for the big win over and over again, because that sharp edge is where life is interesting.

Tonight I’m going up on stage for the opening night of Pinocchio. It’s an interesting milestone for me, as it’s the first time I’m playing the title character in anything at all – even if I’m only actually on stage for a few brief minutes here and there, and everyone else is doing the heavy lifting. It’s also the first time I’ve done puppetry on stage, and that’s been a real trial by fire. I wasn’t even intending to be in the show at all, but when the opportunity came up and no one else could do it, I was “arrogant” enough to believe that I could do justice to the character, I could learn to operate a puppet with sensitivity and intelligence, and I was prepared to travel 40 miles each way for rehearsals, every weekend for three months, and spend time at home reading up on modern puppetry and material performance theory, practicing lip-synch and getting the damn thing to look where it’s supposed to look… and all the while reminding myself that I talked myself into it, I volunteered for it, and I had no option but to get it right. Not just to do a passable job, but to justify the director’s faith that I’d be able to do it right.

The reward for that? Being able to walk out on stage at the end of the show, feeling incredibly pleased with myself, and take in the applause with a massive grin on my face, because in theatre, I know exactly how good I am (“quite”, thus far) and the rewards fit perfectly. And I will use that to drive forward to the next project, writing and directing a play in collaboration with the gorgeous and fascinating creature who shares my life. I am under no illusions about how difficult that will be, but once again: we have a chance to expend effort, push the boundaries of our experience, and chase the big payoff of blowing people’s minds.

No sense in aiming low, is there?

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Giving up

Those of you who follow this blog regularly know I never give up.  I keep going as long as I possibly can, and I’m not known for accepting defeat, slowing down, or crumbling in the face of a challenge.  However, the time has come to step back, breathe – and give up alcohol, for the foreseeable future. I’ve managed to sort out a lot of things just recently, and now I’m no longer spending every day running to catch up with myself, it’s time to make this particular change.

I’ve always liked a drink, for all the usual reasons – tastes nice, warm feeling, socialising, relaxation, and so on – but I do have a tendency to drink more when I’m bored.  Right at the moment I have a lot of free time, and so rather than fill up that time sitting in front of the TV with a bottle of wine, I am focusing on fitness, writing, acting, Getting Things Done, reading, sorting out my hands and wrists and other health problems.  Drinking alcohol doesn’t make much sense in that context, and so it’s time to knock it on the head.  It’s the sort of thing I’d never do if pushed, because I’m contrary by nature, but as part of a wider goal that’s self-motivated, it fits in with what I’m trying to achieve.

It is a habit, and so I expect it to be reasonably difficult to break.  Most of the socialising I do is in pubs, I enjoy the wide variety of real ales, a glass of cider goes down well after a hot day’s slave labour, and a glass or three of wine with dinner is all too easy.  When I’ve done this before, it’s been quite a challenge to find something that’s a reasonable substitute.  Fruit juice and soft drinks tend to be far too sweet for my tastes, non-alcoholic beers just taste like soapy dishwater, and let’s ignore the fact that alcohol-free wine exists at all, it’s hideous.  I’ll tend to stick to water or the occasional cup of tea at home, but I’ll probably be sampling things like ginger beer, fancy lemonade and other concoctions when I’m out with other people.  It may be interesting, taking a walk on the other side of the fence – or I may just be that annoying guy down the pub who sits with a glass of tap water and asks for a lemon in it.  Sorry, publican friends.

Initially I’ll be going completely dry for six months, as of today.  That gives me long enough to establish a clear comparison, and I’ll be taking blood tests before and after so I have some data on the benefits, real and perceived.  After that initial six month period, I’ll revisit whether it’s reasonable to have the occasional pint when I’m out.  The standard request goes out to my friends: please don’t offer me a drink while I’m out, until at least February next year.  It’s not that I lack willpower, but why make things more difficult than they have to be?

I do still intend to do other things that are deleterious to my health, don’t worry.  I’m still Matte, and still quite likely to be approaching the world with teeth bared and a flaming torch in my hand, screaming round the corner at high speed on two wheels, and generally being an affront to nature. I’m not suddenly going to give up on life and spend the rest of my days reading Facebook and doing crochet. But the aim is to be sharper and more effective when I do the things that have made me who I am.  To be physically stronger, mentally more agile, more capable of walking along the edges where most people fear to tread. 

