In my mid-20s, I had an unexpectedly profound experience that changed me: I saw a documentary on people living in Appalachia. The documentary profiled a family of “hillbillies,” including their kinship networks, how they survived financially at the bottom of the financial food chain, how they made their way in the world with limited education and in some cases illiteracy, and their struggles and their triumphs.
They had an ease and understanding with each other, a familiarity. They had loyalty, willing to share their already limited resources with one another for the survival of all.
What was striking was this: despite being poor and uneducated, these people had something that I didn’t have, despite all of my smarts.
* * *
A decade ago, all I thought I wanted in life was a tenure-track professorship. I spent the weekends scouring the clearance aisle at Banana Republic to find suits; I joined eight different academic committees (most full-time professors are on maybe 2 or 3); I signed up for time in the campus tutoring labs.
I was working so hard so that I could get the job so that I could have the things so that I could validate the accomplishments so that I could live a good life–and to do that, I thought, you needed to be smart.
Everyone adopts certain “identities” and uses those identity systems to navigate the world. In my case, “Smart” had become the armor and shield to protect me from life’s failures (If I was just smart enough about things, I wouldn’t make mistakes–or feel pain).
“Smart Person” had become an identity–one that I needed to maintain at all costs. I feared looking like a fool if I made a mistake in front of the classroom. I wanted to read all of the right books, so that my faculty cohort wouldn’t know that I had never studied “the canon.” I sought out friendships with other like-minded people who would also make high-minded conversation at dinner parties. I wanted the intellectual debate and discourse.
Because I was so attached to the “Smart Person” identity, I wanted to surround myself with really smart people. In those communities, as Dr. Brene Brown puts it, I “hustled for my worthiness.”
Ugh–the arrogance! I feel compassion for the woman I was, who didn’t know that it was okay for her to be herself without striving to appear so smart, in the hopes that that would bring her connection.
As you can imagine, it was empty. I could make conversation at a party, but I couldn’t get truly vulnerable. The comparisons and one-upmanship were mentally exhausting. Sometimes, the dark side of the ego that was driving me to protect and maintain my “Smart Person” identity did so at all costs, making me judgmental of someone else’s conversational faux-pas or their mispronunciation of a word.
The thing is, “smart” doesn’t get you anywhere, if where you’re trying to go is being smarter than everyone else. (Click here to tweet that).
It’s like trying to be forever youthful and gorgeous. Eventually, the mind fades–and eventually, the skin sags. Eventually, someone else has the new and innovative idea, or inevitably, you’ll arrive at the party tired and unable to keep up with the conversation.
Furthermore, everyone can see someone with that “Smart Person” identity as they are hustling. Everyone. The more they hustle, the less anyone wants to be around them. Few people like being corrected, or having someone bring up a devil’s advocate position purely for the debate. Few people like sharing what they know about a topic and having someone contradict them to get their own point of view in.
The very thing that someone’s using their “Smart Person” identity to get, ends up being the very thing that drives people away. I wanted connection more than anything, yet for all of my smarts, I couldn’t “figure out” why people distanced themselves. Yet, the people in that documentary with 1/5 the education that I’d had, already had that connection, with ease.
* * *
I had to learn a few things, to release my attachment to the identity of “Smart Person” and all the behaviors that went along with it.
One, I’m not nearly as smart as I used to think I was. Sure, I’ve got smarts–I’ve just stopped over-inflating my capacity in comparison to others, stopped using it as the “Smart Person” identity that justifies all of my choices or how I’m better or what they should be doing, differently.
I feared releasing this identity–I’d built an entire existence around it–and yet now, this is a relief. It’s far less work to just be in a conversation, fully, than it is to be thinking of the next witty thing to say in the hopes that it will be impressive and thus have me be liked, and it’s far less pressure to admit when I don’t know or don’t understand than it is to keep nodding and pretending as if I do.
