Why You Should Ask Yourself This Simple Question

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In improvised theatre, there is a game called “More Specific”, where at any point the audience can call out “more specific!”, and the performers have to repeat what they’ve just said in greater detail. The specificity is usually played for humour. Even in other improv games, both comedy and narrative rely on the improviser’s specificity. There’s a difference between entering the scene as “a coworker” and “your coworker of 13 years with whom you have an intense rivalry that conceals your latent passion for each other.” The former is a decent starting point, but if the latter is established early in the scene, it allows it to progress to a more rich and entertaining narrative.

I’ve been part of an improvised theatre society for the past two and a half years, so this isn’t the first time I’ve written a blog about how improv is a metaphor for life. (Check out this blog I wrote last year on that topic) This blog isn’t going to be a metaphor, but rather a lesson I learnt about life, that just happens to have the title of an improv game. In order to get what you want in life, you have to ask yourself: more specific?

I spend a great deal of time waiting for people to reply to my messages and emails. As a result of this, I spend a disproportionate chunk of my life pondering how I could have done things differently, how I could have phrased things better. I often bring up the story of that time I waited 4.5 months for someone to reply to a message. I don’t mention this because of the sheer ridiculousness of it, but because I learnt a hell of a lot of life lessons from this experience. During those 135 days, I dissected the message in my mind, performing an autopsy on the words I’d chosen in haste. I asked myself: what could I have done better?

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of working with a woman that I greatly admire. (I wrote about it in my most recent blog, which you can read here) She gave me lots of valuable advice, and I wanted to learn more from her. So I sent her a thank-you email, in which I asked her if she would consider becoming my mentor — this is something I’ve wanted to ask her for about eight months now. It’s been a week, and she hasn’t replied. On a rational level, I know that this is because she is a very busy woman, and will have bigger priorities than replying to my 930something-word-long email. I know it’s not personal. In spite of this, I found myself overthinking. Once again, I asked myself: how could I have gone about this more effectively?

The thing I keep coming back to is: I should have been more specific. I didn’t say “will you be my mentor?” instead I said something along the lines of “I want to ask you to be my mentor, but–” and then listed a bunch of reasons why I probably shouldn’t ask her. I wasn’t exactly helping myself. It’s a cliche to say “ask and you shall receive”, and oftentimes when you ask for something you don’t get it. But I’ve noticed lately that every time I ask for something, my requests are accompanied by an apology. If you read between the lines I’m saying “sorry for taking up space, sorry for occupying your time, sorry for existing.” If I don’t believe I’m worthy of the things I’m asking for, how can I expect to get them? I hide amongst ambiguities, I seep into the gaps between words, dwell in the synapses of language. You will only see what I truly want if you read between the lines, and that’s too much to ask any person to do.

So I’m setting myself a challenge. It’s time to be more specific about what I want, and to ask for it unapologetically. Moreso, I must be specific about WHY I want it. To continue with the above example, I know vaguely why I want her to be my mentor. I admire her, she’s one of approximately two people in the world that I willingly take advice from, she makes me a better person, I feel like I have a lot to learn from her. Perhaps “mentor” is an overly formal way of saying I want to spend time with her and ask her questions about life. Perhaps “mentor” is me knowing I want to be her friend, and finding a way to fit that into the hierarchy we exist in. Either way, I don’t know what I am asking of her. And by throwing around a vague and ambiguous term, that puts the pressure on her to make a decision where she doesn’t know what she is agreeing to. Instead I could have asked “can we meet once every few weeks so I can ask you questions about X, Y, and Z?” and cut to the chase, and perhaps increased my likelihood of getting the outcome I want. Ambiguity is a comfort zone I have long since outgrown.

When I think back to the guy who left me waiting 4.5 months for a reply to my message, I don’t know what I could have done differently. I was specific in what I said to him, but not in what I hoped to gain by saying it. Any outcome I wanted was impossible.

I might see him when I go to Latvia next month, for the first time in a year-and-a-half. It’s still up in the air, because 1) he’s horrendous at replying to messages, 2) I don’t actually know if I want to see him, even though it was I who suggested it in the first place. I don’t know what I hope to gain from seeing him. I got my closure a long time ago, there are no loose ends to tie up, no questions with answers I’d care to hear. Until I’m specific about my reasons for meeting with him, I won’t know whether or not it’s a wise idea. My inner anarchist wants to see him because it will be entertaining. Maybe I just want to see him to prove a point — prove a point to my past self, that is, not to him. I know it will be a valuable experience, and that I will learn something from it, but I need to be more specific than that.

