More often than I want to admit, I’ve found myself in the awkward position of having someone ask me for advice, when they obviously are in no space to even consider change. The friend who knows she needs to leave her abusive boyfriend, the one who sees the writing on the wall at her job but is too paralyzed to start putting her resume together, even the person who is too afraid to go to the doctor to find out what that odd growth on her elbow might be…. One time or another, they’ve all wound up on my doorstep, terrified, begging for guidance, but stubbornly resisting any suggestion I give them to help improve their situation.
We’ve all been in this place before. I spent my entire 20s in this space—land-locked in a pit of indecision, doubt, and utter terror at even the smallest amount of change. Intellectually, people living a “Resistance Existence” know they need to make a change. Some can even get plans together, knock out a course of action, and even buy a pair of awesome sneakers to make the distance they’ve got to travel more comfortable and stylish.
But that’s as far as it goes.
When the gun fires, they’re left standing at the gate in their expensive Nikes, unable to even take the first step to improve their life.
What is it about change that is so terrifying to some of us we would rather stay in a bad situation than take that risk, even when it’s obviously a positive change?
Warning: Danger, Will Robinson!
- Fear of Failure: This is pretty obvious. Nobody wants to try and fail. But when you are caught in resistance, this fear can keep you from trying even the simplest or most positive changes.
- Fear of Pain, Discomfort, and Effort: Making changes such as starting a new career or getting into shape can be intimidating. Your fear of future physical, emotional, or psychological pain and discomfort may be such that the known discomfort of your current situation seems mild in comparison.
- Fear of Success: This is a big one for me, and a particularly insidious demon to face when manifesting change. In the dark world of resistance, success makes you a target. Expectations loom larger than life, and the fall back to failure seems much less deadly if you fall from your boring present rather than from a grand and glorious future.
- Fear of Criticism: The truth is, except in the rarest of cases, most of us are much more harshly critical of ourselves than we are of others. So naturally, we think that others will be equally critical of us if we risk putting ourselves out there. Fear of criticism and low self-esteem are a crushing combo when it comes to new ventures.
- Fear of the New: “Better the devil I know than the devil I don’t know.” It’s a stupid saying, but so many of us live our lives in this space. Yeah, we know our job sucks, but what if I try and get myself into an even worse situation? Sure, I’m bored in this curriculum, but if I change majors I might really hate what I have to do. And let’s not even talk about the new computer system—why can’t we go back to the old system?
Are You a Closeted (or Not-So-Closeted) Resister?
It’s easy to look at the list above and see these traits in others. But it’s harder to see them in yourself. Most of us who are in a situation we want to (but can’t) change tend to believe we are doing everything we can to improve our lives. But maybe we’re not doing as much as we think. If you are looking for change, but aren’t making any headway, ask yourself these questions.
Am I embracing my excuses?
When I was still living back home, I knew that my life would never get better if I stayed in Louisiana. Not that I have anything against my home state, but it was too conservative and too comfortable there for me to ever fully explore my true experience of life. But whenever anyone would suggest I’d move out of state to a new atmosphere, I always had an excuse. I don’t have enough job experience to compete in a big city. I have never lived on my own. My finances are a wreck—how would I stay afloat, even if I could find a job?
But the biggest excuse I made for staying in a place that was slowly killing my spirit came in the form of two adorable little boys. My nephews, Paxton and Cameron, were about three and one when I finally made the decision to leave Louisiana. Now, being the bon vivant auntie I was, the thought of leaving those two little monsters just broke my heart. I adored them, and I knew that my siblings were going to continue to have children. I wanted to be in their lives, and for about three years, they were the only things keeping me tied to home.
But at some point, I looked at myself in the mirror and realized that even this was only an excuse I was using to avoid facing my fear. As much as I loved my nephews, and as much as I wanted to be a part of their lives, the deeper part of me knew that I’d be no role model for them unless I lived my life authentically.
What excuses are you clinging to in order to justify avoiding change? A relative, a paycheck, a childhood disappointment? If this excuse wasn’t there—if no one depended on you, if money was no object, if your childhood angst was a mere figment–would you still be making the choices you’re making now?
Am I ignoring the facts?
