When I was 12 years old I went to a friend’s house for a sleepover. Let’s call him Tom, not for any made up or privacy-based reason but because that was his actual name.
Tom and I always made the most of every sleepover. We went for a bike ride, played some backyard cricket, kicked a football around, and climbed some trees. By late afternoon we had really built up an appetite and Tom’s mum kindly asked me if I liked spaghetti...
HELL YEAH I LIKE SPAGHETTI!
Ok maybe as a 12 year old I was less obnoxious (I hope) and more polite but either way I gave an enthusiastic reply in the affirmative for spaghetti and that was that. Dinner was decided and Tom’s mum started on the preparation while we continued to play.
Half an hour later dinner time had arrived and we raced to the table. I sat down and noticed the table had been set with a fork and a spoon. A spoon? We must be having icecream for dessert.
Tom’s dad and older brother joined us for a nice family dinner. Tom’s mum made a comment about hoping I liked the dinner and I assured her again that I would because I loved spaghetti.
To prove it I grabbed my fork and dug it deep into my bowl and brought a big forkful of spaghetti back to my mouth...
Hey why is this pasta so long?
How do I get it to stay on my fork?
What the hell are you people doing swirling your fork into the spoon?
It turns out that my idea of spaghetti was not quite the same as what Tom and his family thought.
My mum, bless her, had always broken up the spaghetti when she cooked it. This made it easier for us to eat with just a fork and probably help kept mum’s sanity when trying to feed three messy boys.
And we literally ate spaghetti once a week. Every week. In my sporty household we firmly believed in carbo-loading before the weekend so most Friday nights involved big portions of spaghetti. I loved it.
But I had never learned the ‘normal’ way of eating spaghetti. I never even knew it came in a form longer than seven centimetres and I certainly didn’t know the technique of using a fork to swirl it around in the spoon before eating. This was new and uncharted territory for me.
What did I do? How did I get through the dinner with Tom’s family?
I struggled along for a little, barely getting any spaghetti in my mouth, and I started feeling embarrassed. I could see Tom’s mum watching me and I felt that she was probably thinking “You said you liked spaghetti you little liar”.
In reality, being my stand-in mum for the night, she probably just wanted to make sure I was comfortable and well fed, but I felt so scared and embarrassed and I didn’t know what to do.
So I lied. I told them I felt sick and need to lie down. I spent the next 1-2 hours pretending I was unwell just so I didn’t have to face my embarrassment of not knowing how to eat spaghetti. Looking back I think Tom’s mum knew it wasn’t the truth. Maybe when I suddenly felt better at 8pm and asked for a peanut butter sandwich gave me away.
This whole story sounds so inconsequential that you probably think if this was a difficult moment in my childhood then I had a pretty good life growing up. And you are completely right. My childhood was pretty good, but here I am almost two decades later and this spaghetti memory is crystal clear to me. That feeling of absolute embarrassment is so vivid that even while writing this article I felt a surge of deep fear and anxiety much like I did as a 12 year old.
But I like to learn from my experiences and even something that seems so minor in the grand scheme of things can have significant meaning and valuable lessons.
Here are the insights I gained from the day that I discovered I didn’t know how to eat spaghetti…
Insight #1: Be honest
This is simple and obvious but it has two impacts.
If I had not lied to Tom’s family I would not have had to spend the night pretending to be sick. Lying resulted in me sacrificing my happiness so that I could maintain the lie.
Lying also meant I was misunderstood and unable to be helped. If I had just been honest then Tom’s family would have known what was going on. They could have figured out a way for me to eat spaghetti without feeling like a complete fool.
Honesty prevents these problems. Honesty means you don’t have to pretend to be something you are not or sacrifice who you are just to maintain an image. Honesty means you are more likely to be well understood and more likely to receive valuable input from those around you.
Always be honest.
Insight #2: Ask questions
Seriously guys what the fuck are you doing with those spoons?!
I've already told you I was a polite 12 year old so you know I would never have asked that question but the point remains. If I had just asked a bloody question then the whole situation would have been resolved differently.
The short-term embarrassment of asking a question is much less than the long-term embarrassment of not understanding something.
The second positive for asking questions is that just because everyone else thinks or does something a certain way doesn’t make it the only right way to do something. There are always many ways to skin a cat, or in this case, eat spaghetti. You might know one way that works for you but you never learn about the other ways if you don’t ask the questions.
Always ask questions.
Insight #3: Don’t worry about what other people think
Do you think Tom’s family remembers this story? Do you think when they get together to reminisce at family events they often recount ‘The Spaghetti Story’ and laugh at how that stupid 12 year old kid couldn’t eat spaghetti?
Oh god I hope not.
The truth is that people don’t think about you that much. What seems big and important to you wont warrant a second thought to them so it’s pointless to spend lots of time and effort worrying about what they think. Let other people have their opinions and focus on what you think of yourself.
Don’t worry about what other people think.
Learning from the past
These lessons did not come to me that day, that week, or even that year. No, I struggled through my teenage years by lying through my teeth in potentially awkward situations in the hope of avoiding embarrassment.
In fact I carried this attitude all the way into my early adulthood. My default behaviour was a mixture of fearing embarrassment and compulsive lying as a mechanism to protect me from said embarrassment. I ruined many friendships and relationships with this destructive behaviour and, ultimately, I was not very happy.
It is only years later that I can look back and see the error of my ways. It is only now, after years of working hard on building my confidence and establishing happiness with my own identity, that I can see my past actions in such a clear light. It is only now that I can look back and gain such valuable insights into who I am and the journey I have taken so far in life.
And that is the point of self development, personal growth, or whatever is the latest new-age mumbo-jumbo catchphrase. It is a constant and on-going process that you undergo for the rest of your life.
You never finish learning and you never finish growing. There is always something from your life - a key event, a funny story, a broken relationship - that you can look back on, learn from, and use to grow yourself into a better person.
What insights has your past given you?