The Backspace Was My Nemesis
The Backspace Was My Nemesis
Missed opportunities have a way of lingering in the quiet corners of the mind. Their whispers echo from past events, tinged with notes of regret, vying for attention until we pause to listen. One missed opportunity in particular captured my attention and inspired me to write this essay.
I joined a global community of chief marketing officers called CMO Coffee Talk. Every Friday, a couple hundred marketing leaders meet on a Zoom call to discuss a business issue. At the start of the session, new members are welcomed to introduce themselves. I was a newcomer but for some reason I didn't raise my hand to speak. I kept my video off. The excuse I told myself was that I was feeding a bottle to my newborn daughter.
Next Friday, there was another opportunity to introduce myself to the CMO group, and this time the host said, "it doesn't matter if you're eating a sandwich, working outside, or on a treadmill." (Someone was indeed on a treadmill.) "Come as you are," he said, as if speaking directly to me. Even though I was given permission (again) to unmute and speak, I hesitated and let the opportunity slip through my fingers (again). Last time I had an excuse, this time I didn’t. I sensed a whisper of regret.
Friday after next, I was granted a THIRD opportunity, but I STILL didn't introduce myself. Something was different this week, though. This session featured a special guest speaker Michelle Poler who gave a talk titled "Engaging Your Fears." Her presence radiated palpable courage as she detailed her journey of overcoming fear by undertaking a bold project: doing one thing that scared her every day for 100 days.
On her 100th day, she delivered a TEDTalk in person, in front of a live audience. But I wouldn't introduce myself to a virtual audience during that CMO Coffee Talk? I have two decades of marketing experience under my belt; I'm in good company. Yet for some reason I wouldn’t speak up.
On the surface, it may seem trivial. "What's the big deal? Who cares? Speak up. Just do it™." But if we dig deeper, even minor moments can reflect major truths worth examining. I find myself lured into that quiet corner of the mind to listen to those whispers of regretful missed opportunities. I ask: Why did I choose silence instead of offering a simple introduction?
This essay is a voyage into the heart of that question in search of truth.
Leveraging one's passion as a powerful equalizer
“When was the last time you examined your strengths and weaknesses?” I ask myself.
Mentors, gurus, coaches, managers, teachers — they speak and write about self-improvement and skill development. There's more advice and how-to's out there than one could acquire in a lifetime. I've read my share of self-development books, watched motivational talks, and completed personality tests. But I had not sincerely admitted to anyone, including myself, until now, that public speaking is (or was) a weakness of mine. Actually, forget "public speaking"; speaking in general is (or was) a weakness.
Though I’m not sure if one is born with a public-speaking weakness or if it is experience-borne, I believe that challenges can lead to self-discovery and eventually a newfound power.
Just as the shadow exists among the light, where there is weakness you may find strength. And so it is also time to recognize my passion and tap into it. Here I am, making it official, admitting it to myself and acknowledging it into the universe: I have strengths and one of them is writing—a skill I'm doubling down on, a powerful equalizer to overcome weakness.
I was in a meeting with the CEO and the rest of the leadership team discussing a new initiative and a job role that would focus on it. We spent three one-hour meetings talking about the role's goals and responsibilities, going back and forth, speaking on topic and off topic. There was much talk, but the finish line was out of sight. I found it challenging to keep track of all the ideas and contribute new ideas because the conversation moved so fast without taking a moment to examine the soundness of each. So I jumped in and said I would write a job description, despite the role not reporting to me. I thought a written job description would be a way to get everyone "on the same page” and create a fulcrum from which to base the next conversation. The following week, I shared the writing, the team appreciated it, we immediately moved to the next step in the hiring process, and the CEO personally thanked me.
While the spoken word is of course a pathway to ideation, I wasn't effective in orally managing the conversation, so I leveraged my passion of writing to equalize the field and lead the team.
Like glasses correcting blurred vision, writing is a way to clarify thoughts.
Writing helps improve the quality of thinking, which is intrinsically significant, because, just as philosopher king Marcus Aurelius said nearly two thousand years ago, "the happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts." From inner contemplation to outward expression, writing is a potent tool for clarity.
In the same way that losing eyesight might afford heightened hearing, perhaps for me writing is a strength because speaking is a weakness. Writing is the mortar that fills the gaps in oral communication. Indeed, writing can be a superpower—an equalizer, leveling the playing field, enabling virtually anyone to contribute ideas into the world.
Yet as much as I double-down on my passion, developing my craft of writing and honing in on my strength as a heroic superpower, I still experience a struggle, a resistance, something that holds me back. No matter what the medium is—a virtual Zoom call, an in-person team meeting, or threads on X—my voice remains suppressed.