One of the easiest ways to resist change is to accept the past (or your perception of the past) as unchangeable truth. A great example of this from my life was taxes. Because of an odd quirk of my childhood, I had to start filing tax returns quite early (I was still in high school). My mother, bless her, was responsible for getting all of this done.
Five tax returns + one single parent = TAX TRAUMA!
I have very clear memories of tax time, spending hours helping get check stubs in order, dealing with tempers and missing documents, the haste and stress and tempers. It all seemed pretty awful to me at the time.
When I finally got out on my own, I brought that experience of tax preparation with me. For years after my eighteenth birthday, I mimicked the patterns of my childhood, turning the first two weeks of April into a merry fortnight of stress and angst.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized my situation had changed. I had changed. When I got past the story I was telling myself and let go of the outdated “facts” that no longer served me, I was able to look realistically at my situation. I was able to see the tools at my disposal, the relative simplicity of my return, even my ability to remain calm in the face of the deadline.
Today, tax time is nothing for me. I go online, use Turbo Tax, file, and move on with life. I barely even think about it. That would never have been possible had I clung to my old image of tax time and ignored the evolving factual evidence.
So what outdated information are you clinging to? A time when someone treated you well, although they are no longer doing so? An investment that once performed well, but now is costing you time and money? Can you break out of nostalgia and entropy long enough to look at things with fresh eyes?
Am I propping up the villain?
A friend of mine is convinced everyone hates her. She is too poor, too fat, too unattractive, and the world hates people like her. Another friend of mine hates every supervisor that comes her way—no matter what their management style, they are always corrupt, incompetent, and untrustworthy. For a long time, when I was younger, I believed that every popular person I knew wanted nothing more than my complete social destruction. Regardless of the actual facts, we build these people into monsters before our eyes, removing any subtlety and substance until they are human Godzillas, smashing our dreams like Tokyo under their feet.
It’s easy to look at these attitudes from the outside and see them for the absurdity they are, but there are so many subtle ways we use vilification of “The Other” to justify remaining at a standstill. Do any of these statements sound familiar?
- Oh, please, why bother even applying? They never hire supervisors from the floor. Besides, they’ve already got the job filled before it’s even posted. You need to be part of the clique to get promoted around here.
- There is no way I’ll ever get that part. He’s trying out for it, and he’s the director’s favorite.
- It’s just not fair—the little guy can never get ahead. Even if I did get that extra training, Management just looks down on us guys on the line.
- My vote doesn’t count. The (fill in the blank with whatever political party you think is destroying democracy) are in control; you know they’re going to block anything that would give (fill in with opposing political party) a victory.
- College is a rich man’s game. Even if I did get that scholarship, they’d all look down on me. I’d have to work twice as hard for half as much, and they’d never respect me.
One of the best ways to keep yourself down is to give power to those villains (real or imaginary) you feel are intent on “keeping you down.” Whether it’s a church, your family, the wealthy, the poor, the government, popular people—whoever you’ve decided has more power than you—it’s easy to use them as excuses for not taking action when it’s called for. But they’re not the problem; we’re just giving them that power.
So what can we do to break through the resistance to change that keeps us from even imagining an improved circumstance? I know I’ve sung the praises of positivity here before, but it is one of the single best ways to give yourself the courage and inspiration to move forward. The next time you feel yourself resisting a positive change in your life, try one of these tricks.
- Let go of forever. Agree to make a change for a short period of time. Nothing is permanent anyway, so why stress about change being forever? If, for instance, you want to try exercising more, make a deal with yourself that for one month you will exercise regularly. Commit to that one month, with an option for renegotiation at the end of that period. By doing so, you take some of the pressure of “forever” off you so that you can concentrate on the benefits of your actions.
- Tell a better story. Scientists insist that most of what we experience is simply our brains interpreting the stimuli we receive through our senses. What is an interpretation other than a story? Everything you do, everything you see, is your brain’s story of reality. If you want a better life, tell a better story. Tell a story where you manage to ignore the snide remark and continue with your studies. Tell a story where you prepare mightily and sail through the interview like a pro. Tell yourself this story, believe it, and act in accordance. Be the story you’re telling by acting the part, doing the work, and taking the risks. You might be amazed at how differently things turn out.
