On Chasing Prestige
Prestige: Widespread respect and admiration felt for someone or something on the basis of a perception of their achievements or quality.
“Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” — Paul Graham
It all began with Michael Jackson. When I was three-years-old I would watch the King of Pop moonwalk, thrust his pelvis and gyrate on my Dad’s VHS tapes. I’d sit only two inches away from the TV screen, nodding and crying as he moaned, “…you are not alone. / I am here with you.” In that moment, as I watched him perform live in front of throngs of screaming fans across the world, something was planted in me. I wanted it. All of that. I wanted to be like Michael Jackson.
But growing up in Nigeria and coming from a household of scientists — Father is a doctor and Mother was a nurse — it seemed ridiculous. This was the 90’s, back when Nigerian parents still firmly believed that success meant being a doctor, lawyer or engineer. I was never one of those people who distinctly knew what they wanted to be because I thought what my heart wanted was plain silly. To sing and write. Yea right! I tucked away the idea deep within myself and went about doing what I believed would please the people in my life, or at least earn their reverence and admiration. In JSS 3, the last year of Junior Secondary School when exams are taken to decide who will go on to the Sciences or Arts in Senior Secondary School, I took the Junior WAEC exam and got promoted to science class. It was honorable to be a science student; teachers, our parents and their friends respected us; my mother had already begun telling her friends that I would be a pediatrician. I decided that even if I couldn’t be Michael Jackson, I could at least ensure that I was known for anything I did.
In Chemistry class, I was driven by thoughts of me eventually becoming a Madam Curie, of being known for discovering some new element; in Physics class, where I had special bond with my teacher because, for whatever reason, I excelled in Physics, I imagined my aged teacher in the future applauding me for creating a new gadget or solving an impossible equation. Or I would cure cancer, work at NASA. No activity mattered except it could be widely celebrated and commended by others. Even in elementary school when I discovered writing.
When I was seven, my Dad returned from a medical conference and handed me a thick leather-bound diary. I was so excited to be given something so grown-up and grand that I took it and began to fill it with words. Nothing spectacular, just basic everyday events in the life of a seven-year-old: Who said what when. What mummy did, prayers to God, names of saints. A few weeks into filling up the diary, I was so excited by what I had done that I began to give it to my classmates to read. I still don’t understand what that impulse was. To share my innermost thoughts with strangers. Was it conceit? At such a young age it was already important that they liked what I was doing? That it had no value without their consent. Or was I so convinced of how remarkable my activities where that I wanted others to appreciate it with me? I did eventually write a story though. At eight I wrote “Kampala and the Kidnappers,” a story about a talking bird that rescues a schoolgirl from kidnappers. My father also returned with books, Disney tapes, grammar and learning videos. When there was electricity my brothers and I would watch Alaadin and the Hunchback of Notre Dame and when the power went out, which was often, we would return to our Enid Blyton books and Rapid Readers Series.
Being a science student in secondary school was hard. There was a lot of cramming, a lot of staying up till daybreak (TDB), a lot of solo crying behind labs and classrooms. The crying started during the final exams of my first year of Senior Secondary School. I was so consumed by not just a fear of failure, but also the fear of mediocrity (the tears persist till this day). The fear of not hearing my name called on Speech & Prize-Giving Day at the end of the year when awards are given to the best in each class.
At 15, the second year of senior secondary school, I began to have these strange thoughts of ceasing. Of sleeping and never waking up, of stabbing myself and overdosing on pills. In the middle of evening prep (study hall), I’d take empty groundnut bottles to the school’s dark, empty field and smash them against the wall. It was such a relief to hear the sounds of shattering glass. One day I thought about how easy it would be to pick one of the shards and put a stop to everything. The thought was recurrent and clear. It would be done, to feel pain one last time and never have to worry about failing or hurting or being hurt. Everything would stop. Wasn’t that bliss?
After secondary school, I went on to university where I started out as a Software Engineer. I picked my major the day I arrived at the university. My mother and I walked into the orientation building and a smiling girl at the welcome desk handed us brochures when we sat down to sign in. I looked at the brochure and asked, “What engineering degrees do you have?” (I had already informed Mother of my complete disinterest in medicine.) The smiling girl readied her fingers to tick off the engineering programs they had. She started with Software Engineering and I stopped her: “Yea okay, I’ll do that one.” And just like that, I thought at the time, I had picked my fate. During the summer of freshman year, mother would boast to her friends that I would be a future Bill Gates. They would tease and praise. “Na you biko! Remember us in your kingdom.”