Still insufferable – just sober and insufferable.  Good luck, and may the odds be ever in my favour.

The Drop

Well, what now?

For the last two years I’ve had a mission.  Or a series of quests, a plan of sorts, a general overview of what I wanted to achieve by when and where.  Along the way I’ve been doing other things, notably theatre, and I’ve been looking forward.  At any given moment I’ve been trying to move house, move job, get ready for a play, perform a play, meet new people, always heading towards some nearby future.  A few weeks ago I was running around looking at a potential job Up North, considering moving up there, spinning out yet another possible future.

And now… nothing.  I appear to have run out of hard targets, because I’ve hit them all.  With the closing of Far Away, which was an epic adventure in theatre, I’m no longer beholden to the schedule of the arts centre and its theatre company.  My weekends are my own again, as I’m no longer having to drive down to Aylesbury for rehearsals.  The job in the North is probably not going to happen, so I’m likely to be staying in Northampton until something else comes along.  Sure, there are bits and pieces happening along the way, the odd juggling show here and workshop there, but there’s nothing long-term that demands my time and energy.  I’m going to see a few plays, and go to some parties, but the wind has dropped from my creative sails, and I’ll be a spectator for a while.  

I’m not short of things to do.  I’ll be picking up a double bass this weekend, and I’ll need to learn how to play that to a greater or lesser extent.  I have various bits of musical equipment that I should get around to learning, or actually using to create and record some music.  I’ll be getting around to fixing the car in the next couple of weeks.  I’ll also be going to the gym, reading some books, getting fit, eating healthy, doing all those necessary things, but historically I prefer to work to a deadline.  Preferably a deadline approaching at breakneck speed.  “Getting fit” isn’t a specific enough goal and it’s not something that engages the “doing things” part of my brain.  It needs doing, of course, along with the housework, but it’s firmly in the territory of “things that anyone can do” rather than “Matte-specific activities.”

I promised myself some time off, and now I have it.  Or at least, I’ve had a few days of it and I’m not so keen on the concept.  I should be spending my evenings doing something “useful”, by which I mean that I should be doing something that advances my long-term goals.  Problem is, I don’t seem to have any of those.  I need something that is challenging, with a payoff – there’s no point in doing something that doesn’t involve at least the possibility of me winning in spectacular fashion.  Otherwise, it’s just a treadmill to get a better house, better car, bigger number going into my bank account each month and more toys to play with – which is why I’m not doing something practical or useful to advance my career.  Not sufficiently motivated.

Self-imposed deadlines don’t work either, because there’s no inherent tension.  If I don’t reach my goal of weighing 80kg by the end of September, what’s the fallout?  If I fail to learn a Bach Prelude on the upright bass by the end of the year, no one will ever know but me and maybe the handful of people who follow this blog.  This is one reason I enjoy theatre: there’s peril, and there’s external verification of the results in the form of applause and adulation and interviews and Hot Groupies if I do it well.  Applause is better than Likes on Facebook.  

There will be more theatre later on in the year, and with a bit of luck I will be writing and directing something as well as performing.  I was playing with the idea of starting a Masters in English, but I think that’s going to have to wait until next year.  There’s always the option of starting or joining a band.  Underlying it all is a sense of completion, a pause while I breathe, and then start finding the next pocket of chaos, because if I’m sitting still, I’m wasting time.

I’m with the band(s).

So, I’m doing the polyamory thing. Apparently it’s trendy right now, but for me it’s just, well, the way things are, and very pleasant indeed. Despite the surface simplicity of the idea – being in a relationship with more than one person at a time – I’ve found it necessary to come up with a way to explain how it works, and some of the ins and outs, without being explicit. So here goes:

It’s like being in two bands at once. I’ve been in two bands before, and it’s an interesting experience.  Let’s say I play jazz piano in one band, and synth-heavy metal with the other band. They don’t particularly like each other’s style of music, and they’re happy for me to get my fix of noodly jazz or earsplitting noise when I’m not with them. And as an added bonus, both bands like beer and they’re happy to meet at the pub together on occasion – they get along okay, but no one’s suggesting we all form a jazz-metal fusion group. The only time it would be a problem is if I started missing jazz rehearsals because I was out with the metal band all the time, in which case the jazzers would be perfectly within their rights to ask me to pay attention to them, and we’d have a chat about it and work it out.