- Laugh. When the world seems so serious and everything is just too hard to handle, watch a funny movie. Hang out with friends who improve your mood. Play with your dog or cat or the neighbor’s ferret, and enjoy their spontaneity. Taking life too seriously makes everything harder. It’s easy to become mired in the mud if you keep the weight of the world on your shoulders.
If we want to take control of our lives and shape our own destiny, we have to get past the victim mentality and give ourselves permission to change. Once you free your mind, you’ll be able to go within and discover who you truly are and what you truly want.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this blog lately. While a huge part of me is inclined to leave it as is—a chaotic, unfocused reflection of my own daily experiences, another part of me wants Ten Thousand Soapboxes to be more than a glorified personal journal. The blogosphere has afforded us an unprecedented forum, giving previously unheard voices a chance to speak their wisdom (and foolishness) into the darkness…and be heard.
The difference between a good blog and a great blog can be summarized in one word, “value.” What value is this blog offering to my readers? What value am I receiving from the production of these posts? In order to find value, one has to first discover need—what is missing, what is broken, that must be filled if our lives are going to get better?
The Missing Factor
I’ve taken a bit of time for recollection and soul-searching on this topic. There are so many topics I love, so many passions that drive me and make my world a brighter and more interesting place.
But there is one topic which affects every other aspect of my life, a topic so huge and overriding that it cuts to the core of my essence.
That topic is work.
When I say work, I am not merely referring to the 9-to-5 job most of us do Monday-Friday, although that is a huge part of it. Our Day Jobs™ affect so much of what we do, how we do it, how we see ourselves, and how we interact with others. Our Day Jobs™ influence our health, our attitudes, our relationships, our finances, even our perspective on politics, society, and religion.
But there is more to work than The Day Job™.
Every one of us—each of us with a pulse and a brain—has wondered why we are here, what is our purpose? The more existential among us have wondered if there is any purpose at all? Is there any meaning to our lives besides production and consumption?
Work, true work, can be defined as “what we are here to do.” Why were your mind and your soul and your talents and your passions joined together and placed in a carbon-based body with opposable thumbs and the ability to communicate? Were you just born to eat and sleep and waste time until you die?
Or were you born for greater things?
The History of Work
To figure out the future of work, we need to look at the past. Working for profit is a relatively new thing. For the bulk of human existence, work has been simply a by-product of the need for survival. Humans were inclined to survive, and to do that they needed food, shelter, community—the basics. Since these things didn’t just randomly offer themselves up, our ancestors learned to work. We hunted, we farmed, we built shelters, we sewed clothing for protection against the elements. Inventive as our ancestors were, they came up with “fixes” to improve their odds of survival.
- Weapons to improve hunting.
- Tools to improve farming.
- Buildings to improve shelter against danger—both from the elements and from enemies, human and animal.
And with these fixes, our human ancestors found themselves with more time to think, more opportunity to grow and explore, to make better weapons, stronger tools, more impressive buildings.
We also learned to make art. We learned to enjoy pleasures and anticipate rewards.
When basic survival needs were met, we found we enjoyed the benefits of working. We liked the perks—comfortable homes, abundant food, music, art, colorful clothes, and the opportunity for peaceful interaction with others like ourselves.
Where It Went Wrong
Most of us have held a job at one point or more in our adult life. The majority of us did it for financial reasons—as a means to an end. But there’s more to it than just financial security. Anthropologist Michael Maccoby offered this insight in his 2010 editorial for The Washington Post:
Work ties us to a real world that tells us whether our ideas make sense; it demands that we discipline our talents and master our impulses. To realize our potentialities, we must focus them in a way that relates to the human community. We need to feel needed. And to feel needed, we must be evaluated by others in whatever coinage, tangible or not, culture employs. Our sense of dignity and self-worth depends on being recognized by others through our work. Without work, we deteriorate. We need to work.
So many of us focus on the “coinage” part, though, that we downplay our need to make sense, to discipline our talents, and to relate to the human community. In a world where jobs and resources are plentiful and affordable, this doesn’t cause too much trouble.