Two, I’ve found that if you observe others who are using their “Smart Person” identity to navigate the world, you’ll find that it’s the same for them. They aren’t nearly as smart as they think they are. I don’t say that unkindly or as a put-down. I say it to share that if you feel intimidated around them, there’s no reason to. When someone clings to any identity system, they’re going to do what they can to defend it because “that’s who I am.” We all have identity systems that we cling to. Part of the “Smart Person” identity system is maintained through intimidation and perfectionism. Instead of finding that intimidating, find compassion in your heart. It’s a painful place to live.
Three, I actually don’t care about intellect as much as I thought I did. Once the “Smart Person” identity started to fall away, I realized that part of the fallacy of the “Smart Person” identity is that what you know is the prized position, and what you know is your only limited currency.
When I meet someone who desperately needs everyone to know that she’s smart because she clings to the “Smart Person” identity, I immediately understand that I may learn fascinating things in my conversations with her, but unless she’s willing to drop deeper than the intellect, there will be limits to the connection in that relationship.
What you know is far less important than who you choose to be. (Click to tweet).
It’s far less important that someone is smart, than it is that they are kind. (Click to tweet).
Your intelligence drops drastically in value, when it’s used to serve internal mental dysfunction (comparisons, “better than” mentalities, hierarchies, “putting people in their place”), rather than creating internal peace and external connection.
The truly brilliant minds of this world are the ones that use their brilliance to contribute, not the ones that need to be right in a conversation. (Click to tweet).
The measure of someone’s true intellect is in how she uses it to create good in the world, starting with the world that begins in her home, at her dinner table, in her job, with her family, in her community.
That’s the kind of intelligence that matters.
I was working with a client during a Blueprint Session and asked how she wants her business to feel.
She said, “I want it to feel…easy. I look at what you’ve created, and it’s like you’re part of this online group of friends, and if you put it out there that you need help promoting your new offering, people just step in to help. Or you decide that you want to work on a book proposal or that you’re going to start a training program or a new whatever, and then you just do that, and it works.”
I had to take a brief moment then to share with her that while it might appear this way, this is only about half true.
I make plenty of requests where people say yes, or they respond kindly to say that they appreciate being asked, but that right now, it’s not a match.
I also make requests, and people tell me “no.” Or they ignore my email. Or they tell me they’ll participate and then totally flake. (Uh, and haven’t we all? These aren’t bad people. They’re people who do or don’t respond–and sometimes, that’s me.)
I meet people from the online world and it seems as if we’d get along really well, and we do become friends.
I also meet people from the online world and it seems as if we’d get along really well, and I extend myself in friendship, and they don’t reciprocate. (Yep, I’ve been the one not inclined to reciprocate, too–these aren’t bad people. These are people making choices about what’s best for their lives).
“You should tell everyone that,” she said. “I think most of us doing the online business thing think that whatever someone else is up to, they’re just rocking out at it.”
So after getting her permission to write about this dialogue, I want to add: Despite the “no” responses that I get roughly half the time, I do feel that I’m rocking out at it. Here’s the secret to rocking out your life (air quotes around “secret” of course):
Yes, I feel excitement and elation when someone gives me their “yes” or when I get an invite to be part of a celebration with great people.
I also feel disappointment when things don’t work out, when I get the no, or the ignored email, or when I initiate a friendship and it doesn’t go anywhere.
Yet I’d still say I’m rocking out because I’ve discovered the “secret” (which is not really a secret, though it feels like one until you figure it out) to rocking out:
You do your thing, and that’s that.
Don’t reach out to people with requests and make it about whether or not they say “yes.” Do your thing, whether they say yes, or not. Make the request because it’s important to you and your personal evolution, not because they are your gatekeeper.
Don’t extend yourself in friendship only when you’re guaranteed to have a spark with someone. Do your thing, extending yourself, because it’s what you want to do, and how you want to live.