To be clear, I’m not playing in two bands because I think one of them is rubbish, and I’m looking for something better. I’m in two bands because I like different kinds of music, it’s as simple as that. It’s all good experience, it’s a fun way to pass the time, and it’s hard to see a way in which playing music with one group of people is harmful to another group of people – no one gets hurt, it’s just tunes. People can be really weird about music – I do recall when a piano teacher got seriously upset that I might have been seeing another piano teacher behind her back, and there was a hell of a lot of snot en trane until it was all worked out. The lesson there is that a) things are easier if everyone’s honest and upfront about what they’re doing and who they’re doing it with, even if it doesn’t seem important, and b) if I’d suddenly started getting a lot better at the piano, I bet both teachers would have been pleased.

I appreciate that quite a lot of bands operate on the principle of “The music we make together is so good, we don’t want any of our members playing with anyone else. In fact, no one should even look at or listen to other musicians!” If that works for all involved, that’s fine. It takes time and commitment to be in a band, not everyone has time or inclination to be in more than one. In real life, I’m actually only in one band at the moment. But that in itself doesn’t mean I can’t go out and audition for others – it’s not like I have a finite supply of musical ability that’s in danger of “running out” if I spend too long at the keyboard. The only limiting factor is time and energy, and I have plenty of that at the moment. I am, however, extremely picky about the bands I join, and this is Northampton…

Some people are session musicians, and as such they have no problem with rocking up to the studio with one band this week, another band the next, playing all sorts of different styles and tempos. That’s not me – I find it difficult enough to find one band I enjoy playing with, let alone all the stress of learning new songs every week and having to deal with different people all the time. But on those rare occasions I get talking to someone and they say “Fancy coming round for a jam session?” it’s nice to be able to take them up on the offer and see what we create. It’s only fair to let them know that I’m in a band already, and I’ll let the existing band/s know that I’m interested in playing with someone else, and if everyone’s okay with it, I get to expand my musical horizons. No one has any unreasonable expectations.

Questions?  Well, okay:

What if one band is wildly successful and we go on tour together, permanently? I would expect my other musical companions to be happy for me – after all, who wouldn’t want to see their bandmate get a record deal? Of course they might be a bit jealous, but there would be congratulations all round. They may not get the opportunity to play gigs with me quite so often, and I will be spending a lot of time in the rehearsal studio and on the road – but then if playing metal is my day job, I’ll probably appreciate the odd chance to sit back and do some tinkly jazz with the cool people.

What if I start a samba band with a new bunch of people, and none of the other bands like my new musical direction? Samba’s not to everyone’s taste, and I appreciate that, but maybe it gives me a bit of a thrill. There’s no requirement for my other bandmates to turn up to my gigs if they’re not into the music, and they’re free to voice their disapproval if they think I’m damaging my hands because of all the percussion instruments. But as long as I’m not surreptitiously slipping off to go and play the steel drums when I said I was going to help one of the other bassists with his scales, it’s my choice as to what I do with my time.

Isn’t there a greater risk of my equipment getting damaged, if I’m carting it around to rehearsals and gigs with more than one band? I’m responsible for making sure that my equipment doesn’t ruin everyone else’s gigs – there’s nothing worse than going on stage and knowing that there’s a loud buzz coming from my keyboard that’s interfering with everyone’s wireless transmitters, or I can’t play a gig because there’s been a puff of smoke and a funny smell from my power supply. That’s not fair on everyone else. I get my gear tested regularly for electrical safety, and I make sure that if I join a new band, all their equipment is in good shape before I plug into their PA system.

How far can you stretch this metaphor? Far enough.

The Box

There are many things to get used to, moving into a new job in a large organisation.  What I wasn’t prepared for is just how much people here talk about their houses.  My new bathroom… I had to have a new kitchen… took me a really long time to find the right taps… I’m redoing the architraves and I really want a fancy cat-flap… arguing about boundaries… my chain might fall through if I don’t exchange soon…

I don’t mind admitting that I sold my soul to the corporate monster in exchange for a place to live.  I now earn enough to rent a flat by myself, and it’s likely that I will continue to rent a flat for some years to come. I’m just not that bothered about spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on a building, or a part of a building, in which to spend endless time and effort trying to find the right colour tiles.  I value flexibility and mobility above stability, and probably always will. A house of my own is a status symbol that I just don’t aspire to. No disrespect intended to anyone who owns one, but it’s way down my priority list.