But we do not live in a world where jobs and resources are plentiful and affordable. We live in a world where, to our horror, we are struggling to make ends meet—despite “doing everything right,” at least according to the current rules of the game.
We go to school. We learn a trade. We create a resume, get a job, do our work, and don’t make trouble. We create value for our employers. We trade services for wages.
And yet, our lives don’t get better.
Our hearts don’t get stronger, our relationships don’t get more meaningful, our bodies don’t get more energized.
We simply get worn out.
The Future of Work
With the future of traditional work getting dimmer and dimmer, a lot of us in the workforce are realizing a change needs to come. And that change is not going to come from our bosses or HR or the government. The change is going to have to come from us. We, as individuals and as a society, are going to have to take a long, hard look at ourselves and figure out why we’re working, how we’re working, and how we’re going to move towards the future (rather than dying out like the dinosaurs).
Net guru Seth Godin, in his Time article, “The Last Days of the Cubicle“, put it fairly succinctly.
The job of the future will have very little to do with processing words or numbers (the Internet can do that now). Nor will we need many people to act as placeholders, errand runners or receptionists. Instead, there’s going to be a huge focus on finding the essential people and outsourcing the rest.
My Moment of Essential
A while back, I wrote a series of blog posts called Joy in the Workplace, in which I explored ways to make the experience of doing your job more meaningful and joyful. Over the course of the next few months, I would like to dig deeper into that theme.
It’s not enough to get a job anymore. We must look inside, find our strengths, find our joys and passions, and find our value as human beings. Then we need to look without, and find areas where those strengths, joys, passions, and values are needed.
There are many areas to choose from.
- According to the Institute for Research on Poverty, “16.4 million children in the United States, 22.0 percent of all children, lived in poverty in 2010. More than six million of these children were under six years old. Of the 16.4 million poor children, nearly half, 7.4 million, lived in extreme poverty, which is defined as an annual income of less than half the official poverty line (i.e., $11,157 for a family of four).”
- A 2005 United Nations Report estimated there are approximately 100 million homeless people on the planet.
- Like to read? 14% (about 1 in 7) of U.S. adults don’t know how.
- In 2002, almost 11 million people died of infection diseases around the world.
- Approximately 57.7 million Americans—1 in 4—experience serious mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, while fewer than one-third of adults and one-half of children with a diagnosable mental disorder receive mental health services in a given year.
- The Daily Green reports that “according to the National Academy of Sciences, on average there are 27 oil spills every day somewhere in the waters of the worlds, and the (Exxon) Valdez spill doesn’t even make the list of the top 30 all-time largest.”
And this list doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Where to Now?
So it’s obvious there is no lack of work to be done in the world. There’s so much work, in fact, that no one should be jobless.
And yet, we are jobless. 12.7 million of us are jobless in America alone.
We’re all looking to Washington, whether from the red side or the blue, asking “Where are the jobs?”
I ask you—where are the jobs? We’ve established there’s work to be done, so why are we waiting on the government to tell us what to do? When did we, as human beings, need permission from authority figures to do the work that needed to be done? When did we need permission to fix things, solve problems, make improvements?
No, we are born to fix things. It’s in our blood, our DNA, our brain structure. We’ve just forgotten how. More importantly, we’ve forgotten we’re supposed to know how.
What I would like to do over the course of the next few months is explore this idea more fully.
- How to assess our talents
- How to find areas of need
- How to fill those areas of need while earning a fair compensation
- How to bring the best of us to our work, creating value as well as personal satisfaction
I will not lie to you—I am struggling like the rest of you. I am looking in the mirror of my worklife and asking, “Am I a dinosaur?” That being said, I won’t go down without a fight. It may take a while, but I fully intend to figure this out.
I hope you will join me on this journey. If you have any suggestions for topics to be covered in this series, I would be happy to hear from you.
When I was a kid, I was afraid of everything. My own shadow, my own voice, my power, my weakness. I was afraid of being right. I was afraid of being wrong. I was afraid of speaking up, and even more of remaining silent. I believe my entire life has been a series of lessons trying to teach me for once and for all to be brave.
