Yesterday, London Pole Varsity 2019 took place. I represented UCL in the Freestyle Category. Along with two other competitors from LSE and KCL respectively, we had zero clue what kind of song we will be performing to. 20 minutes before our turn, we drew lots and took turns to pick a category each from five categories. They were “Joyful”, “Vengeful”, “Sad”, “Hopeful”, “Silly”, and “Sensual”. I came up short during the drawing of lots and was the last to pick a category. The other two competitors picked “Silly” and “Sensual”. I thought “Vengeful” would allow more emotions to be conveyed, so I went with that.
5 minutes prior to my turn to go on stage, I was handed a pair of headphones and the song I was to perform to was played. I was immediately alarmed because I did not know the song at all. My mind raced to identify the “musical elements” of the song, such as the chorus, crescendos, bridge, etc. I then realised the song is largely electronic and was rather flat. I felt blind, like a 19th century sailor in a fog, but yet also somewhat excited like a high school student going to a University fair. After the song ended, I put down the headphones and thought “Oh well, shit. #leggo”
I went on stage and the music played. It actually sounded different to the song I listened to earlier. I really did not know what I was doing, but what I did remember was that I failed so many tricks that I planned. Ayesha deadlifts, phoenix, etc. I stupidly missed my lunch and felt my strength and stamina leaving me in the first 45 seconds.
Three minutes later, I left the stage, feeling utterly disappointed. A couple of people then came up to me and told me how they enjoyed my performance. I tried to smile and thank them, but some of my closer friends knew there was something behind the smile.
Fast forward two hours, I won the gold medal. I was on tech duty then so I ran off from my station to receive my medal on stage. It was a moment of celebration. UCL won the competition overall. Hugs were given and received, congratulations passed around, and photos taken. Two of the judges approached me and said how they loved my piece. Fast forward another three hours after dinner, I watched the video footage of my routine again and with the weight of the gold medal on my neck is like a burden of an artist’s victory with an imperfect piece.
I thought of a dialogue I once watched in the Netflix series “The Crown”, between Winston Churchill and a Mr. Sutherland. It went like this:
Sutherland: I do take comfort from the fact that your own work is so honest and revealing.
Churchill: Oh, thank you for the compliment. Well, are there any works that you’re referring to in particular?
Sutherland: I was thinking especially of the Goldfish pond here at Chartwell.
Churchill: The pond? Why the pond? It’s just a pond.
Sutherland: It’s very much more than that. As borne out by the fact that you’ve returned to it again and again. More than 20 times.
Churchill: Well, yes, because it’s such a technical challenge. It eludes me.
Sutherland: Well, perhaps you elude yourself, sir. That’s why it’s more revealing than a self-portrait.
Churchill: Oh, that’s nonsense. It’s the water, the play of light. The trickery. The fish, down below.
Sutherland: I think all our work is unintentionally revealing and I find it especially so with your pond. Beneath the tranquility and the elegance and the light playing on the surface, I saw honesty and pain, terrible pain. The framing itself, indicated to me that you wanted us to see something beneath all the muted colors, deep down in the water. Terrible despair. Hiding like a Leviathan. Like a sea monster.
Churchill: You saw all that?
Sutherland: Yes, I did.
This dialogue clearly pushed on messages read by the audience about a piece of art. But at this instant I felt like Churchill in this scene. Despite the comments given by the judges saying how my piece was moving, I felt like those comments were a hyperbole; I was suffering from Imposter’ Syndrome. My need to always leave a perfect piece out led to downcast which should have been joy instead. Apparently I subconsciously kept my medal in my bag after the show, compared to all the other medalists who wore theirs throughout the evening. After I got home, I felt ridiculous for feeling like that the whole night. Does it matter then if I thought my piece was far from perfect? Yes, of course it does. But it should not eliminate the reason for celebration. Admiral John Paul Jones of the Royal Navy said this, on the topic of what qualifications a naval officer should have:
“He should be the soul of tact, patience, justice, firmness, kindness, and charity. No meritorious act of a subordinate should escape his attention or be left to pass without its reward, even if the reward is only a word of approval. Conversely, he should not be blind to a single fault in any subordinate, though at the same time, he should be quick and unfailing to distinguish error from malice, thoughtfulness from incompetency, and well-meant shortcomings from heedless or stupid.”
I think this extends also to ourselves. We are often our own harshest critics. We should not be blind or deluded about ourselves. Acknowledging our own errors and merits are both equally important and an imbalance of that will lead to either low self-esteem or arrogance. To end off, I quote one more person, Thomas Keller, an internationally acclaimed chef.
“When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy. That’s what cooking is all about.”
– Thomas Keller, in his book “The French Laundry Cookbook”
Did people enjoy my performance? Yes, they did.
Could I have done better? Does not matter, I cannot change the past anyway.
Can I improve for the next time? Of course.