I suppose it comes down to your definition of success.  I work with people who are roughly my own age, and for most of them, they’ve done the standard thing.  They’ve got an education, got a job, turned a job into a career, and they have their houses and two holidays a year, some of them have families and some of them have cats.  They have what everyone else around them has, and by that measure, they’re doing well in life.  Well-paid, with stable careers, and a box of bricks to live in.  Successful.

What makes me pause here is that the subject of housing came up with my ex, after she’d been working for a similar corporate juggernaut for a while, and where her social circle consisted of similarly career-oriented drones from work.  She said as much: “Everyone else has a house, and I want one too.”  I’m pretty sure that’s where she’s aiming – to own a house, to be “successful” according to the metrics of the people she interacts with. Good luck to her on that.

For myself, I’m still pretty much independent of the aspirations of those around me.  Money and status are not primary motivators for me.  Sure, I like fast cars, but I’d never buy a BMW just because it would impress my friends – mostly because my friends don’t really care about what kind of car I drive, they just care that I come and visit them and we get to wherever we’re going.  When I drove a giant purple V8, it was a talking point, but most people were more amused than they were impressed, and far more importantly: I thought it was hilarious.  I get off on being able to juggle five balls, fold intricate origami bugs and play instruments. When I tell my colleagues that I’m a stage actor, they’re incredulous – after all, they don’t do anything nearly as exciting.  My primary aim in life is to enjoy myself, to entertain my mind, to stretch my experience further than most people will ever manage.

Would I find owning a house entertaining?  I doubt it.  Eventually, not having to pay rent would make me happy, but the object itself, not so much.  And I’d hate every minute I found myself talking to my colleagues about boilers and bathroom suites.  There is an exception though: if I could build a house to my own specifications, from the ground up, such that the house itself was a performance, that I would do.  But that would take vision, creativity, and more importantly a huge amount of money, and in order to earn that money I would have to continue working for the corporate Mammon, ad infinitum, continuing to spend my time with the normal people of this world and fighting the grey…

These thoughts emerge because I’ve entered the next phase of life on my own: not spending it on my own.  Rather than spending my evenings on the sofa in front of the TV, I’ll be out making connections.  Meeting people, finding places to be, having conversations and integrating myself into the community, and not just passively; actively.  I’ve started looking for a band to join, and I’ll be at a different social/kink event each week, sometimes twice a week.  I’m in another play in Aylesbury – Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, at Queens Park Arts Centre – so that will take up part of my weekends.  I’ll be attending the monthly goth and alternative nights at various pubs around town, and probably dropping into the Milton Keynes juggling club fairly often.  People, places, activities that keep my mind alert and my body active, things I can’t achieve sitting in front of a screen clicking away like a rat being rewarded with food pellets.

A house isn’t an end point to aspire to.  It’s a base.  It’s where I store my interests and where I bring people back to, where I sleep in between doing other things and yes, it’s still where I sit and watch TV on the odd occasion. While I live there it must be comfortable, but not so comfortable that I lose sight of the bigger picture.  If I allow myself to rest, and allow the building in which I live to start dictating what I do with my time and money, the house becomes a trap.  I haven’t come this far just to live in a cage, no matter how ornate and gilded the bars.

Home

I have arrived.

Physically, I’m only about an hour and a half away from where I’ve spent the last year and a bit. Mentally, I’m somewhere else entirely.

For those of you at the back, here’s the story: after a year of just about making ends meet, living in shared accommodation and dealing with the disintegration of my carefully-constructed middle-class existence, I decided to make some changes. I had realised, through endless calculations and spectacular spreadsheets, that there was no way I was going to be able to move out into even the smallest one-bedroom apartment in Aylesbury by myself – not within a year, possibly not even within two.

This was simply not good enough. Over the preceding twelve months I had pushed myself hard, because it’s the only option when you’re driven by my particular strain of egotism. I had integrated myself into the community, I’d made friends in strange places and I was making myself known in the theatre. All the while, I had attacked my job with enthusiasm, feeding my brain, gathering skills and intelligence – I had spent that time preparing myself.  I had seen the people I lived with for the first six months of the year, and they were beaten men, discontented with their lives spent watching awful television in cheap rented rooms, but unable to escape their situations.  There was no way I could sit and wait out my existence as they did, hoping that something would happen to make it all a bit more bearable.

