Nic Gardner’s Proust Questionnaire

I’m a latecomer to this challenge, but better late than never!

In the late 1800s, the French writer Marcel Proust popularised a set of questions that became known as “The Proust Questionnaire.” Since then, writers, interviewers, and others use the Questionnaire to get to know a bit about people.

Some believe the answers provide insight into the answerer’s personality; others believe they’re just for fun. Whatever you believe, here are my answers.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Having everything I need for a safe, stable life, the ability to earn treats and interesting experiences if I work for them, and enough extra time and resources to help others.

What is your greatest fear?

To be helpless, unable to help or protect myself or others.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

I get frustrated with my own self-doubt, which manifests as imposter syndrome. Objectively, I’m a reasonably competent, experienced, qualified, motivated, and intelligent human being. Despite that, I’m just pretending to be a grown-up. I live in hope that, if I fool people for long enough, one day I’ll become a proper grown-up.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?

Wilful ignorance and closed-mindedness, which often go together.

Which living person do you most admire?

This changes every few years. John Fadely is one of many excellent captains I’ve worked with. Even though he’s American, I admire his ability to keep calm and carry on.

Despite a heavy workload, he always found time to answer my questions — and those of any other crew member — patiently, and never made me feel like I was wasting his time. Even when things were going wrong, he always appeared calm, gave clear and concise orders, and listened to input and feedback.

When things are going wrong, I try to respond as I think he would in that situation.

What is your greatest extravagance?

The money I spend on experiences and education that are apparently of no practical value, but are far more valuable to me than collections of “Stuff”.

What is your current state of mind?

Anxious, but positive. Anxious about the state of the world, and what will happen next; positive because I feel confident that my life experiences and education have given me a good foundation for handling whatever comes my way.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

Steadfastness. While it can be a virtue, I see steadfast people clinging to false or limiting beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

On what occasion do you lie?

When necessary to protect myself or others from harm. Where possible, I lie by omission, as I’m a terrible liar.

What do you most dislike about your appearance?

I’m fortunate enough to be comfortable in my skin. Since I have to pick something, it would be great if my hair would lie flat and behave itself; however, it does give me a good excuse to wear headbands and bandannas to keep it out of my face, so it’s not all bad.

Which living person do you most despise?

In determining criminal liability, two things matter:

  • mens rea (the guilty mind)
  • actus rea (the guilty act)

For me, the same applies to the people I despise. If someone is too ignorant or unintelligent to understand what they’re doing, I avoid them. I pity them and help their victims if I can, but I don’t despise them.

As I’m not interested in becoming a target, I won’t name a single person in this question. The people I despise have the following characteristics:

  • they are in a position of power, be that social, political, or some other hierarchy;
  • they are intelligent enough to understand the consequences of their actions; and
  • they choose to use their power to harm those with less power than them through deliberate actions or deliberate omissions.

Unfortunately, in recent years the number of high-profile people who meet these criteria seems to be growing.

What is the quality you most like in a person?

I’ve combined two questions here, as the original separated men and women, but my answer is the same for both: I like people who are open to new ideas, experiences, and perspectives.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

As my mobile phone’s autocorrect tries to start every sentence with, “It’s fine to say no, but…”, I suspect I use that phrase more often than most.

For “real” writing, my editor keeps flagging, “From xxxx to yyyy,” constructions in my reports. I really need to find a different way to work examples into my writing.

What or who is the greatest love of your life?

I love being at sea. I love the freedom, the weird combination of isolation, crowding, individual responsibility, and teamwork required to get a ship from A to B. I even love that moment when the alarm sounds or something breaks, and I realise King Neptune’s testing us again to see if we’re worthy of being allowed to live to sail another day.

When and where were you happiest?

Pause for a moment. Imagine you’ve been trying for ages to master something, to understand a difficult concept, to perform a challenging skill. You’ve been struggling for what seems forever, you’re fed up, and you decide to give it one more try before you give up.

Suddenly, it all comes together: you understand the concept, you carry out the skill flawlessly. That’s the moment I’m happiest: that fleeting instant when the light bulb comes on, and it all makes sense.

Which talent would you most like to have?

I would love to be at ease and be able to put others at ease in social situations. Life would be so much simpler if I could fit in, and be confident in my ability to make small talk in a group without offending anyone. It’s a skill I practice consciously, and I’m improving slowly, but I’m still waiting for my lightbulb moment.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I can’t help seeing the other side of things. I actually like that most of the time; however, sometimes it’s just inconvenient, so I’d like to turn it off.

As a teenager, a captain once exclaimed, “Nic, you need to understand: tact isn’t just a word to use in scrabble!” At the time, I saw clear divisions in the world: right and wrong, land and sea, night and day. Life was nice and simple, and it was easy to find a comfortable, smug certainty. Although, to be fair, that’s also know as, “being a teenager.”

