I've just finished reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton's book about losing the "un-lose-able election". It took me back to an interview I saw a few years ago with Australian columnist, presenter and commentator Jamila Rizvi about the launch of her book, Not Just Lucky.
The premise of Rizvi's book 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?
I felt a prickle of recognition.
A few years back I was promoted into a new job. It encapsulated all of the things I love to do and that I do well - developing new business ideas, 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 is in a particular 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 lucky and like it could all be gone in a flash.
And I wondered, could this be the ephemeral quality that 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.
Our attachment to humility does not always serve us.
Over the first couple of chapters, my inner voice protested but gradually I saw Rizvi's point. 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."
One example she writes about is women crying at work, something that is frowned upon. But it's actually the result of frustration, of endlessly persisting with putting your 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 all boils over...and leaks.
Changing the rules of play.
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 post!) while girls are discouraged from showing anger and aggression. So first comes that conditioning - the collaborating, the being appropriately assertive discussion, the admonishment to play nicely - which eventually over-rides the authentic response - of 'me'.
I'm not suggesting that women (or anyone for that matter) should adopt aggression and anger as a mantra - we all 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? Here are three gems I found in Rizvi's chapters that I thought would empower us - regardless of gender, race, circumstance etc. - to look beyond our conditioned responses.
1. Accept that your brain is hard-wired to protect you from lions, not criticism.
Cortisol has achieved something akin to 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 us alive. Now it appears, it's criticism. Thinking about it like this made criticism seem palatable and eminently more survivable - for me anyway.
2. Don't forget it's the receiver that makes criticism constructive.
We love to be right and to make others wrong. We can 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 strategy, marketing, innovation and customer development and I forget how many layers of 'knowing' I have developed. But when I first became an entrepreneur, I was thrust me right back into the space of conscious incompetence and with each week that passed I was faced with a) just how much I didn't know and b) how scared I was 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 us?
The world can't afford to wait for us to be perfect. We have far too much to offer to be squirreling it away until it is 'just so'. So first, let's practice owning our successes. And secondly, let's stop taking the criticism as "there's something wrong with me". Instead let's see it as an opportunity to grow into the people we 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. It was a deeply touching acknowledgment. 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 there's a saying that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. And luck is also hard to 'own'. Perhaps what it's really time to start thinking, saying and embracing is that luck has [almost] nothing to do with it.
How much of your life are you willing to own? How prepared are you for luck to strike? Do you feel grateful? Empowered?
Or are you just waiting to feel lucky?
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