Every story with a hero has its villainous counterpart. My villain lurks in the light, casting its shadow over me, following my every move. Its presence creates hairline fractures in the mortar that's supposed to strengthen my communication, hindering my ability to contribute my voice to the world. Within me there is something deeper than the realization of speaking being a weakness.
The backspace is the villain of my superpower
If you're reading this on a computer, look down. Do you see the Backspace key? It's seated above the Enter key. On cellphones the Backspace is aptly marked by the X symbol, again right above either the ✓ or ↵ or 🔍 keys.
Although the Backspace and Enter keys are close neighbors, like an Odd Couple their natures are starkly juxtaposed.
The Enter key is packed with potential energy, ready to help you harness the power of your thoughts. It breaks through resistance and unleashes your ideas, your stories, your messages. It's a catalyst of self expression. As you press the Enter key, your thoughts materialize into the physical world.
In contrast, the Backspace is filled with inertia and friction. It slows down one's thinking. The Backspace taunts, waiting to be pressed as its user overthinks, over-analyzes, doubts. It is an agent of resistance.
One key creates, the other destroys.
The Backspace is not inherently bad. It does serve a purpose. You press it to refine and polish your writing. However, it is a tool that, if not wielded with care and control, can become a weapon of self-sabotage. As much as I value writing, as much as I work on honing my passion of writing into a superpower, the Backspace persists as a villainous opponent, suppressing my voice.
Over time, the Backspace became my nemesis.
I have constant inclinations to write, and initially the ideas flow freely, but the backspace lurks, making its presence known at the most inopportune times. When I sit down to write, the words begin to land on the page, but then I think, this doesn't sound right, it might not make sense, I could phrase it better, this isn't good enough to share on social media. So I tap the backspace key. I rewrite the idea. I tap the backspace again, slightly harder, as I rewrite and rewrite. Again. And again.
Sometimes I take one word forward and two words backward.
Starting points of essays, half-baked, sit on a virtual shelf waiting to be finished and unleashed. Self-expression restrained, imprisoned. Why do I tend to write and rewrite, rather than write and write?
Why does the backspace create resistance and silence my voice? As I reflect on the time I held back from introducing myself on CMO Coffee Talk, it becomes clear that the "backspace" is not confined to the keyboard.
The backspace transcends the physical realm
Early in my career, I became a manager of a software marketing team. I had no formal leadership training, but I was responsible for the people that reported to me. I felt pressure to always be the expert. To consistently provide the right answers. To validate the leadership role I had been given. In most instances, I did have an answer, which reinforced that expectation to be the expert. But over time, as the questions became more complicated and the stakes got higher, situations arose where I did not have an immediate answer. I learned to say, "I'll get back to you on that", which bought me time, but as I continued to feel a compulsion to solve problems and provide correct answers, I also got better at asking clarifying questions. I would listen intently to how people responded to those questions, paying close attention not just to what they said, but also their vocal tone and body language.
I recognized I had an ability to intuit what others were thinking and feeling. Embracing that newly discovered skill, I grew particularly alert to how people interacted in social settings. It's like my mind would become a vigilant observer of the intricate dance between what one person says and how another reacts. You see, long before I began doubling down on my passion for writing, I apparently had developed a different strength: empathy.
But the problem—as I've come to realize—is that empathy can be a double-edged sword, a blessing and a curse. On one side, empathy invokes compassion and enriches my relationships. On the other side, it's a distraction, because being so in tune with others' thoughts and emotions and reactions can throw me off course when I'm communicating. Empathy, a skill I once considered a boon, had transmuted into a bane.
Speaking in groups of more than a few people amplifies the challenge as a sea of eyes peer into my very being. Every listener tunes into my every word, each reacting from behind the lens of their unique worldview. There’s a cascade effect: I first notice a slight furrow in someone's brow, a fleeting look of confusion, or a nod of agreement. I react to their reactions. I then preemptively adjust my message based on my interpretations of the social cues. Much like deleting and rewriting words in an essay, my speech undergoes editing before the words dare to roll off my tongue. It's like wrestling with an internal wordsmith.
Sometimes I take one thought forward and two thoughts backward.
It's as if my mind harbors an invisible backspace button. With its own superpower of quantum proportion, the backspace's influence exists in multiple places: not only in the tactile world as a key on the keyboard, but also in the psyche.
It therefore begs the question, what is the true nature of the backspace?
Halfway through this essay of self-exploration, I refine the original question posed in the introduction from "Why did I choose silence?" to "What is it that holds me back from sharing my voice with the world?"
