- Gerald Chertavian
One day at lunch several years ago, I ran into a more senior colleague in the parking garage. She had always been friendly with me and despite our ethnic and other differences, we had forged a professional friendship. We stopped for a moment to chat. She asked if anything was new with me and I shared with her some news of a work assignment I had received.
“That might be a bit tricky for you,” my colleague said in the kindest voice she could muster. I suppose she meant to convey concern.
I didn’t respond.
“Not because you’re not smart or anything,” she quickly tried to explain. “It’s just that you need to focus on other things you normally do and shouldn’t worry about this type of issue. It’s really complicated. You know? It’s also kind of a big deal. I wouldn’t want you to be stressed while trying to handle this issue properly. Our supervisor must not have realized that he was assigning it to you. I think you should check with him to make sure that he meant for it to be assigned to you. You know, just to make sure that it wasn’t a mistake.”
I was quiet as I pondered how to respond.
While keeping a smile plastered on my face, I eventually said, “Thanks so much for your concern. I’ll look into it.” With that, I ended the conversation.
As I walked away, I thought about what had just transpired. Admittedly, when I initially received the assignment, it did take me by surprise. Not because I thought I was incapable of doing it, but because it was outside of the scope of the work that I generally did.
However, I was taken aback by this particular colleague’s overblown expression of concern. She thought I lacked the chops to competently handle this assignment.
I wondered to myself: did this colleague genuinely think that she was protecting me from my inevitable fate of failure or was there some other more nefarious intent behind her words? Did she actually want to undermine me and make me second guess my ability for some other reason?
Both prospects were troubling.
If her goal was to “protect me” from what she saw as my inevitable failure by telling me that I was not suited to handle an issue because it was “really complicated,” then she had a lot to learn about the impact of low expectations.
If her goal was to get me to abandon the assignment in a fit of despair so that it would free it up for someone else to take it, like her, that was even worse.
Either way, I had no intention of being complicit in her scheme. Her mission would not be accomplished.
I am no stranger to people underestimating my abilities and if you’re reading this blog, I suspect that you are not either. Being underestimated is hurtful, but we have to choose how to respond when it happens. My colleague’s words did initially sting. I had come to respect her opinion as a more senior colleague. It was quite sobering for her to question my ability to handle an assignment. But after I digested the bitter pill of the reality of my colleague’s true opinion of my abilities, I remembered all of the people who had gone before me who had not only been underestimated, but actually restricted from participating in certain civic, professional and social opportunities. People like our World Changer of the Month for September, Geraldine Lawhorn, who was a deafblind singer, pianist, author and teacher, as well as the first deafblind African American individual to earn a college degree in the United States. Given that she was a Black woman with two disabilities born in 1916, I can only imagine how many times she was told that people like her could not achieve, yet, she persisted.
The memory of Geraldine Lawhorn and so many other women who had gone before me and had accomplished so much despite encountering so much more opposition than I had, reminded me that not only could I forge ahead with that particular assignment, but that I had a responsibility to those who would come after me to do so.
We must keep forging ahead.If we don’t blaze trails for ourselves, who will?You never know who you will inspire
 It is well-established that expectations matter and that expectations forecast outcomes. Studies show that teachers’ expectations of students influence outcomes by becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. (See https://www.educationnext.org/power-of-teacher-expectations-racial-bias-hinders-student-attainment/.)
- President Theodore Roosevelt
Recently, a young lady named Mattie* came to me for advice. She was distraught because she felt as if she was behind on achieving all of the important milestones in life. “It’s not fair,” she began. “Everyone’s life is so much better than mine. All of my friends have boyfriends or fiancés. I try to meet people online and they are all jerks. I hate my job. I don’t make enough money. I don’t like my body. Everyone else looks better than I do. I’m just tired of everybody else’s life being so much better than mine.”
I asked her what proof she had that everybody else’s life was so much better than hers. She responded that she could tell by the pictures people posted on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, etc. “Everyone looks so happy,” she lamented.
I told her that her frame of reference was skewed if her sole determination of a person's happiness was what they posted on their social media accounts.
I explained to Mattie that what we see on social media is carefully curated and filtered. And the filtering is on so many levels. First, the images that show unhappiness, insecurity or discontentment are often completely excluded. Second, of the photos displayed, people or information in the background that do not support the narrative being promoted are edited or cropped out. And then finally, of the images that do make the cut, they have often been manipulated with filters and diffused lighting so that fine lines are smoothed out, imperfections erased, faces slimmed, eyes widened, hair lengthened, etc.