Most people who did not know me as a child find it hard to believe how frightened I was when I was younger. I’ve sort of made a reputation at work as the gal who will say what everybody else is thinking, but doesn’t dare say out loud. Believe me when I tell you, that attitude did not come quickly or easily.
When I was younger, I bought very much into the Myth of Expertise. Teachers knew about learning. Parents knew about living. The nuns knew about God, and the guy on the news knew about everything else. There was always some point, somewhere in the fuzzy future, where one acquires the education and life experience to call themselves an expert. These people have a superior knowledge of All Things and must be listened to and obeyed at all cost.
From birth, it seems, we are trained out of our own intuition, our own internal sense of right and wrong. Some of us learn the lesson very well, and refuse to think, feel, or act without the prior approval of Someone Who Knows Better. Others are born rebels, going out of their way to resist any form of guidance or instruction in favor of what they know is true.
Self-Confidence as a Form of Rebellion
Back in school, there were a few people I practically idolized amongst my school mates. There was one guy who dared discuss Buddhism with the Brothers in religion class, and bucked the dress code at prom by wearing high tops with his tux years before that fad came and went. There was the girl who wore blue streaks in her hair and spiked leather bracelets at school, no matter how often Sister Barbara Nell glared at her in the halls. And then there was that rare, precious teacher who dared get real with us. The one who spoke about religion in its historical context, acknowledging the inconsistencies and challenging us to find our faith amidst the chaos of paradox that was the Catholic religion.
All of these people had a couple of things in common—they knew their mind and wouldn’t be pressured into silence or conformity. They expressed themselves articulately and with confidence in a way that never made their rebellion feel like childishness or stubbornness. And mostly, they forced me to think, to open my mind and really question my beliefs and values.
Be the Change You Want to See in the World
Growing from sullen teen to disappointed adult gave me ample opportunity to voice my disgust with people and The State of Things. On any given day, I could find myself complaining about one thing or another—conservatives, conformists, preppies, jocks—all those people who didn’t fit into my narrow little tunnel of correctness. (Oh, and don’t forget people who listened to Country Music and anyone associated with nighttime soap operas.) My music was true, my thoughts were authentic, and everybody who disagreed with me obviously fell into the category of idiot, poser, or wannabe. (Okay, we didn’t have the terms poser and wannabe in the 80s, but you get my drift.)
And all the while, as I silently judged everyone and everything around me, I was conforming. I went to a job I didn’t like, in an industry I strongly disapproved of, working among people with whom I had nothing in common. I went home and watched TV and dreamed of a life where I could be true, but did nothing at all to make it happen.
Sometimes Courage Comes When You Have Nowhere Left to Fall
In 1993, I got laid off from my job in That Horrible Industry. I packed two boxes and a duffel bag and got on a plane to Phoenix, Arizona, leaving behind everything I knew for a place on a friend’s couch and a job in a bread factory that I didn’t exactly want. I arrived in Phoenix, went to my job, and quit after one eight hour shift.
I did not move halfway across the country to kill my soul in another dead-end job.
I was very lucky. I had wonderful friends who let me crash with them until I could afford a place of my own, and I was brave (or stupid) enough to think I could make it on my own working temp jobs.
And I did. Somehow, despite very low wages and almost no practical job experience, I managed to scrape through.
Courageh is a Choice
Along with my new desert life and my friends and my inconsistent job situation, I made a conscious decision to go out on a limb in my personal life. My first point of business was to expand the mind that had grown horribly closed (or at least narrow) in the first twenty-something years of my life.
Each month, I took a bit of my salary and went to Best Buy. I would go to the world music section and purchase a CD from a country I knew nothing about. That’s how I discovered the Bulgarian Women’s Choir.
I also tried my hand at songwriting. That’s how I discovered filk.
(My song is beautifully recorded here by the Harmony Heifers on their self-titled album from Mystic Fig Music.)
Yes, I wrote that, along with about two more albums full of music and parodies. I performed with some friends at SciFi conventions from Phoenix to Baltimore during the 90s.
For a long time, I was getting myself out there, out on a limb, having fun and being creative.
And Then What Happened?
Somewhere along the line, I got scared again. Somewhere along the line, I silenced my voice again. While I still took time to be creative and have fun, more often than not (especially in the work arena), I found myself stifling again.
