First Coat of Paint: Losing the Self While Chasing Success

Have you ever heard a song where the beats match your cardiac rhythm, and swept by awe you look up the guitarist to realise he went to Juilliard so you want to enrol too? Do you ever see a popular profile’s astute observations on some worldly topic on Twitter, find that his bio has a three letter degree followed by a top university’s three letter abbreviation, and you can’t wait to have that added to your name as well?

It sounds ambitious, but for some of us there is no option but to aim high. It doesn’t matter on which rung of the success ladder we’re standing, we aren’t content with the apples we can pick from there, we want more from the trees on the right, and some mangoes from the orchard next door. We have to pick whichever shiny fruit we can find.

The origin story perhaps lies in that our proverbial blanket was modest – comfortable and warm, but falling short if our limbs were stretched too much. There was enough for our needs but post liberalisation, a new generation was raised greedy by default. It knew too much to not want it all. How could one grow up on books and American TV shows, be immersed in the internet and not find in them a Narnia-like closet escape? How could one step into this closet’s fascinating world and still be content with their own? A sheltered, modest upbringing was thus the environment where dreaming came easy. Everything outside looked shiny but achievable – as our values taught us – with hard work and diligence.

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Many years and much hard work later, at the cusp of achieving a semblance of success, I realised that something was amiss. I might have earned my place in a room full of worthy people, but there I sat alone, confused and uncomfortable. No one had taught me how to order my cold brewed coffee, to swirl my glass of wine, to speak about existential philosophers and classic English literature. I wanted to be a part of the popular high school lunch table, the modern Bloomsbury group, to not just sit alongside them, but actually belong.

Undaunted by this social imposter syndrome, I did my homework – learnt how to speak French, read dead white authors, and I even do my hair so even the curls fall properly. I followed the people I admired on social media, subconsciously making notes on their interests to be peppered into conversations later. Then I went ahead and sat at the table. The key was to smile profusely, look confident and ask intelligent questions – that way you could not be ignored.

Eventually, I started to blend in, charmed by the glitter on everyone around, but learning to dig my feet. People were taking me seriously and I thrived in such attention. Famous folk with verified online profiles knew me, spoke to me, heard me out and I counted it as an achievement, my self worth dependent on the validation of intellectuals – the blue ticks.

Reading a phrase in a book of fiction then made me pause and stare at my insecurities underneath. In Amrita Mahale’s Milk Teeth, a character states that as hard as one may try, ‘the first coat of paint’  shows. It was a reference to upward social and class mobility that reveals through cracks. How continuous self improvement as a means of fitting in could not produce culture. The phrase ‘first coat of paint’ has a physical effect on the protagonist and like her, my stomach tightened into a clump too. I began to wonder how the layers of paint I had added – through education, through my work – still had gaps through which the first coat of my roots was visible.

But more importantly, that I related to the insecurities of another character pointed me to my own anxieties. I wondered if I was living in a constant fear of the paint peeling off and being perceived as lesser.

Then, I viewed all my actions through the prism of this paint, of having needlessly added layers of camouflage. Was a sense of insecurity of small town origins impeding my attempt at building a home in a metropolitan? Was fitting in so important to me that I was trying to hide parts of myself? Was all the hard work then put in not to succeed, but to escape?

More recently, a Netflix show Inventing Anna – based on real events delved into the making of a woman that duped high society New York by pretending to be one of them. She dons the appearance of someone with old money – classy, and arrogant, the kind of person her desired crowd would feel comfortable socialising with. She then networks her way to be accepted by this crowd.

It reminded me why being part of such cliques is attractive – tribes stick to their own and this exclusivity provides an identity, a sense of belonging. However, when Anna’s lawyer admits to his high-bred wife that despite the black-tie parties he attends with her, he always feels that his real place is as a valet outside, I realised that this identity is always fleeting, a never-ending cognitive dissonance taking its place. Multiple coats of paint then should not matter when one is looking from the inside.

This realisation soon morphed into tenderness of knowing what was ailing m – the relentless pursuit of both success and the successful at the cost of my own person. It was becoming clear that the two cannot be pursued simultaneously, for one cancels the need of the other. There are only so many shiny fruits one could pick without annoying others, and only so many others one could please without compromising one’s goals. The pursuit of this chimera was a self-defeating race. The alternative, whatever it was, I was yet to figure out.

But I finally knew that even if the paint peels off, what lies inside was never worth hiding.

Soumya Anand is an officer in the Indian Revenue Service. Once charged with her morning coffee, and when not working, she prefers to spend her time reading, writing and exploring the city on foot. You can find her on Twitter @mesoumya

Featured image: Luca Nicoletti / Unsplash