This type of creativity and editing are fine if one is looking at such an image for what it is: an interpretation of a moment. However, when a person takes curated images at face value and then compares themselves to what they see, they run the risk of killing their joy.
Real life is not filtered. It is not curated. Life is life. There are usually no cameras present when we lose our job, flunk a test, get dumped, lose a loved one, or are simply having a rough day, but those lows are just as much a part of life as the highs.
What makes life the beautiful and textured journey that it is are the twists, the turns, the highs and the lows. And if we are honest with ourselves, we can probably acknowledge that we enjoy a high all the more after coming through a low. How much more do we enjoy a promotion after working for it over the course of time? How much more do we savor getting an “A” on a test in a subject that we find challenging? How much more do we enjoy purchasing something we’ve longed for after saving up for it? How much more do we enjoy true love after not having it?
Our goal in life should not be achieving the status that we think others have. If we are always trying to “keep up with the Joneses,” we will never win our own personal race because we will be competing in someone else’s. We will find ourselves chasing after someone else’s life and not living our own.
As I concluded my conversation with Mattie, I reminded her that her life was uniquely hers. Voyeuristically watching someone else’s life does not teach us how to live our own. All of our lessons and experiences, the pleasant and the grueling alike, prepare us for the next phase of our unique life’s journey.
She sighed, but seemed to receive what I said.
“So Mattie,” I concluded, “Stop watching everyone else’s life and live yours.”
*Name has been changed to protect identity.
- King David
Many of us have grown up with the belief that if we work hard and persevere, we will be able to achieve our dreams. This belief is at the crux of the American Dream. We are taught that nothing can stop us if we try our best. We can come from any situation or station in life and rise to the top.
I agree that hard work matters and that much of what we achieve is directly connected to the amount of effort that we put forth. However, many of us are misled to believe that accomplishing our goals, whatever they are, will solve all of our problems. As we strive toward our goals, we should ask ourselves what we expect for the tone and course of our life thereafter. What does our version of achievement and success look like in real time? What can we expect during the ins and outs of our days? When we say we want to accomplish our dreams, what are we expecting that to look like? Do we believe that success will silence all the “haters”? Are we expecting life on “easy street”? Do we expect that moving forward we will not have any problems, worries or stress?
Simone Biles is an individual who we can all likely agree has accomplished, or is on the road to accomplishing, her life’s goals and dreams. To date, she is the most decorated and dominant gymnast in the world. She has earned a combined total of 30 Olympic and World Championship medals and is expected to add to her collection at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. She is considered by many the G.O.A.T. (the greatest of all time).
But what does being the G.O.A.T. look like? Of course, Ms. Biles enjoys fame, worldwide adoration, notoriety, respect among her peers and wealth, but has her G.O.A.T. status insulated her from pain, negativity, hatred or difficult times? Absolutely not. In fact, Ms. Biles has been open about her struggles with people speaking negatively about her appearance, questioning her merit and launching attacks to undermine her achievements. Indeed, it seems that her talent has not insulated her from this negativity. To the contrary, it has attracted it.
When Ms. Biles made the decision to pursue elite gymnastics, she likely thought her toughest hurdles would be related to athletic performance and competition. Now that she is at the most elite level, she’s encountering other challenges that are seemingly unrelated to her performance.
However, I posit that the negative behavior is related to her performance. Ms. Biles’ excellence is triggering resentment and feelings of inadequacy and insecurity in others such that they have decided to attack the person who is achieving what they wish they could.
Stellar performance does not warrant negative treatment, however, it certainly attracts it.
When direct campaigns of negativity rear their ugly heads while or soon after you’ve accomplished something great, and you have evaluated your conduct, searched your heart and can honestly say that there is nothing that you have done to warrant the behavior, exhale and know that this does not mean that you are doing anything wrong. In fact, you’re clearly doing a lot right.
When things get tough while you are in the midst of accomplishing your goals or when you feel as if you are being attacked after earning an achievement, take heart and remember that it comes with the territory of being great.
Success might not look and feel as you anticipated, but don’t shy away from it when it becomes hard. Be strong, be courageous and continue to do the work to remain great.