I suppose you could blame the economy. The 90s were very good to me financially. I eventually got a great job with a software company doing work I loved. I was surrounded by intelligent, open-minded people. I had good friends and a cozy little apartment and as the new millennium rolled around, I found myself in an incredible relationship. And then…well, lots happened.
And Then What Happened Next?
2001 took the wind out of most Americans. Suddenly, fear was a national pastime, complete with paranoia and suspicion at its side. It was not the time for difference, or for courage of individuality. Instead of focusing on expansion, we as a culture contracted emotionally and intellectually.
I found myself in a world not exactly suitable to me. I found myself in the very real experience of being jobless—on food stamps at one point, going to the local food bank once a week with my hat in my hands. Fey and I supported ourselves and her mother on her SSI check for an entire summer while I looked for work—in fact, in 2005 my gross personal annual income was $2500. (No, that was not a typo.)
There’s something about lack—of opportunity, of freedom, of mobility—that transforms a person. You start to appreciate things you took for granted before. You also don’t ever, ever want to find yourself in that place again.
Capitalizing on Fear
There are a lot of people and institutions that thrive on fear. Fear keeps people docile, and fear keeps people humble, and fear makes people tolerate things they’d never abide by otherwise.
As we grow older, we often sacrifice our dreams and our fun for safety—or at least the illusion thereof. We forget about that book we wanted to write, or the play we wanted to try out for. We put away the paint brushes and woodworking tools and resign ourselves to going to work for someone else and marking the rest of time with television or alcohol or mindless entertainment.
Fear kills passion. It also kills hope.
Finding the Strength
Somewhere, in the past few years, I made a pact with myself not to make decisions based on fear. It took a long time, because I had so much to be afraid of.
Discovering my truth. How can you speak your truth when you don’t know what it is? Before I could reclaim my dreams and my courage, I had to really stop and figure out what my truth was. What did I believe in? What values and traits did I want to promote in the world? How could I make the world a better place through my actions and words?
Living my truth. It’s hard to be truly afraid when you’re living an honest life. In order to dispel fear, I had to clean up my own back yard, clean out those skeletons that might someday come back to haunt me. I’m not talking about murder or corruption—I’m talking about silly things that seem so huge to me (and trivial to other people).
Making my peace. So many of my fears and insecurities have been rooted in experiences from my childhood. People who were cruel to me, mistakes I made that humiliated me, fears and doubts that plagued me. Never being good enough. Never fitting in. Before I could live my truth and be the courageous person I wanted to be, I had to find the grace to let go. Not forgive. Not forget. Just let go. Of the past. Of my disappointments. Of my anger and desire for revenge. Just let go, and make life about today.
So Now You’re Perfect?
Hardly. I still have my fears and doubts and insecurities. I still have days when I fear I will be outed as a complete fraud, mocked and humiliated by my coworkers, and cast out onto the street by my employers.
But I’m getting better. Each day, I make a conscious effort to do the absolute best work I can do. Not for my boss, not for a promotion, not for fame and fortune. I do it because it is the only thing I can tolerate from myself. Not perfection or grandiosity, simply the best I can do. Each day, I want to leave work knowing I worked hard, didn’t slack off, didn’t shove things under the carpet, and didn’t betray my values.
Each day, I come home to my partner of ten years and give her the best I can. I am honest and respectful. I am patience and generous. I still have my three-year-old moments (we both do), but Fey and I both go to sleep each night knowing we did our best.
And How’s That Working for Ya?
Oddly enough, when I started cleaning up my own house, I discovered the return of my courageous, plucky self. I found that I could speak up at work, in a respectful tone (when I remembered) without fear of retaliation. I found that I could begin to ask for what I wanted without feeling guilty. And I discovered, to my utter amazement, that all those friends I thought I had lost when I was going through my Long Dark Teatime of the Soul were still out there—older, wiser, and still very much the people I once loved.
By giving up on fear as motivation, I found opportunities peaking their heads through the window again. Maybe not in massive droves, like in the 90s, but more and more frequently. I found inspiration to write again—not just fan fiction (where I had made sort of a name for myself), but original work.