I am an ambitious go-getter who will never been satisfied with “good enough.” The only way to achieve the success I’m wired to crave is by setting specific goals. My goal for the past three years has been to rewrite and publish the series of novels I wrote when I was fourteen. It’s been six years since I wrote and self-published the trilogy, and I have spent half of that time rewriting the first novel in order to publish a version of it that I can be proud of. That’s not to say I’m not proud of the novel I originally wrote. But at fourteen I only knew so much about myself and the world, and I didn’t have the capability — as a writer or a person — to fully capture the story I wanted to tell.

What was once a 56,000 word novel called Consequence now stands at 137,000 words (and counting!) and has been renamed The Purest Form of Chaos. What was once a trilogy will now be a series of six. Those novels are my life’s work, they are my pride and joy, I love them with my whole soul. I was born to be a writer, it is how I breathe, how I love, how I exist. Unfortunately, I have to be a human as well as a writer. And in my non-writing life, I am in my third year of university, and have a whole lot of essay deadlines in the next few weeks. I originally wanted to publish The Purest Form of Chaos a year ago, and then this month. In fact, today was the deadline I decided on at the beginning of the summer. Then I changed it to January. This was before 3rd year began, before I realised how chaotic my life would be. So I’ve pushed the publication date forward again, and I have felt uncomfortable about this, because I feel like I broke a promise to myself, I feel like I’ve failed.

It’s been a few days since I’ve made this decision, and I feel better about it now. Why? Because I’m not pushing it to some vague point in the future. I decided on late March/early April, and I had a sign yesterday that this was the right choice. I am specific about why I made the decision, when I am postponing until, and what I can do in the meantime. Specificity saves the day, once again!

Lately I’ve been watching Gossip Girl. Yes, I am many years late to the party, I know! I can’t quite decide if I like it, because it’s a horrible show about horrible people. Not to mention the fact that the 16/17-year-old characters look about 25, and I can’t take it seriously because of this. I’m currently on season 2, and there was an episode I watched recently where it’s revealed that the character Blair is massively jealous of her best friend Serena, and is constantly trying to sabotage her because of this. I never liked Blair. I don’t mind Serena. My favourite character is probably Jenny, because I admire her ambition. I’m more invested in the romance between Serena’s mum and Dan’s dad than any of the “teenage” romance storylines. In general I watch it because it allows me to switch off my brain for 40 minutes. I digress. The storyline about Blair being jealous of Serena made me think a lot about the way jealousy and competition affects the dynamics of relationships.

I used to be a jealous person, and I’ve worked hard to get past that. These days I rarely experience jealousy (don’t worry, I have plenty of other flaws to make up for this). When I do get jealous, it’s often about silly things. I am very particular about what things are “mine”, and it irks me if other people infringe on that space. In spite of this, I am not competitive. If you’ve ever played Scrabble with me, you’re probably thinking “liar!”, but let me explain: I am competitive when it comes to board games, but I’m not competitive when it comes to other people. If one of my friends gets a better grade than me, or looks better than me, or achieves something I wanted to achieve, I don’t view them as a threat. Another person’s success doesn’t equal my failure.

This is why it’s important to be more specific. If you know distinctly what your talents are, you will know that no one else can take up the space that is rightfully yours. I know I am a good writer. To be more specific: I know where the value lies in my blog. I write personal anecdotes to talk about broader topics, and each time I write about a problem I provide a solution. Even when I talk about negative things, I end on a positive note. I write to heal myself, and to heal others. I know that’s what makes me special. Therefore I won’t feel threatened if everyone I know starts writing blogs, because I know what my niche is. The same applies to every area of life. Perhaps my friends are thinner, more conventionally attractive, more confident. It would be easy for me to feel lesser because of that. But I love myself, and I know my worth is not measured by what my friends look like. I know I have pretty eyes, and a pretty smile. I know I give the best hugs, I know I am compassionate, and brave, and wise. I know who I am, and I know which specific things make me me. That is why the only person I am in competition with is the person I was yesterday, because she is the only person playing in my league.

There are still areas of my life where I feel massively insecure — my love life, for one. It’s hard to watch my friends get into relationships (or at least, find new love interests), whilst I get older and older and remain as single as I ever was. There’s this song called Cleopatra, by the Lumineers, and it has this line “I was late for this, late for that, late for the love of my life. When I die alone, when I die alone, when I die I’ll be on time,” and that’s basically how my love life feels. It’s the one area of my life where I feel truly left behind. Even so, I don’t view it as a competition. I can be insecure and still know that my worth isn’t defined by how I measure up to the timelines of other people’s lives. Yes, I’m almost twenty-one years old and I’ve never even been on a date. But I know what I want from a relationship, I know what love means to me. I am specific as hell about what I’m looking for, and that is worth the wait. When you are specific about the standards you set, you don’t settle for mediocrity.