Since then, everything in the world has become a constantly shifting spectrum of twilight and tidal zones. I sometimes envy the people who think there are clear divisions between right and wrong, land and sea, white and black. I’d like to see the world through their eyes for a little while.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Surviving my teenage years. At some point, my friends placed bets on what age I’d get myself killed doing something stupid. No-one bet past 25.

If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?

A dolphin. While they certainly have some unsavoury behaviours, they always look like they’re having fun.

Where would you most like to live?

At home in New Zealand. I’m in the privileged position of having been able to choose where to live. Even though I don’t get home very often, it’s still home.

What is your most treasured possession?

It’s a toss-up between my health and my brain. If I were unhealthy with a functioning brain, I could still (in theory) learn and contribute to society, or at least entertain myself.

If I were healthy, but brain dead, I would only be useful as an organ donor. Therefore, my brain is my most treasured possession, even though my organs might become someone else’s treasured possessions after I die.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

  • Watching someone I loved die of cancer, and being helpless.
  • Knowing my brother would one day kill himself, and being helpless.
  • Watching people I care deeply about travelling difficult paths, and being helpless.

What is your favourite occupation?

Seafaring, obviously. If I can combine it with helping people directly rather than just being a cog in a functioning world economy, that’s a bonus.

Oh, you meant the traditional meaning of “occupation?” That’s just as easy to answer: my favourite occupation is learning. There’s so much to learn in the world, and the more I learn, the longer my “To Learn” list gets!

What is your most marked characteristic?

According to a completely unscientific poll of friends and colleagues, I’m known for clear, precise, and factual communication. And over-enthusiasm.

What do you most value in your friends?

I used to believe I wasn’t in a bubble, then I identified my bubble: open people. In my friends, I value openness to new ideas and experiences, and a willingness to discuss and debate those ideas.

Who are your favourite writers?

There are too many names to list. Since childhood, I’ve regularly reread books by:

  • Catherine Jinks
  • Emma Bull
  • Tamora Pierce
  • Marion Zimmer Bradley
  • Mercedes Lackey
  • Anne McCaffrey
  • David Gemmel
  • David Eddings
  • Le Modessit

Escapism is the name of the game!

Who is your hero of fiction?

Alanna, from Tamora Pierce’s excellent “Song of the Lioness” series. As a kid, I wanted to be just like her; even now, she’s one of the role models I lean on when things get tough.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

Captain Bligh. This may seem like a strange choice, but bear with me.

The mutineers set Bligh adrift in a small, overloaded boat in the middle of the Pacific. It was more likely than not that he and everyone with him would die. Despite that, more than half the crew wanted to go with him, and some were forced to stay behind.

If you were a crew member on a ship with a tyrannical captain, would you board the boat with him, or stay on the ship? From that perspective, does the “popular” version of the story make sense?

I aspire to be the type of captain whose crew would board the boat with me (and, preferably, whose crew wouldn’t mutiny in the first place!)

Who are your heroes in real life?

None of my real-life heroes are famous (yet!), but I want to be like them when I eventually grow up. Here are two:

Geoff Thomas — Merchant Navy Captain, and friend
“We’re just closing the last hatches, captain, then we’re ready to -”
The reverberating crash echoed through the ship, cutting off my last word. Unflustered, the captain told me to go and see what that was, then turned to the agent and said, “Wait here a moment, we might need to postpone the pilot.”
Even after discovering that the crew had derailed the gantry crane, dropped a hatch cover into the hold, and punctured a fuel tank, the captain didn’t shout or swear, he calmly worked alongside us to stabilise the situation.

Ali Herbert — Nurse, humanitarian worker, deckhand, and friend
Ali is many things. She’s spent decades volunteering in war zones, disaster zones, and humanitarian missions, and is always willing to lend a hand, and give anything a go.

What are your favourite names?

I don’t know how to answer this one. I don’t have any favourite names. My friends’ names have positive connotations, and bullies and assholes’ names have negative connotations, but that’s not the names’ fault!

What is it that you most dislike?

Closed-mindedness and wilful ignorance. And olives and vegemite — I’m firmly convinced they’re inedible.

What is your greatest regret?

My brother, who was struggling with mental health issues, reached out to me for help during COVID. He asked to come and stay with me. At the time, I was stranded in the UK in an unstable living situation, about to join a ship for 7 months; he was in Australia.

I said no. He killed himself 6 weeks later. I can’t see what I could have done, but I regret not being able to do something.

How would you like to die?

Either peacefully in my sleep after a long, healthy life; or quickly and painlessly while doing something useful.

What is your motto?

I’d say, “If it harms none, do as you will,” while taking the broadest possible meaning of harm.
On the other hand, actions speak louder than words. According to a close friend my actions say, “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.”

If you found this interesting, try it yourself.

If you’d like to connect, I’m @SeaRover on Mastodon.

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