Recent life lessons from two achievers point the way.

In his famous "You didn't build that" speech, Barack Obama said no one becomes successful without help.

He talked about the influence of great teachers, and the infrastructure that helps an entrepreneur to build a successful business. Even if you don't feel like you got help, you did.

Actually, not sure if Obama said that; I might have made that last bit up, but it's true. The help might simply manifest itself because you won in the genetic lottery: you are healthy, smart, and not born near the equator to parents living on $2 a day.

I try to remember this fact as often as I can. But sometimes I forget. To that end: it's advisable not to read glossy magazines. Also, I have a Dymo label affixed to my computer that says "GET OFF FACEBOOK!" But I must make another label. It will say: "GIVE YOURSELF HELP TOO". Oh please know I'm not talking about the Ayn Rand pulling yourself up by your bootstraps jazz. I mean learning how not to be a self-handicapper.


I say this as a very fortunate person who has had all kinds of help and advantages, yet much of the time manages to be my own worst enemy. I suffer from Impostor's Syndrome: a term which refers to "high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalise their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud".

Actually, after seeing that definition I don't even know I am doing anything successful enough to qualify. Can you have Imposter's Syndrome about having Imposter's Syndrome? Well, whatever you call it, I have finally reached a critical mass of desperation to get over it.

A few weeks ago I went to London. I hadn't been there for nine years. I stayed for five days. I didn't go into a single museum, gallery or shop. I went to a writing course. And I'm not sure if I learned anything much about writing, but I did learn something valuable about getting out of your own way.

The famous writer who took the course had her first novel longlisted for the Booker Prize. She talked about how, when she submitted her first book, it got sent back with comments that it was simply not good enough.

London seemed to be inhabited by two kinds of people: oligarchs and rough sleepers. Grandiose or invisible.

She had been a bit of a maths prodigy and been to Oxford and she was devastated, her ego was bruised. But she just went back and rewrote and rewrote and when she finally submitted it again, there was a publisher's war to buy the rights. I am sure I have heard similar uplifting stories from other writers and surely I have watched enough TED talks but, for some reason, this time it really got in.

If even a genius-writer like her could get wiped out in her first attempt, then maybe it wasn't a grand giant thumbs-down from out of the sky if I failed on my first attempt, too. Maybe there wasn't some grand predetermined blueprint that declared certain people had been anointed with the fairy dust of success.

I had spent years trying to work out whether I was sanctioned from some hazy official in the sky to be allowed to be a writer; but really the approval had to come from me.

I looked around. London seemed to be inhabited by two kinds of people: oligarchs and rough sleepers. Grandiose or invisible. Trump or Baldrick.


I had always thought if I wasn't an instant genius, then I was obviously not destined to do whatever I was attempting to do.

On the plane on the way home I watched a reality TV series called The Palace about Auckland hip hop dancer Parris Goebel and her dance studio. Parris has a whole style of dance named after her - Polyswagg - and she didn't seem to suffer from Imposter Syndrome. The show (it screened on Maori TV: please do watch it) showed the dancers practising till 3am, night after night to nail their snazzy routines as they prepared to go to the World Hip-Hop Dance Championships in the US.

They had worked so hard, they had sacrificed, they had paid in sweat. But they came second.

Afterwards Goebel cried a wee bit. But when asked what she was going to do now she said: "Start again tomorrow and work harder." So now I know. That is how you do it.