Something happens to us as we age (besides all the aches and pains!). We forget, rewrite, “dis-remember”, ignore or otherwise change the narrative to our own life stories. A hard beginning turns into “not that bad”. A perfect family turns into “I had plenty of hard times too”. There are fewer nuances and more absolutes and denial. By the time we are well into our careers, we have forgotten about many of the life experiences that gave us our membership cards into the human race. Those cards that are good at any organization regardless of background, race or gender. Those cards that define what we all have in common.
We have all felt “less than”. Maybe you were the smallest in your class or not very athletic or crappy at math or from a poor family. You were teased or ostracized at school. Or you were compared to an older sibling who was so much better than you were. You struggled to make friends because you felt too different because of circumstances far beyond your control. Feeling less than became seared into your psyche.
We have all felt like we just didn’t fit in. There was always an in crowd and you didn’t meet the criteria. Or you actually did meet the requirements but it didn’t match how you felt inside. Or there was something “different” about your family; a chronically depressed mother or alcoholic father or the non-dominant religion of your neighborhood or a sibling that died. You didn’t have vocabulary for this then but you just knew that when you went to your friend’s house to play, it wasn’t anything like your home. Instinctively you understood that it wasn’t a good idea to invite friends to your house.
We have all battled insecurities and fears. Whether born from reality, imagination or normal development, growing up means facing constant testing of self worth and self confidence. Am I smart enough to pass the test? Will I have a date for the prom? Will I get into college? Why are all my friends better and smarter than I am? Everyday is groundhog’s day as we attempt to calm those inner voices.
We all have dreams. When I grow up…. I will overcome all these worries and challenges and be so awesome! I’ll make enough money to own a house and buy one for my mom, too. I’ll discover something amazing that will help all of humanity. I’ll get out of this shit-hole-of-a-town and never look back. I’ll have a “normal” family. There is a time and place on the horizon that will be so much better. Or we will replicate exactly all the wonderfulness that was our childhood by moving next door to mom and dad.
We all excel at some things and not others. We were too young without enough life experience or context to know that no one was good at everything all the time. Still, we looked at those around us and believed that was absolutely true about those superstars we compared ourselves to. If we soared at math but couldn’t conjugate german verbs we graded ourselves as inferior. If we were great writers but lousy basketball players, we sucked. In time, we all come to appreciate that everyone, including ourselves, do some things really, really well. Maybe even better than others.
We are more fortunate than someone else. We have no control over where or to whom we are born (unless you understand reincarnation). It’s just the luck of the draw that I grew up in Detroit with the family I landed in and you are from your clan in London. We had different circumstances and experiences because of these random beginnings. No matter how badly things went down for either of us, we will encounter loads of people who had it so much worse than we did. We don’t understand this while we are growing up except for all those refrains to finish what was on our plates because there were starving people in Africa. It takes leaving the familiarity of home to understand that people had it better and much worse than we did.
These are just a few universal truths about the human condition that have the potential to allow empathy and compassion to emerge in each of us. But too frequently we forget about these formative experiences once we are doing well in our professions. Once we have attained a level of success it tames our inner worries and what replaces it is a callousness that separates us from our humanity. What happens next, I believe, is sad and preventable.
We twist those memories of feeling less than and not fitting in into revenge fantasies. Where we once felt so dejected, we now play the part of bully and coolest, smartest kid. As leaders and team mates, we make others feel like shit because we never want to be the runt again. We use our position or power or just nastiness to subject people to the same mistreatment we experienced so long ago. From one angle, it can be seen as a triumph over past wounds and feelings of powerlessness. From another, it is becoming the hated tormentor of the past to avoid any further pain.
Fears and self doubt have a funny way of showing up in adulthood. For some of us, the dialogue in our heads is exhausting! Pick your words carefully, don’t be too aggressive, don’t be too passive, speak up early and often, ask for forgiveness instead of permission. We can self monitor 24/7 in an attempt to talk away our anxieties, to look and sound smart, to be better than others, to never let them see us sweat. When this doesn’t work we get defensive, go on attack or withdraw. These are only slightly more sophisticated coping mechanisms than the ones we used as kids.
It is uncanny how much we still hunger to conform/fit in and it is no surprise that most companies are set up for just that. The norms favor stereotypical white male behaviors so heaven help the rest of us who don’t fall anywhere near that map. We hide those stories, beliefs or traits that make us different or unique; growing up poor, the death of a parent, dyslexia we overcame, living a life of extreme comfort, missing a year of school because of a serious illness. If people of color and women could transform into white men it would be so much easier to erase all those barriers!
Our childhoods are spent yearning to fit in and be like everyone else. We bust into adulthood intent on becoming our own unique person and standing out from the crowd. Organizations allow for only a certain amount of nonconformity so we are back to the same dilemma: how do I fit in around here.
What we don’t have as children that we do have as adults is a very sophisticated brain that is capable of complex thoughts, self reflection, analysis and rationality. Do we want to connect to others in the company from a place of shared humanity or do we want to replay old tapes? In the early version of the story we were small or victims or left out. In the sequel, we become the victors (or Vice Presidents). Like all superheroes, we can use our powers for good or evil. We can see each colleague as valuable, with an interesting tale of ups and downs, with big dreams and some crazy skills. Or we can see people as representatives of all our past hurts and take a turn in the bully-pulpit to exact our revenge.
We all have a choice about how we want our stories to evolve. Do you say to yourself each morning as you roll out of bed, “I want to operate from a place of compassion in hopes of getting great work done today”? Or do you sound more like Brain when Pinky asks, “What do you want to do today, Brain?” “Take over the world!”