Late last year I saw an interview with Australian columnist, presenter and commentator Jamila Rizvi about the launch of her book Not Just Lucky. Her premise was this: Why do successful, high-powered, high-achieving women undermine what they’ve achieved, what they aspire to and what they are capable of with the word luck?
Something prickled within me.
A few years ago I was promoted into a new job. It encapsulated all of the things I love to do and that I do well – developing new ideas for the business, working with a whole range of people in a whole lot of places and creating the ways and means to keep it all going well beyond whatever my tenure in the role.
Excited beyond measure, I had emailed my happy news to loved ones abroad, veering between the pride of taking on the kind of create-as-you-go role I’d always dreamed of and the disbelief that, after all of the ups and downs I’d experienced since moving the London, it was finally happening for me. I felt liked I’d earned it, like I’d paid my dues and deserved this opportunity. At the same time, I felt like it could be gone in a flash.
And I wondered, could this ephemeral quality be what Rizvi was referring to, what had disquieted me during her interview? Her own disparaging inner voice – the one that “says things that no polite human being would ever say to someone else” – sounded a lot like mine. So I got hold of the book and started to read.
Over the first couple of chapters, my inner voice protested: Perhaps men (and I generalise here) could do with a little more of the humility and collaborative practice associated with women. But gradually I saw Rizvi’s point. It’s not so much the issue of who has particular qualities but rather that our attachment to humility does not always serve us.
Her chapter on conditioning – that we are products of the world around us and that our initial reactions are invariably the result of this conditioning rather than any objective ‘truth’ about the situation – gave me pause.
“First comes conditioning. Next comes me.”
She writes about crying at work, something that’s seen as the purview of women. Have you done this? I have – as a result of sheer frustration, of persisting with putting my point across. Of being reprimanded with “it’s not nice / appropriate” to push or “you’ll get a reputation as a bully”.
It’s exasperating not to be heard – it builds and seethes and then it boils over…and ‘leaks’.
Rizvi (along with a whole lot of other research) points to the different ways that girls and boys are socialised as they grow up. Boys are discouraged from showing “emotional fragility” (a topic for a whole other blog post!) while girls are discouraged from showing anger and aggression. So first comes that conditioning – the collaborating, the ‘appropriately assertive’ discussion, the ‘playing nicely’ – and it gets in the way of the authentic response – me.
I’m not saying that we should adopt aggression and anger as a mantra – we have far more to offer than that. But sometimes a personal flop can show up as failing for womankind and the extra scrutiny that comes with being the first, the one and only or even one of a select few can be pretty tough to take.
So how should we be dealing with the slings and arrows of social expectation? I found three gems in Rizvi’s chapters that I thought might help me to go beyond my conditioned responses.
1. Accept that your brain is hard-wired to protect you from lions, not criticism.
Cortisol has achieved somewhat of a celebrity status over the last few years. Books have been written and experts have waxed lyrical about why society is stressed, tired, overweight and just plain grumpy. But cortisol is one of the physical ways our brain prepares our bodies to respond to danger. It used to be lions that might have eaten you alive. Now it appears, it’s criticism. Thinking about it like this made criticism seem palatable and eminently more survivable.
2. Don’t forget it’s the receiver that makes criticism constructive.
We love to be right and to make others wrong. And we judge and take the role of the ‘wronged one’ when criticism strikes, wallowing in resentment and righteous indignation. It’s satisfying, isn’t it? Before we know it we’re off on a quest for the next heady hit…but where does our righteousness get us? It is up to us to step past the conditioned response and find the courage and stoicism to unearth the lesson hidden in the censure.
3. Everyone who is good at something did it for the first time without knowing how.
I’ve spent my career in marketing, innovation and customer development and I forget how many layers of ‘knowing’ I have developed. My recent foray into the world of property has thrust me right back into the space of conscious incompetence and with each week that passes I realise just how much I do not know and how scared I am of getting it wrong. This pearl of wisdom reminded me that getting good at something, let along gaining mastery of it, takes time. It also takes the resilience to keep getting up every time you take a knock and the persistence to always keep moving forward, even if the next step is just a tiny one.
Where does all this leave me?
Well I figure the world can’t afford to wait for us – actually, make that me – to be perfect. I have far too much to offer to be squirrelling it away until it is ‘just so’.
So maybe I need to practise owning the successes along the way and stop taking the criticism as something being wrong with me instead of as an opportunity to choose who I want to be in the world.
No-one is born lucky and when I took that job, my Dad wrote to me saying among many other things, that I’d worked hard and made my own luck. (And you’d be right in thinking that I cried as I read his words.) Yes, I did work hard. I also took some risks. And I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had. I’m also a big believer in that if you put it out there, the Universe provides.
But luck is hard to ‘own’ so I’m thinking that what it’s really time to start thinking, saying, and embracing far more often is that luck had nothing to do with it.
So how much of your life are you willing to own?
Do you feel grateful?
Or do you just feel lucky?