I had to find a way to win.

I can make it sound so simple: I identified my most valuable skill, and used that to get a job with a significantly higher salary, in a part of the country that’s cheaper to live in. In reality, the process was mindblowing. With no expectation of actually getting any of them, I started applying for jobs with professional-level salaries, ten to fifteen thousand pounds more than I was earning.  A week later, I got an interview.  A few days after that, I had a second interview.  And the day after that, I was in a state of shock as I realised I had actually achieved what I set out to do, and what I had done was absolutely life-changing.

Two months later, I’m living in a flat in Northampton. I’ve retrieved all my furniture from the garage where I stored it last year.  I’ve rebuilt my lounge in all its stylish dark IKEA glory, and balanced the hi-fi system to DTS reference levels.  I have internet that is mine, and mine alone, and light bulbs that change colour and come on when I come home.  I have taken pleasure in flattening each box as I’ve emptied it.  My Japanese knife is back where it belongs, sharp and in regular use.  My books are on bookcases, my CDs are on the CD shelves, my instruments can be picked up and played. I have indulged myself with black sparkly bathroom mats and a kettle that beeps when it’s ready, because I find these things both hilarious and attractive.

It took the best part of a decade to collect and assemble these physical objects into something resembling a beautiful home. It took the space of just a few months to have them ripped away from me, and a spectacular amount of argument to get them back into my possession.  It’s important to understand that it’s not about the material possessions themselves. It would be a mistake to try and evaluate my life by totalling up the cost of every piece of furniture.  The true value, the thing that I have fought tooth and nail to reclaim, is in the simple experience of walking through my front door, closing it behind me, and knowing:

I am home. And this is my home, a reflection of myself, that I have built from the ashes of a grand failure.

I win.

Control

It’s that time of year again, and the current vogue is to write about how awful 2016 has been, and how 2017 has to be better.  For me, personally, 2016 has been a time of great change, and overall I have to say that I’m having a great time.  In the last twelve months, I have:

  • Moved house twice: once because I had to, once because I wanted to
  • Visited the light installations at Kings Lynn
  • Seen the National Lavender Collection in Norfolk
  • Been to Milan, travelling First Class on the Eurostar and TGV!
  • Seen two firework displays in Wales
  • Seen Amaluna by Cirque du Soleil at the Royal Albert Hall
  • Gallivanted around Devon, visiting and revisiting old haunts
  • Walked hundreds of miles with good friends
  • Successfully negotiated the return of my property from a recalcitrant ex
  • Integrated myself into a social group of diverse and fascinating people
  • Graduated from a phone camera to a great little point-and-shoot, while also graduating to an excellent phone camera
  • Performed in a successful comedy show
  • Seen Diary of Dreams in concert, finally!
  • Seen The Birthday Massacre in concert, yet again
  • Created a spectacular piece of modular origami
  • Performed in a very successful pantomime, getting to know dozens of talented people and rediscovering my own abilities on stage
  • Restarted the Aylesbury Juggling Club
  • Made massive strides professionally, gaining complete control and understanding of systems from input to output, Making Stuff Work and Getting Things Done
  • Spent a great deal of time doing all the above with a beautiful and lovely young woman at my side, who loves and cares for me.

Considering that I was forced out of my home a year ago, I’m really not doing badly.  In fact, I can look at all the things I did in the previous two years, and the list isn’t half of what I’ve achieved this year.  Which is really odd when taken in the context of what my ex called me: “controlling”.  It’s precisely because I’ve been unfettered that I’ve been able to start reaching my full potential and take care of the things that matter to me, because “control” is an insidious, almost invisible parasite, and it’s taken me a year out to realise just how far under the thumb I was. I now characterise my previous relationship as abusive, which is quite an admission for someone intelligent and free-thinking – but it can happen, and I’m glad I’m out of it and living my own life instead of putting all my effort and talent into someone else’s.

The year to come is one of change again, as I continue my meteoric rise.  I’ll be moving, and I’ll be changing, and putting my vast range of skills to use in the service of a better life for myself and the people I care about, but most importantly I will adhere to the one principle that hangs it all together: look after number one.  Because if I’m not 100% at the top of my game, I have less to give to everyone else.