That said, there is an important distinction between being specific, and basing your whole identity on distinctions and labels. Knowing what you want isn’t about living according to a checklist, because specificity goes deeper than language. In the end, it comes down to how something or someone makes you feel, and that goes beyond words. I went through a phase earlier this year where I put a lot of labels on myself, only to realise they were all meaningless. At this point in my life, I don’t even know which Hogwarts house I belong in, let alone what labels I would use to define my sexuality or political/religious views. Perhaps the label is simply a question mark, but that begs the question: why I am I trying to label myself at all?

It’s important to have labels in order to accommodate specific needs. I say “I am a vegan” so people know not to give me foods containing animal products. Similarly, labels like gender pronouns and labels of sexualities, are really important in order to respect and accommodate a diverse range of identities. Labels celebrate our similarities and differences, and make people feel seen and accepted.

But labels can also become meaningless. If you look through a handful of twitter bios, you will come across things like “dog mom” “coffee addict” “*list of all their astrological placements*” “*their religion/sexuality/nationality*” “Slytherin”, etc. Your twitter bio is how you present yourself to the world, and it makes me wonder: are these labels how people see themselves? Is this how they want others to see them? Is owning a dog, or being overly reliant on a particular caffeinated beverage your main personality trait? If so, how does this affect your sense of identity? Labels are more than just words, they are the meaning behind them, and I feel like people throw labels around until they lose that meaning. Labels that should represents specificities become another ambiguity to hide behind.

My own twitter bio says things like “Writer” and “astrologer” and “film student” and “feminist.” These labels aren’t my identity. Oftentimes I feel alienated from the cliche of what it means to be a film student, because I don’t like the “right” type of films. I don’t feel I’ve studied astrology in enough depth to call myself an astrologer yet. But I am wholeheartedly a feminist, and writing is as much a part of me as my green eyes or my ambitious nature. So why do I use this specific range of labels to present myself to the world? Firstly, in twitter bios you have a limited number of characters at your disposal. Secondly: in theory, my twitter is a professional platform where I represent my brand as an author. If you’ve read any of my tweets, feel free to laugh right now. Regardless, my bio must represent Eliza the Brand. Perhaps it would be better if it simply read “I’m obsessed with my romantic failures, and live-tweet my essay procrastination. I also tweet cryptically about whichever planet is currently retrograde,” as that is the brand my tweets are showcasing. But that’s not how I define myself. If I have to fit myself in a box, it will be the box of writer, it will be the box of astrologer, and even the box of film student, because they express the fundamental lens through which I view the world. I see life as a story, and I use astrology to explain the themes that surface within that narrative. Life is rich with symbols and imagery, and I see it in beautiful montages of the most high definition — I look at life through the eyes of a film student, and I did so long before I came to university. I use these labels because they are specific to me, and because there are feelings behind them that are so specific they transcend the form of the label itself.

Finally, being more specific is the only way to create a better future. My university’s slogan is “world changers welcome.” What does that even mean? Everyone changes the world in their own little ways. We may be tiny grains of sand in a vast desert, but we all impact something or someone. It’s all good and well to say “I want to change the world”, but what are you actually doing about it? Every time I scroll through my twitter feed I am bombarded by people complaining. Complaining about their day, their life, themselves, the world at large. There’s nothing wrong with complaining, but you have to use that dissatisfaction to make a change.

Yesterday I was irritated about something (in this case, I’m not going to be more specific), and the thing that struck me was that my first instinct was to think “what can I do to change this?” instead of feeling sorry for myself. So I got specific, I found a solution to the problem — both an immediate bandaid, and a long term solution. I was proactive, instead of wallowing in bitterness and feeling sorry for myself. I have such little patience for people who complain all the time, because they wear their misery like a badge of honour instead of trying to claw their way out of it.

Complaining, like everything in life, should serve a purpose. What purpose, you may ask? Complain to pinpoint what is bothering you. Because once you know the problem, you can find the solution. Life is too precious to waste it floundering in inaction. Be more specific. What do you want? What can you do to get it? How can you grow into your best self? These answers don’t come from imitating other people, you can only find them inside yourself. Life is not a competition, life is an intimate affair with the deepest corners of yourself. You are your greatest love affair, your greatest teacher, your bestest friend. You are the only person that can change your own world, so be more specific about who you are, and who you want to be.

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