Understanding what the backspace truly is
But first, why would I label an inanimate object—something that doesn't even have the capacity to know I exist—as my nemesis and write an entire essay about it? I think the answer lies somewhere at the intersection of confusion and fear.
Fear is a byproduct of unknowing; a consequence of a lack of understanding the truth. Assigning the labels of "backspace" and "nemesis" was an attempt to personify and make sense out of what I didn't understand. It wasn't until I embarked on an exploration of seeking truth—through the power of writing, through the self-reflective act of creating this essay—that I began to know the true nature of "the backspace" that I have called out in this essay so many times.
I now understand that the backspace is a manifestation of insecurity. It is a form of self-censorship born of self-doubt. A tool for self-preservation, rooted in fear.
I realize I cared so much about what other people think that I had been squandering my authenticity. Insecurity stole my focus, paralyzing my own expression. I was attached to the identity of an expert, and my ego didn't want people to think I wasn't the expert. I didn't want to feel stupid or rejected. Nor did I want to say something to make someone else feel stupid or rejected. I didn't want to upset or hurt people or expose anyone as an imposter.
I didn't want to fail to meet the imagined idealistic expectations that other people may (or may not) have had of me.
I had developed a kind of performance anxiety, a heavy burden that suffocated my creative self. In some cases, I would edit my voice in pursuit of excellence, sweating the small details that didn't matter. In other cases, I wouldn't even attempt to share my ideas at all. Is that what perfectionism is? Not that I was striving to be better than others, but that I was scared to be put under a microscope, exposing my flaws and exposing myself to criticism.
Counterintuitively, focusing too much on what others think is a kind of self-centeredness. It is the ego attempting to be infallible, flawless, perfect. A balance between humility and self-esteem is achieved not by silently seeking approval, but through understanding one’s intrinsic worth and contributions to others, coupled with an acceptance of one’s imperfections and a commitment to authenticity.
The backspace is the antithesis of authenticity, a fabrication of fear. It is a defense mechanism manufactured by my mind to prevent people from possibly disliking me. But eliminating the risk of being disliked is like stepping up to the plate and never swinging the bat—what's the point?
Why delete the backspace?
Inadvertently I had adopted a strategy of "if you don't play the game, you can't lose." To tactically speak or write only when I thought I had something worthy of sharing. But if you don't play, you also can't win or learn or grow. For self-expression to exist, there's an inherent risk in appearing like a novice, upsetting someone, offending people, or boring at least one person. And that's okay.
I wrote this essay during Foster's Summer writing cohort, but I began conceptualizing it several months before during the Spring cohort. It was then that a facilitator posed a warm-up prompt "What's your resistance?" and said we wouldn't share our responses.
Here's what I wrote:
Deciding whether to speak. The heart beats faster. Chest tightens. As the mouse hovers on unmute, the room gets warmer, so why am I frozen? A thousand eyes on me, yet no one is looking in my direction. I've scripted my thoughts to perfection. Rehearsed in my head, loop after loop. The heart beats doubly fast, as if a lion is chasing me. But I'm outrunning the resistance: I'm ready, I'll do it. Time to click and unmute. Ready to pull the trigger. The conversation moves to the next topic. My thoughts remain locked up, ostracized from the world. Next time, next time I'll speak up.
The above snippet was written in a stream of consciousness, in a matter of five minutes, without editing. I like its poetic flavor. It might very well be my favorite part of this essay. But what's most interesting to me is that I would not have written it intentionally to be part of this essay (let alone written at all) if it wasn't for the facilitator saying we wouldn't be sharing it. Since I wrote it while thinking no one would ever read it, there was no resistance. Each word, each sentence, came to me unabated. For a brief five minutes, I was free from the backspace.
Beyond journaling in private, however, fear and insecurity still have a way of resurfacing their role in suppressing one's authenticity:
- Communication edited in real-time to avoid appearing foolish puts one at a loss for words, paradoxically making one appear foolish.
- Spontaneity that enlivens us falls flat when we feel the pressure to communicate flawlessly.
- Works of creativity that are overly criticized by oneself such that there's nothing left for others to criticize puts novel ideas on the brink of extinction.
- Conformity used as camouflage to blend in with the masses and avoid confrontation fades one's unique identity, resulting in our contributions remaining in the shadow of the person we aspire to be.
Holding back one's voice is like being in a flowing river but not making an effort to swim. There's nothing wrong with just observing and experiencing what's around you, but how much of your potential remains untapped, hidden from the rest of the world, when you don't actively participate and contribute?
