Letter 027: The Secret Shame
I have to come clean: today’s letter is titled “the secret shame”, yet I don’t actually think there’s anything that secret about it. It’s not a secret in the normal sense of the word, like a surprise party or family recipe is secret. And it’s not a trade secret or other hidden trick of the trade, where only the person pulling off the magic trick really knows how it works.
It’s maybe closer to a secret in the sense that Santa is a secret—that while everyone knows that Santa isn’t precisely real, there’s still something magical in acting as though he is. The kind of secret that, when you find someone who isn’t in on it yet, someone who still thinks Santa is real, you feel no need to correct them: we all know they’ll learn soon enough.
But this secret isn’t as warm and heartfelt as a mentor bringing gifts—no, it’s a bit darker than that, but equally instructive: the secret shame. The thing all of us have felt, at different times, but can never admit to one another, can never name, can never bring into the light of normal conversation or emotion. The knowledge that, no matter how much or how little you tried, you know you could have done more.
I feel it most keenly in the words of Steven Pressfield in Gates of Fire, an epic story about historic warriors. He writes, “The secret shame of the warrior, the knowledge within his own heart that he could have done better, done more, done it more swiftly or with less self persevering hesitation; this censure, always most pitiless when directed against oneself, gnawed unspoken and unrelieved at the mens guts. No decoration or prize of valor, not victory itself, could quell it entirely.”
Even reading those words, I can feel them, thinking back a day, a week, a month… Even in our brightest, most victorious days, there’s still a hint of the shadow there: the feeling you could have pushed that workout just a little bit harder, written just a few more words, pushed just a little bit further… And the empty sense, wondering Was it enough? Was it enough, when I still feel like I could do more?
There is no simple answer to that question—only this to keep in mind: that feeling is constant. The secret shame is a gift, an internal compass pointing you in the right direction, reminding you that while it is perhaps true that you could have done a little more, you have done enough. Walking away feeling like you could have given more is the cost of doing anything in the first place, and the thorn in your side reminding you to return to your quest once more.
It’s the not so secret shame. Yes, I could have written this better, could have spent more time polishing the prose, constructing the argument. I could have more carefully read Gates of Fire, or been more attentive to other books equally as gripping and important. There is so much more I could have done, and there is a secret shame in that…
But I’ve been in this business long enough to know it’s just the cost of business. So instead, I welcome the feeling, acknowledge it, and set down my pen—another day’s work well done, another day in the arena, another day confronting the secret shame.
May the road rise up to meet you!