What I realised is this: that some of the characteristics that made me a success in school and at university were in fact holding me back in the workforce.
At school I was a gold star girl. I wanted a gold star from anyone in a position of authority. As a young child, I wanted to please my parents. Once I started school I wanted to please my teachers (indeed, anyone in the school hierarchy would do!). I wanted to be the best in class – the best student and also the best behaved. I wanted to win whatever awards were on offer, even if I had no interest in the underlying subject matter. This obsession with being perfect, with pleasing everyone, created a large amount of internal pressure. But it also reaped rewards. I did very well at school, and gained satisfaction from the approval and praise that is heaped upon students who want to please and do well.
These characteristics went into overdrive at high school, where it was not only possible to please teachers by doing well academically, but also through any number of extra-curricular achievements. I was a member of the Red Cross Club and the Amnesty International Club. I put my hand up for public speaking competitions (always choosing a topic with an ethics focus), excelled at debating, and tried my hand at many different sports as well as piano lessons and anything else that came my way. I was obsessed with doing everything right, but also with others doing everything right – correcting other students for not wearing their uniform in the right way was a habit of mine. I can’t imagine how infuriating I must have been for many of my fellow students – but I didn’t care. I cared about being good and I was very good at being good. School is tailor-made for such students.
My desire to be perfect and to please others was, of course, entirely consistent with cultural expectations for a young girl. As the American playwright (and all-round fabulous woman) Eve Ensler wrote, “whatever culture, whatever country, girls are taught to please others as opposed to pleasing themselves”.
Girls are raised to please. They are raised to smile, to be “nice”, to pay compliments and be gracious when others give them compliments. To take care in how they dress and dress “appropriately”. To be kind and caring and giving. Not to be “bossy”.
Once in the work-force, for a time, being the gold-star girl worked too. More senior colleagues are more than happy to have a gold star girl as the junior in the office. The gold star girl works hard and dresses appropriately and is lovely to everyone. She tries not to rock the boat (or at least, only as much as is expected). But after a while I realized it was holding me back. Often in a job, to be good at your job, you need to give people news they don’t want to hear. It might be a client who has unrealistic expectations and needs to be given some frank advice. It might be a junior colleague who has been dragging their feet and needs to be spoken with about the quality of their work. Decisions will invariably need to be made that will impact on others in a way they won’t like. In my case, it was the realization that sometimes you are not as well prepared as you would like to be, in performing your role, for reasons outside of your control. The need for approval can hurt in such situations, because instead of getting on with the job and doing what needs to be done in the best way you can, you are preoccupied with the fact the job isn’t being done perfectly and worrying about what others might think. In the case of the client, being too concerned about whether they will be disappointed (or how they might feel about you) can undermine your focus on the key task – which is to protect your client’s interest by giving clear, direct and accurate advice when it matters. Being too concerned about how colleagues might react or might think of you can, similarly, get in the way of doing what needs to be done.
In fact, the more senior I become the more I realise how important it is to let go of the need for approval from others – particularly those senior to you. I work just as hard, and I do what needs to be done. But as part of that, I don’t let myself become preoccupied with how others might feel about what I need to do.
Awareness of the reactions of others (or the impact of your actions on others) is of course important. Constructive feedback from others about your performance is also important and necessary to improve and develop over time. But being preoccupied by how others might feel about what you need to do, and being motivated by approval from others, is not productive. In fact, more often than not it can hold you back.
This required some reprogramming on my part! But it has also led me to question the way I am raising my daughter. How much should approval matter for her? Is it better for her to seek to be the “gold star” girl at school, given the benefits associated with such an approach at that age? Or is it better to let go of approval-seeking even at the tender age of 8? It is an ongoing process, and one that I am often trying to refine.
My daughter is not at all concerned about her appearance, and I am very happy about that. On the other hand, she is very concerned about what her teachers think of her, and wants to be the best “at everything” at school. I’m aware of how difficult this can be – this level of internal pressure – and try to ease the pressure on her about school because I can see she creates enough of it herself. Where I have had to change my instinctive response is in social settings, where she is very bold and quite happy to walk up to a table of strangers at a restaurant (for example) and let them know that their behavior is affecting other patrons. My own reaction in such situations is not to rock the boat – just grin and bear it and not make a fuss. My daughter doesn’t feel so restrained and I, in turn, have had to accept that and indeed be thankful for the fact she doesn’t feel the need to be the people-pleaser in the room. At the same time, her confidence in such situations can trigger quite negative reactions (and has done at school) – this is something I need to manage with her and talk to her about.
What I need to do, more and more, is take a leaf out of her book. I need to shed the layers and layers of gold-star behavior that stood me in good stead for so much of my life and start living my life as many men do. Unapologetically!