Don’t decide to put your program or offering or course out there only when you have some kind of “evidence” that it’ll be a hit. Put yourself out there because you do your thing, and your thing in that moment is putting yourself out there. Create the offering because you can’t NOT create the offering.
There is no exact recipe for success, but I know that I’ll always feel successful in my life if the next program that I create is created because I genuinely wanted to create it–because, frankly, I couldn’t stop thinking about creating it. In an interview, I once described the feeling I have when I’m creating a new course or digital program as being very much like pulling together a surprise gift for someone.
The fun is in the surprising and the scheming and the plotting. There’s zero fun in the space of “Will they like me/it?”
And, of course, don’t get caught in the trap of thinking that at some point when you’re somehow “better,” you’ll stop hearing “no.”
Plenty of people with huge platforms and all the connections in the world still get passed over, or hear “no” or just have their emails ignored. Plenty of people who are the most charming, interesting, engaging people reach out to connect with someone, and it just doesn’t quite gel.
The success lies not in whether or not you get the external “yes.” The success lies in whether you did it because you wanted to.
Click to tweet: “The success lies in whether you did it because you wanted to.” http://clicktotweet.com/fZ47h
Of all the things I’ve ever shared over at the Your Courageous Life Facebook page, there’s one thing that has struck the biggest chord, and it happened in the past few weeks: a quote that I posted from Facebook SEO Sheryl Sandberg:
“I want every little girl who’s told she’s bossy, to be told she has leadership skills, instead.”
As the shares for that particular post went into the ten-thousand rage, I was reminded of a pivotal experience that I had in fifth grade: We were put into small groups of five and each group was given a different configuration of Legos. These Legos came with lights that would snap onto the Legos. Our job? To decide what structure to build that would also make use of the lights.
By fifth grade, it had not escaped my attention that teachers usually grouped me with quiet people, the types who were slower to finish projects because they were looking around to see who would take charge. By contrast, I was opinionated, the kind of gal who could assess a project quickly and make a judgment about what needed to be done, next. By fifth grade, I’d already been labeled “bossy” and already carried some level of shame about that behavior.
To be fair? On some level, I hadn’t yet learned the social graces of being able to express myself in a way that didn’t steamroll over people in a way that was unkind. I never put people’s suggestions down or called them stupid, but I had a way of forcefully stating that we really should do it my way, and laying out five reasons why before someone else could protest.
But this experience changed that–because this time, Dana was also placed in my group.
Dana was also “bossy.” Dana was also someone who was opinionated. As the other three quiet kids in our group watched during the initial sessions of our group project, Dana and I sparred over every aspect of what should happen, came to agreements between ourselves, and then turned to the other three kids and said, “Do you agree?” like the little drill sergeants that we were. Afraid to make waves, they’d nod their heads yes and Dana and I would spar over the next aspect of the project.
I was oblivious, at first, the day that our teacher set all the groups to work and then came over specifically to our group. She turned to each group member and asked how we felt about each other in the group. They didn’t seem to be surprised to be asked such a strange question, which was my first clue that something was up.
Dana piped right up and laid it out there: I was bossy, she said, and the entire group didn’t like it. I don’t recall that the other three quiet kids had too many opinions about it, but when the teacher asked them directly if they agreed with Dana, they kind of shook their heads yes.
Smart enough at that point to have figured out that the group had had a discussion about me behind my back, and determined that I was the problem, I. Was. Mortified.
I didn’t know how anything had transpired. I didn’t know if the teacher had overheard me making a bossy remark at our last group meeting, or if Dana had approached the teacher. All I knew was that they walked in that day prepared for that discussion, and that I’d felt ambushed. Even worse, I was starting to cry in front of all of them, a double humiliation.
As I recall it, the teacher was empathetic to my tears. She let me excuse myself and go to the restroom. She asked that we all work together. And then, for the remaining week or so of the project, whenever it was time to get into small groups, I felt sick to my stomach.