And at work, I found peace again. I may lose my job tomorrow, and that would suck. But I will know that I did everything I could do to be the best I could be. And I will know that the universe is not scary and paranoid and horrible like the post-9/11 fear-mongers wanted us to believe. The universe is abundant. The universe is exciting. The universe is full of adventures, just waiting to be had.
And I’m ready for a few new adventures. What about you?
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?”
“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,
There’s No Such Thing as The Perfect Job
It has occurred to me that over the past 20 odd years I have spent more than 40,000 hours in the workplace. During those 40 grand hours, I’ve typed, filed, made calls, composed letters, created spreadsheets, and stuffed envelopes as well as a host of other office type activities.
Sadly, I’ve also whined, complained, suffered, seethed, stewed, and fantasized about how great my life would be when I finally found that perfect job.
It’s been over 20 years, Deb. The perfect job does not exist.
At some point in every working person’s life, this sad truth becomes unavoidable. There is no such thing as a perfect job—even the coolest, hippest, most glamorous job in the world is going to have its off days. And let’s face it, being a corporate drone is not exactly cool, hip, or glamorous.
So for the bulk of my adult life, I’ve been miserable. I turned 44 this week, and I figure it’s about damn time I start being happy—not just on my own time, but during those 40 odd hours a week I spend working for Da Man.
Happiness is No Further than Your Next Thought
For years I searched for happiness outside myself—in faith, in knowledge, in books and music and Feng Shui and food and all sorts of other things. Most of these things are extremely positive and taught me a wealth of truths that help me in my daily living. In the end, however, the surest and easiest path to happiness rests in my hands. There is nothing more empowering than the realization that anyone can be happy, any time, and in any situation.
Crazy, you think?
Not so much.
You see, there is one common denominator that runs through all events—good and bad—throughout a person’s life. Our experience of an event depends 100% on our mental perception of the event.
How easy is that? 100% of my happiness is completely in my control, any time, all the time. Professionals such as life coaches, career counselors, therapists and the like can teach you all sorts of important tools to make your life better. They can help you come up with plans, with strategies, and give you the confidence you need to make change. I am a huge fan of life coaches, career counselors, therapists and the like.
But in the end, only you can make yourself happy.
The nay-sayers among you will scoff and say something to the effect of, “How can I be happy when (fill in the blank) keeps (filling the blank)-ing?” Most of us spend the majority of our time worrying about what somebody else is doing. That chick who cut the line at the bank, the loud fellow on the Bluetooth who hasn’t figured out the meaning of the word “library,” the boss who passes you over for a raise yet again while giving his loser cousin the corner office—these are the people to whom we willingly turn over our most precious commodity—our peace of mind.
So, if my boss gave me more money and I was at the front of the line at the bank to cash the check so I could buy a SuperSpeshal Bluetooth Deactivator and Restore Silence to the Library, then my life would be perfect and all things would be good, right?
Sure, until the next idiot shows up and cuts you off in line, or the grocery runs out of your favorite flavor of Ben & Jerry’s, or your coworker decides that tapping her Lee Press On Nails repeatedly to the rhythm of The Addams Family is the surest path to Nirvana. Then that peace of mind is out the door and off again.
The fact is, nobody can take away your peace of mind. You can only give it away. Period. End of conversation. You tell the story of your life, usually in a disgusted mental voice while glaring at the person who is offending you. But the best thing about telling a story is that you have the power to edit, rearrange, or just chuck the whole thing. Face it—you have no real idea of what anyone really thinks or feels except yourself. Any belief you hold about someone else is a fiction. So why stick with crappy fiction?
When things happen at work that annoy me (oh, and they do), I’ve come up with a simple routine to curb my negative self-talk.
Step One: Stop
The first step when things start getting ugly is to simply stop where I am and be still for a moment. Negativity is self-perpetuating. The longer you indulge in it, the stronger it gets until it’s a hairy, slobbering monster from Betelgeuse. Just by stopping—firmly, abruptly, and completely—you cut off the monster at the source. You starve it, trap it, and keep it from doing anymore damage while you figure out what to do.
