Can’t we stop having to prove ourselves?

A 60ish man among a group I’d just met dropped into the conversation that he had been a National Merit Scholar. How sad that he’s still bringing that up almost a half century later, I thought. Isn’t a bonus of mature age that you no longer have anything to prove?

But then remembering that low Scrabble scores had affected my ego, I realized he’s not alone in trying to certify his brainpower after it shouldn’t matter anymore.

If you excelled as a student and then spent the rest of your life in the middle of the pack, you may forever miss the kind of validation a report card used to bring. The former National Merit Scholar mentioned that his profession had all but disappeared since the advent of the internet, and his finances are shaky. His ego must be hurting. I doubt this is where his younger self expected to be in his 60s.

As for me, St. Francis Academy in Joliet was not like New Trier, and I didn’t become aware of the competition until I left home for the bigger world. Lots of people were not only smart but all-around achievers, brought up with advantages (lessons, travel, etc.) that I lacked. They were superior, I decided; I just knew how to get good grades. My confidence was further blunted by a bad marriage. Insecurity may help explain why my working life was a series of lateral moves until I retired from a job that was much like the one I had at 25.

Why should it matter anymore? I no longer have to prove myself on a job. But Scrabble seemed to matter not only as a reflection on my brainpower but also as proof that I’d worked in the right field. I was a word person, for heaven’s sake. That’s the kind of twisted thinking self-doubt can produce: counting a Scrabble score for more than five decades of job performance.

My friend Sandie and I play two games of Scrabble weekly. I’ve read that good Scrabble players reach 300 points each game, so 300 is my goal. I had a long streak when it was rare to total above 250 points. I was consoling myself that I was unlucky, not getting the high-scoring tiles — the Z (10 points), Q (10), J (8), X (8), and K (5) — when Sandie offhandedly commented about my luck in drawing the biggies. If that was the case, my brain wasn’t up to maximizing the advantage.  

“Mmm, I don’t think I’m getting most of the high tiles,” I defensively answered Sandie, who then suggested that for a month we keep track of which biggies the winner had each game. We ended the month pretty much even on high-scoring tiles and on wins and losses. I was able to reassure myself that Scrabble is a game of luck as well as skill. When I got at least three of the high tiles, I did all right.

Reminding ourselves that we’re playing for fun, Sandie and I decided to stop making note of who drew the big tiles. I’m the scorekeeper, and I tell her if she has a particularly good game but otherwise don’t mention our scores.

It feels silly that I let my performance in a board game bother me. The only person who sees is Sandie, and she’s not going to judge my mind by my Scrabble play, any more than I do hers. We know one another outside of Scrabble. 

I suspect, however, that I have a lot of self-doubting comrades. I’m thinking about an elderly woman who was preplanning her funeral and asked me to edit her obituary. She included that she was in the National Honor Society in high school. My thought was that in a world of college graduates, she would look foolish brandishing a high school academic honor, but I couldn’t figure out how to say that politely.

Research shows that intelligence correlates with humility, discomfort in the limelight, and self-doubt, but I’ve known plenty of people who were bright and let you know it. Just this morning I read a description of Boris Johnson, Britain’s new prime minister, as an intellectual showboat who likes to flaunt his knowledge of Latin. Of course, psychologists also tell us that bragging often is a cover for insecurity.

What I know for sure is that a game isn’t worth hurting a friendship over, and I’m glad Sandie reacted to my petulant “What happened to my brain?” with patience. We played Scrabble Monday, and already I’ve forgotten my scores. That’s the best achievement.



No matter where I go, what I’m hearing over and over again is please save our democracy, please save our country. . . . I’ve never in my total of 37 years in public service ever heard a constituent say that they were scared of their leader.” 

— Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., about his constituents telling him they are “scared” of Trump

Filed under: Life lessons, Retirement

Leave a comment