How we Get Quiet
After that, I grew very, very quiet.
I was also horribly confused.
Dana was now issuing commands to the three quiet members of our group, as well as me. And girlfriend, I followed all of them. Every time one of our members started to put something in the wrong place and she said, “No! Not there!” in a commanding tone, I racked my brain trying to figure out why she could say that and the group didn’t mind, but if I said it, the group did mind.
Every time there was a group decision before us and she said, “We need to do _______,” I waited for the quieter members to nod yes before adding my yes, and I tried to figure out how what I had done was different than what she was doing, now.
I never figured it out. When the project ended, I was relieved beyond belief.
But in a way, the project didn’t “end.”
It didn’t “end” in the sense that I would spend the rest of my life in groups wondering what was different about me, than the other girls. I still watch in fascination as women in groups offer one another very direct feedback, sometimes even using the exact words that I’ve been criticized for using, and often find myself thinking, “If I said that, I suspect I’d be labeled a bitch. What’s the difference?”
Bossy vs. Opinionated.
I have figured out a few things about the real courage of leadership. One: there is a difference. I don’t know that there was a difference between myself and Dana all those years ago, but I can recognize that sometimes when I disagree with people, I really, really (really!) want to be right. I want my idea to dominate. It’s not that I’m mean. It’s that I get excited by what I believe in that moment is an answer or a solution, and my egoic arrogance gets in the way, too, and I really want recognition as someone who is smart and helpful in coming up with solutions.
While not healthy to get self-righteous and dominating, the motivations behind that behavior are actually very human. I choose to have compassion for them.
When it comes to group dynamics, however, that’s the tricky space–because no one, men or women, leader or supporter, likes feeling like someone else has to be right and someone else’s ideas must dominate.
Leadership is about inspiration, not domination.
(Click to tweet that: http://clicktotweet.com/faI5h)
I’ve also figured out, as well, that there’s a collective shame that many women have about the times when they’ve dared to speak up, to lean in, to take a risk, and then they’ve been shut down. In our society, we still confuse “bossy” with “opinionated.”
Sadly, most of my experiences of being labeled this way have not been dealt by “patriarchal men” who couldn’t handle a woman expressing an opinion. Most of my experiences have come at the hands of other women–groups of women, women who made collective decisions about me behind my back, without ever approaching me in-person with compassion and offering me an opportunity to explain myself or apologize for my behavior when I was wrong.
It’s not at the hands of those mean men, but from the mouths of women, that I’ve felt the fear that I should be quieter, less opinionated, or make sure that I “do it right” so that I can fit in.
Really, this is the new leadership that is needed. Speaking skills, or using more “I” statements and fewer qualifiers, or more inspirational magnets on the refrigerator to “dream big” are not what is needed for women to emerge as leaders.
What is needed is the courage for the very same women who share all of their tips and inspirational messages to, well…stop talking shit in groups, about other women. Stop social shaming. Stop casting one person as the odd woman out.
When a group determines that one woman is “bossy,” we need to stop labeling her and start talking to her.
If, after she’s been approached with the very same direct communication skills that leaders teach and there’s a very real and destructive hostility, then okay–sometimes, relationships aren’t a match. Sometimes, people’s behaviors are harmful to a group dynamic.
My point is this: true leadership encompasses room for people to receive feedback about their behavior, and be given an opportunity to change. Radio silence, shunning, gossip, put-downs, and the like are all acts of cowardice–the cowardice to not have the real conversation.
What that little girl wanted all those years ago was to have had an opportunity to have been heard. What she learned from that experience was that a decision had been made about who she was, that the majority ruled, and that what everyone wanted was for her to be submissive. Submissive was “nice.” Submissive was “you’ll be accepted in our group.”
I’m so grateful that something in my soul could never settle for submissive, and that there was a warrior within who, while she continues to sometimes let her ego get in the way, has also found the space to speak up, speak out, and lean in.