There are half a zillion ways to stop the constant thread of noise in your head. Meditation, physical activity, acts of service all help (it’s rude to worry about your own problems when you’re helping someone needier than you are). You can also do what I did at the start—set a timer to go off at random points in the day. When it sounds, stop and write down whatever thought is in your head. You may be stunned after doing this for a day or two at how negative your internal thoughts can be.
Another good way to stop is to become aware of your emotions. If you are feeling what you would perceive as a negative emotion—anger, fear, doubt, worry—stop and look for the thought behind it. I promise, you won’t have far to look before you find it.
Step Two: Observe
Once you’ve gotten the monster in the trap, study it for a minute. What kind of things is it saying to you? Are they true? Can you really be sure they’re true? Are hairy, slobbering monsters from Betelgeuse renowned for their honesty? I think not.
A big hint that this interior voice is lying to you is that it makes you feel like crap. A healthy, positive inner voice is never going to make you feel like crap. It may voice your concerns, express difficulties, and suggest potential dangers. But it sure as hell isn’t going to work you into a dither about real or imagined slights instead of helping you out.
Taking a cool, critical look at the things your inner voice is saying will help you sort out the lies from the facts, which leads you to the next and most important step.
Step Three: Adjust
Every single moment we’re alive is a moment with opportunity. Every situation we encounter gives us a choice—do we turn left or do we turn right? Do we speak up or remain silent? The choice of what we do may be affected by external forces, such as weather, other people, disability, etc.
But the choice of what we think is always our own (barring mental illness that requires a doctor’s care. That’s another story altogether.) Still, assuming you’re reasonably sane, you always have a choice of what you think and what story you tell.
Let’s take the idiot with the Bluetooth from earlier in this post. There are so many ways to tell this story, and only a few of them end in bloodshed. Let’s start with:
Oh, my gawd! Who is this loser? Doesn’t he know this is a library? Seriously, where does he think he is? Starbucks? Turn off the phone, Dummy! I realize that Male Pattern Baldness and Erectile Dysfunction have led you to the Dark Side, but for heaven’s sake—show some class, will you?
Such a fun story, huh? Don’t you want to read this story to your mom and your kids and your Sunday school teacher? No. It’s a sucky story. But fortunately, each of us was born with a brilliant and creative ability to make stuff up—especially about other people. So let’s revise the story.
Wow, this guy’s pretty loud. I wonder if he realizes he’s that loud? I mean, it’s a library, and you’re supposed to be quiet in a library. Maybe I should ask the librarian to speak with him. I’m sure it’s all a misunderstanding, and when somebody tells him, he’ll quiet down.
Better. Very polite, giving Mr. Bluetooth the benefit of the doubt. But it still places the bulk of responsibility for your happiness in whether the guy shuts up or not. Let’s grab the red pencil and start again.
Wow, this guy’s pretty loud. I wonder if they have the new Stephen King book? I think it would be on the new releases shelf. Where was that again? I’ll go ask the librarian. Ooh, and maybe I can check out a couple of books on tape while I’m here. I love listening to them while I work out.
Much better. In this latest fiction, we simply acknowledged the bad behavior then moved on. By shifting our thoughts just slightly, we can turn something from a drama to a side issue. Let’s face it—who’s more important in this scenario? Some guy who can’t keep his voice down, or you? (Hint: The answer is, you.)
Joy is Your Birthright
It takes practice to turn around a negative attitude. There is something inherent in negativity that feels empowering without actually being empowering. Resistance is strong, especially after years in the habit of thinking and feeling the worst about people and situations.
But that habit robs us of the most important truth of all—that we were born to be happy. We are geared toward it, and it is our birthright as human beings. When we get out of our own way, when we stop the senseless monologue of negative thoughts that bombard us, the mere act of being alive can be joyful and satisfying.
The rewards of taming that hairy, slobbering monster from Betelgeuse are innumerable, starting with the fact that you’ll just feel happier. When you approach the world from a place of peace and stability, problems seem more manageable, victories are sweeter, and everything in between just feels better overall.
Beginning my 45th year on this planet, I realize how important peace, joy, and stability are. I may not have it all down yet—I still have to stop myself from indulging in negativity. But I truly believe I’m on to something, and that my next 45 years are going to be amazing.