Joy in the Workplace, Part Two

Last week I posted about negativity and the systematic self-sabotage we engage in when we allow it to destroy our peace of mind. Today, I want to discuss an even more insidious threat to a joyful work experience—exaggerated modesty.

Blowing Your Own Horn

So many of my early childhood memories involve being accused of bragging, blowing my own horn, or just plain showing off. I was saddled with the twin burdens of “enormous potential” and “minimal social skills.” As a child, I never quite grasped the social niceties involved in life—I innocently thought if you knew the answer to a question, you answered the question. I also thought if you knew how to do something that needed to be done, you did it. If you were born with a talent, you used it.

It took a while for me to learn that there were times to admit you could do something or that you knew something, and there were times when admitting such things was a sure-fire way to social rejection.

Nobody Likes a Know-It-All

Somewhere along the line, I internalized the myth that if you’re too smart, too talented, or too clever, not only will people hate you, but you will be ignored in favor of people “who need more help.” Decades before I understood the concept of “learned helplessness,” I had figured out that if you were precocious, the teacher either set you up as an example for the rest of the kids (aka, Instant Unpopular Kid) or sat you in a corner with next semester’s text book so that you could teach yourself while the “slower kids” got the teacher’s attention.

At home, it was not much better. No matter how many A’s I brought home, I never got as much attention as when a sibling would get a high grade, merely because I was expected to bring home good grades. I was also punished for Bs and Cs, while they were merely expected with my siblings.

They’re Not Trying to Destroy Your Life, Really….

Did teachers and parents try to pit kids and siblings against each other in a battle for attention and praise? Of course not. Most of these adults had the best of intentions, wanting to build up self-esteem for struggling kids and keep the ones who excelled interested and challenged.

Unfortunately, that usually wasn’t the result. Instead of strong, challenged, engaged adults, we wound up with several generations of adults who either feared being stupid or hid their abilities under a basket for fear of being rejected. This policy of impossible expectations for some and significantly lowered expectations for others cheated all out of the chance to fully explore our abilities.

Your Boss is Not Your Teacher

It’s funny how similar the modern office environment is to fourth grade. You have the Teacher’s Pets, who always seem to get special treatment from the boss. You have the Show-Offs, who are obviously bucking for promotion and don’t care who they step on in their mad dash to the corner office. You have the TroubleMakers, those snotty wisecrackers who barely stay one step ahead of termination but who always seem to have an aura of cool around them. And finally, you have “The Rest of U”s, those employees who aren’t stars and who aren’t losers—the ones who show up, do what’s expected and no more, get their paychecks and go home.

Very quickly in the office environment, each individual is sorted into their category. The Teacher’s Pets and Show-Offs get the raises and the promotions, while the TroubleMakers and The Rest of Us hang around, grousing and complaining and gossiping.

Nice Guys Never Win

Perhaps the most damaging and insidious myth about success is the one that claims Nice Guys Never Win. Women especially internalize this myth—anything even remotely resembling ambition is reserved for Bitches and Users. Taking credit for the work you do and the skills you have is bragging. Blowing your own horn is for Show Offs and those Other People—not of “Us.”

By clinging to that desperate need to be liked and accepted, ingrained in us as children by well-meaning teachers and parents, most of “Us” tolerate situations we’d never dream of tolerating for someone we loved.

Helping Everyone But Myself

For decades, I’ve been the Go-To Gal for resumes and letters of recommendation. No matter where I’m working, it doesn’t take long for people to realize I’m darned clever with the written word. So when a coworker is looking to beef up their resume for an internal (or sometimes external) job posting, their resume usually winds up on my desk. And more often than not, it leaves my desk infinitely better than it arrived. I can’t count the number of recommendations I’ve written for people who eventually went on to outrank me in the same company. I just have a talent for seeing people’s strengths and then putting them into a cohesive, persuasive format.

