Don’t asterisk it

Jan Van Boghout
2 min readAug 26, 2020


For a non-native speaker, I have a pretty good* grasp of the English language. Enough people have told me as much that I believe it, but my fluency ebbs and flows with the environment I’m in. After moving to the Netherlands I could tell my English was starting to atrophy. The self-directed commentary spiked: “yikes, can’t speak worth a damn anymore,” every time I caught a grammatical boo-boo or slurred sentence.

Particularly when I’m tired, I self-deprecate and downplay my strengths. It’s an automatism deeply rooted in personality and childhood, when I learned to do things “properly or not at all”. At their core, these outside thoughts are reminders to pull myself together and invitations to help me improve. While that attitude is a foundational brick of a growth mindset — and imposter syndrome — the outsized impact of those little comments only truly dawned on me as the sun was setting on a relationship.

English was our only shared language, the bottleneck for all communication. Occasionally I would bring up an especially egregious mispronunciation, questionable semantics or mangled idioms — which tended to evoke a hostile response. Fair enough. Constructive criticism can be tricky to navigate because I’m hard on myself, but disputing provable facts is where I draw a line. Most of these discussions ended with either one of us getting exasperated and steering the subject to less contentious matters. Still, arguing about meaning or the very existence of certain phonemes can get quite surreal — so the veiled whale hunter wailed — and the last such fight I snapped. As I shoved a dictionary entry in his face I asked why he always assumed I was wrong.

Why should I believe you?

His reasoning got etched into my memory: “you always tell me how bad your English is, so why should I believe you”? Language not being something he really cared about, he took my own putdowns at face value. Just like skill inflation, self-deprecation will only be challenged by somebody with enough context and motivation to accurately gauge your statements. What you perceive as abject failure might look just fine to a fresh pair of eyes, and your audience will almost never fact-check what you say. Your own judgment becomes someone else’s.

I think it’s healthy to stay humble and not always be your greatest advocate in the echo chamber of life. However, never become your greatest critic. It has subtle but far-reaching consequences, both interpersonally and professionally. Diminishing what you do and who you are also denies others the opportunity to learn from your experiences.

Measuring everything against high standards is great, but don’t pick yourself apart with undeserved asterisks and caveats. You don’t need to read everyone else the small print. Own what you’re good at. Get better at it, helping others in the process. Accept that compliment and pay it back someday. It’s a nicer way of living.