It was intoxicating, that reverence. I had it and wanted so desperately to keep it, however I could. So I remained a Software Engineer and never spoke about sleeping in all my coding classes. That I had no idea at the time what the point of C++ or Java was. That I snuck in the last Harry Potter book into my CSC 105 class, hid it under the table and read while the teacher muttered something about Boolean operations and errors on TextPad. My first programming class in the first semester of freshman year, after the teacher wrote a code on the board for us to type in TextPad, I had asked a question that made my predominantly male classmates laugh at me. “Why can’t we just type it in Word?” (Later on in the semester I understood that Word doesn’t have the functionality for running codes). When I started out I didn’t even know what codes were. By sophomore year, thoughts of the shards of glass returned. Then they evolved into throwing myself off the third floor of my dorm. Everyday, it was clear how easy it would be and everyday I convinced myself I was simply being lazy. If I kept at it and worked hard enough, I would be happy, revered and financially independent. I could just in fact be the female Bill Gates of Africa. I thought about my parents, their friends, my friends, professors, all the people in my life and the world who would know my name.
When thoughts of leaping off that balcony continued to linger, I knew if I didn’t take a shot at what I was good at, I wouldn’t live for long. My very existence depended on it (I really need to give my survival instincts props to triumphing over my ego throughout my life). I wrote an essay on Logic and Faith in my Western Civilization class and my professor, William Hansen, was so impressed with the essay that he called me aside and asked me what my major was. When I told him dispiritedly that I was majoring in Software Engineering, he gave me a long look before asking if I was certain I was pursuing the right thing. Coincidentally, the day I went to his office was the last day for adding and dropping courses for the semester. I was already enrolled in the classes my Software Engineering advisor had told me to take to stay the steady course till graduation. But after leaving Hansen’s office, I decided, almost instinctively, to be impulsive. I went to the Dean of Student Affairs office to take a closer look at the school’s academic catalog. What could I do? What did I like? What was I good at? I stumbled on English Language and Literature under the School of Arts and Sciences and thought about Kampala and the Kidnappers, the first-position-in-English award (the last first-position award) I had received in Junior Secondary School, and the collection of bedtime stories I wrote at the end of elementary school. Yes, I’d switch to English.
I called my mother.
“Wait,” she said over the phone.
Registration would end around 5pm. It had to be now.
“Don’t do anything drastic; call your father.”
I did. “If this is what you really want,” he said to my surprise, “then okay.”
He added: “But what will you do with it when you graduate?”
“I’ll study law,” I lied. I repeated the same lie to my mother when she called me back and agreed with Father. Barrister Chidinma Irene Nwoye, I imagined her thinking. And that’s how I returned to officially reading and writing. Prestigious titles — president of the Honors Society, highest honors in the English department — came without me consciously seeking them. I was still plagued by teenage angst and what I would do with the degree after graduation, but I never contemplated the balcony again.
Which leads me to now and why for the life of me as a writer and journalist in New York City, I find myself thinking of that balcony again. Of smashing bottles and the shards of glass. Of worrying about a misdirected restlessness that will not be appeased. Will I ever be satisfied? I write professionally part-time now. I have a corporate job on the side that keeps me afloat. I find it interesting that after my Masters in Journalism at Columbia University, I was earning $10 an hour as an intern at a renowned online magazine and now that I work as a researcher at legal recruiting firm doing less work and less creative tasks at that, I am making $30/hour. It reminds me of when I started out as a journalist after university as a way to read, write, feed and use my college degree and I was making N10,000 a month in Abuja. But when I moved to a more prestigious media company where I was working as an assistant and doing less demanding work than as a reporter, I was being paid N100,000 a month.
I honestly did try to turn off the creative side of me. I picked up self-help books instead and started researching PR and marketing roles. Who cares? The world is a big fucking joke and a lie. Capitalism. Sexism. Racism. Terrorism. Neocolonialism. Everyday we fight and try to create this eternally approximate version of utopia. But utopia will never exist by virtue of the fact that we’re inherently flawed, finite mortals. But then I see glimpses of human kindness. Like my friend who was gifted thousands of dollars by a stranger to earn his Master’s degree in the U.S. I saw the beauty that humans are capable of when I attended the Future of Storytelling Summit last year or when I listen to a song in the subway, read a poem, book or article or watch a movie, or listen to a TED talk on a new scientific discovery. British-born artist Neil Harbisson, who was born color-blind, wears an electronic eye that lets him listen to color! He can paint music and speeches! Our creative potential fuels my raison d’etre. I am almost curious to see how the story turns out. What our reality will be a decade from now, in spite of my fears of where I’ll be then. I now recognize that there is moreness in this world and we are capable of being better. Even though I wrestle with my Christian beliefs, I’m often reminded of the Parable of The Talents in Matthew 25:14–30. The story of a man who was going on a trip and decided to entrust his servants with his “property.” To the first he gave five talents, to the second he gave two, to the third he gave one. When the man returned and asked for the talents back, the first two doubled their talents and returned them to the man. Meanwhile the third one, who had buried his in the ground the entire time the man was away, dug the same single talent out and returned it to the man. The first two were rewarded while the last one was “cast…into the outer darkness” (ESV). I think about that often and I consciously decide to treat my gifts of writing and singing, however nascent they may be, with a sense of duty and not as something that must fetch me fame and widespread recognition. It is good work I must tend to every single day because I know I will not live long without them; overtime everything will no longer matter.