The 1990s gave us a TV show called Charmed about the magical Halliwell Sisters (aka The Charmed Ones). These gals were smart, sexy, and massively powerful witches. Oh, and yeah, one more thing—they couldn’t use their powers for personal gain. Sounds like the story of my life.

A few weeks back, I was given a self-review sheet to fill out for my annual review. I remember looking at it and thinking back on all the things I’d accomplished in 2010. Then I thought of all the times I’d made others look great, and it hit me like a freight train that I never did the same thing for myself.

For my entire work career, the words of my teachers and well-meaning adults haunted the back of my mind. “Don’t show off,” they whispered in my ears. “You have gifts they don’t have—you should help them instead of blowing your own horn.” I stared at that paper, and the voices just got louder. “It’s cheating. You can make anyone look good—if you did that for yourself, you’d have an unfair advantage.” I blinked several times and put the paper away. But the voices didn’t stop. “Who do you think you are, anyway? Nobody likes a bragger. You think you’re so smart, don’t you? Sure, you do a lot of work, and you’re really good at it, but you’re supposed to do a lot of work and be really good at it. It’s easier for you—there’s no real value in it. It’s not like you have to try that hard—you just know how to do it faster and more efficiently.” Blah, blah, blah…

It’s Not Bragging if It’s True

Fortunately for me, I have my own personal life coach in my partner, Fey. Our sessions usually take place in the car, driving around enjoying the natural beauty of Kentucky in the summer. Fey could tell I was concerned, and asked me to tell her what was going on.

When I voiced my fears and doubts to her, she patiently tried to put things in perspective for me. It went something like this:

“But Fey, I’m really good with words. It feels like cheating when I use it to help myself.”

A long pause, mercifully free of eye-rolling, then Fey started:

“If an athlete with great natural abilities wins awards and prizes, is he or she cheating?”

Well, no.

“If a singer with a remarkable voice sells a zillion records and becomes a superstar, is he or she cheating?”

Well, duh, no.

“So, Deb, why exactly is it cheating for you to use your writing abilities to help you get a better performance review?”

Um, because it’s bragging.

“It’s not bragging if it’s true.”

We’re Not in Fourth Grade Anymore, Are We?

That night in the car with Fey, I came to a profound realization. We’re not children anymore. We’re not at the mercy of our teachers and parents and peers anymore, are we? Even if people still grouse and gossip and roll their eyes, there is just no reality in which being ashamed of your abilities is cool.

The only thing we ever really have to answer to is the voice in our head, the one that asks what you have done today, what have you accomplished, what did you do to make things better?

I’d like to say I just got over myself and took a full-page ad touting my abilities to the world. But I’m not there yet. The lessons of the past are hard to overcome, especially the ones that left you mocked and ostracized and shamed by your peers.

But I did manage to take that self-review and fill it out as if it were for another person, not me. I was honest. I left nothing out. I put everything in the best light I could, maximizing strengths and minimizing weaknesses without ever once being dishonest. I didn’t think about who’s feelings might get hurt—why would anyone get hurt by the truth? I didn’t think about who would think I was bragging—it’s not bragging if it’s true.

When I finished, I read the self-review, still seeing it as somebody else’s story.

And it was pretty good.

Making Peace with Your Gifts

At some point in the game, we all have to make peace with our gifts and our struggles. In the work place, we can’t afford to think like school children anymore. We have to be adults and take
responsibility, not just for our mistakes but also for our victories. We have to get past that school-yard mentality that says “different is dangerous” and “smart is for losers.”

There is no special pass to Heaven for workers who suffer in silence. There is no great reward at the end of the road for hiding your light under a basket. All there is is resentment and a mediocre career.

I don’t think I will ever stop helping others tell their story in the best way possible. I don’t think there’s a limit on the amount of success that is available, and helping my friend to succeed does not hurt me in the least. But I’m not a Halliwell, and there is no punishment for using my own abilities for personal gain. I can still be one of the good guys, even if I do brag…just a little.

Peace to you until next time,



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