That snippet above acts as a tiny reminder: What art might we create if we didn't care so much about what others think? To put art in the world that is perfect, that is infallible and criticism-proof, is to put no art in the world at all.
I could tear the backspace key from the keyboard, stuff it in a box, lock it, and toss it in a blazing fire of rebellion, but that would be of no effect given the backspace is a figment of my imagination.
How does one break free of the mind's imprisonment?
How I've deleted the backspace button
Fears and insecurities weigh us down like we're carrying a backpack full of heavy rocks. Traveling through life with such a burden slows us down, making each step more strenuous than necessary, inhibiting our latent abilities. As I grow and expose myself to situations that make me feel uncomfortable, the backspace seems to gradually become less present in my life, one of those rocks disappears, and the load becomes lighter.
Over time, I've gotten better at writing and public speaking and I've discovered more courage to share my thoughts with the world. I started a newsletter that grew into hundreds of subscribers organically. I've done in-person presentations, like the one I did in front of a couple hundred people, when I displayed a QR code on the theater screen behind me five years before Coinbase did it in a Superbowl ad. Whether it’s a matter of nature or nurture, I think self-confidence inevitably increases with age and experience and by stepping out of the infamous comfort zone. Gradually, doubt mutates into confidence.
Throughout my years, and as part of creating this essay, I've reflected on some of the ways that have worked for me to gracefully erase the backspace. I believe it is a matter of mindlessness and an understanding of the truth that are most effective in the deletion of doubt.
Mindfulness is a trend particularly in the productivity space, but I think it's a misnomer. My mind is already full. It overflows with thoughts: self-doubt, self-criticism, self-censorship, and assessments of other people's thoughts. The mind is too often a crowded room of competing thoughts. Murmurs of past failures take up space. The mind seems to always be full. An empty mind is the preferred state. A place where the whispers of missed opportunities and regret no longer echo. Silence. Pure freedom from the mind.
Because it is the mind that has imagined the backspace in the first place, it is the mind that needs to be silenced. To silence the mind, first the mind needs to be understood. A pursuit of knowledge eliminates confusion and magnifies truth. Understanding the truth eliminates fear. Where there is no fear, there is no backspace.
I believe the hidden path to deleting the backspace is to not try to delete it. By not desiring to delete the backspace, I have effectively erased its hold on me, freeing myself from its tyranny.
This might very well be the most illuminating part of the essay. It is the point at which I acknowledge the backspace isn’t my nemesis. What I've found to be most enlightening is that the act of identifying and understanding the backspace, but not forcefully trying to defeat it, is what has been most effective. Self-realization through the process of writing this essay helped me to arrive at this conclusion.
Originally the title of this piece was "The Backspace is My Nemesis" but I have since edited it to be "The Backspace Was My Nemesis".
After three missed opportunities to present myself on CMO Coffee Talk to a couple hundred of the world's top marketing leaders, I vowed to introduce myself, even if I was feeding my newborn daughter on camera (or eating a sandwich while on a treadmill). I prepared ahead of time by writing down a few bullet points about myself. I was ready. Confident. Excited.
But as fate would have it, the hosts had temporarily stopped inviting newcomers to speak. Perhaps because no one had been raising their hand to introduce themselves? I was bummed, feeling a sense of regret, hearing those soft murmurs of missed opportunities echo and get louder and louder in the mind.
In a Foster writers group session, fellow writers Russell Smith and Jude Klinger asked, "would you be able to ask the host if you could introduce yourself?" Of course! (Sometimes the solution is obvious, but only after a friend helps shine a light on it.) I reached out to the community host, and at the start of the next meeting, the question was asked to the audience, "are there any newcomers that would like to introduce themselves?"
It felt like the question was directed at me. Before my heart could beat faster, before the lion could pounce, I raised my hand, unmuted my microphone, and glanced at my written bullet points.
After my introduction, a few other people raised their hands to introduce themselves, as if I had given permission for others to speak up. After the session, at least a half dozen chief marketers reached out to me, including the community group leader:
A few months later during another CMO Coffee Talk session, right before finishing this essay, special guest speaker Kris Kelso led a discussion on imposter syndrome. It was eye-opening to hear a majority of chief marketers in attendance—those same accomplished individuals to whom I once hesitated to introduce myself—all candidly share their struggles with imposter syndrome. I realized my experiences with self-doubt were not only common, but also shared by those I admire. Indeed I find myself in good company.
Knowing we’re not alone—and more importantly, knowing our truths—can help us overcome fear and steer us toward the deletion of doubt, for the joy in doing what enlivens us far surpasses any risks we face.