However, in spite of my insistence on standing in my truth, there are still lies that I have grown accustomed to telling myself for so long that I often fail to recognize their falsity. That even as I try to do the good work I am still fixated on prestige. I picked that 10-dollar internship not because of what I would learn, but mostly because of where it was. I still have secret fantasies of winning an Oscar for a screenplay or a Grammy for singing and/or songwriting. I didn’t fully realize how toxic chasing prestige could be until I recently started working again on a longform story. My subjects were deceased so I had to report around them. I was speaking to family members, friends, co-workers, everyone who knew them. Initially, I set out curious with good intentions, but overtime I began to obsess over the story’s potential reception. “What if all these efforts are for naught?” “Or what if it blows up and becomes something big?” I imagined myself on the longform.org podcast and other sites and publications. Perhaps I would finally be worthy and get my dream job as a staff writer for the New York Times. The more I thought about the interviews, the more impatient I got with the storytelling. I became more aggressive in finding my contacts. I wanted to do the story now and be published. My impatience went unchallenged until one key contact threatened to sue me. She called me while I was at work one morning with an unknown number. I had been trying desperately to reach her for weeks; I messaged her on Facebook, called her pastor to put us in touch. I found the office number of one of her friends and also called the friend to put us in touch (my job does require some level of stalking). Of course, I knew she had no grounds to sue me as my rights as a formally trained member of the press are protected by the First Amendment, but I had never gotten that reaction from a potential interviewee before. In the past my editors, stunned by the level of access I always received, had often credited my unobtrusive and deferential demeanor. For the first time in my career, I was shut down. She has no legal case against me, but I need her. Her story matters; her perspective is crucial. I had to be honest about how I had approached the situation wrongly and failed to empathize with her loss because I let my ego get in the way of the work. Now I know I should have sent my condolences first before requesting for an interview. Committing myself to doing the work is teaching me to interrogate my motives for setting out to tell a story or do any creative activity. Why am I doing this? Was my spirit persistently nagged to do this? Or did I think this would be hot now and I’ll nick some award and be truly validated, and truly matter? Was the story the end in itself or its potential reception? Is there even a story here or am I conjuring something out of nothing? All the while, especially as a journalist and a creative non-fiction writer, I am conscious that time is passing; the story is stalling. But it must be told and more importantly, it is not about me.
“How do you know when your soul is dead?” “Can it be resuscitated?” When I am worried about being inadequate or losing my voice, I return to Elizabeth Gilbert’s timeless TED talk, Your Elusive Creative Genius, where she talks about how artists in ancient times distanced themselves from their creative geniuses. In ancient Greece divine attendants of creativity were called “daemons.” For the Romans, the disembodied creative spirit was called a “genius,” but the term didn’t exist then in the way we understand it today. She describes the genius like Dobby the house elf who would invisibly assist the artist with their work. I think more of the Grimm Brothers’ fairytale of The Elves and the Shoemaker; the elves help a poor shoemaker create shoes after he cuts out the leather and retires for the night. Gilbert poses a way or a psychological construct for the artist to distance themselves from narcissism and the results of their work. You think about it this way and you’re no longer focused on prestige and reception. You have faith and stay at your end of the creative process, which is showing up and doing the work. It is seems more like a mission really.
“If the divine, cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed, for just one moment through your efforts, then “Olé!” And if not, do your dance anyhow. And “Olé!” to you, nonetheless. I believe this and I feel that we must teach it.”Olé!” to you, nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.” — Elizabeth Gilbert
While fame is nice, and fortune better, I’ve come to a point where I have to create, to find the courage and conviction to write and sing because my very essence and life depends on it. To not do this or to do this halfheartedly is certainly to court death. I have decided to stop yearning for the eternal sleep and to place my feet firmly in this world. It’s just less productive to be in one realm while daydreaming about another or the absence of this current one. So I am here. I will do the work. I will create. Sounds or words or both. I will find a way. More importantly, I will live.