This morning, I found one of my 2009 reflections about competition in the workplace. In it, I wrote about my insecurities as an Assistant Professor. I mentioned that I didn’t want to gain access to resources by kissing up to others and didn’t want to network in an insincere way. I also wrote about how I thought that the playing field within higher education was unfair to women, particularly those with assertive personalities. At the time, I felt lost and somewhat hopeless about how to play a political higher education game with rules that I was never taught.
My concerns were recently confirmed in a study and report by Joan Williams, Katherine Phillips, and Erika Hall, Double Jeopardy: Gender Bias Against Women of Color in Science. In it, black women were reported to be penalized for being self-promoters but were encouraged to be assertive when they were promoters for a larger group. For years, I did not realize that people had empirically studied topics that I know about based on my everyday professional experiences. I am glad that many of these thoughts are not just floating around in my head.
Over six years later, when I stopped fixating on the higher education game and on the competitive nature of the academy, I began to succeed in my own skin, and I found my scholarly identity. A person who served on a departmental committee with me years ago recalls my having to apologize to people in our group prior to making points so that they would receive what I had to say. Now, when I make statements that others may misinterpret, I consciously allow myself to remain quiet and let the statement hit in the way that I intend it to hit. Yes, there are potential consequences; nevertheless, I’m learning to be okay with those consequences. This year, I refuse to apologize for being confident. Below are three tips that I believe will guide people, particularly those working in academia, as they explore ways to overcome their professional insecurities.
(1) Surround yourself with people who celebrate you and don’t tolerate you.
I like the Merriam-Webster definition of celebrate: to praise (someone or something) : to say that (someone or something) is great or important. This means that although you may have weaknesses, the people who around you spend most of their time highlighting the positive aspects of your life and your unique skills and gifts. They don’t learn of your weaknesses and then expose them in ways that embarrass you or place you at a professional disadvantage. In the same way, tolerating someone sounds like a burden. You want to connect to people who look forward to engaging with you and seek ways to strengthen your relationship. If you aren’t around these people, seek them now. We each have talents, and people should be drawn to the lights that radiate from us. Believe that these people exist, and you will soon connect to them. To learn more about ways to attract quality people to you, watch this video from leadership guru John Maxwell.
(2) Identify what you do well and perfect that.
Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, offers great insight about how people become experts in their respective areas. After approximately 10,000 hours of consistent engagement within an area, people have acquired the skills to become masters of their craft.
Many of us look for shortcuts to success and for ways to push ourselves into personal and professional circles that grant us access to resources reserved for only a select few. Instead of spending most of our time looking for these opportunities and being disappointing when we do not gain the recognition that we seek, we should put our hands to the plow and work. While others are sleeping, we should read about advances in our fields. We should connect to people who advise us of courses and resources that shed light on ways for us to become better people. When we do this, competition is not as important as the crafts that we seek to perfect.
(3) Realize that you have one life to live and competition should not be the focus of that one life.
One hundred years from now, we will all be dead. This means that our insecurities will no longer matter to anyone, especially us. We are given one life to live, and how awful would it be to draw your final breaths wishing that you had living life on your own terms- free and not caring about what others thought of you? One of the best legacies that we can leave is the knowledge that we lived our lives with no regrets.
Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland presents this well when he writes, “In the end…we only regret the chances we didn’t take, the relationships we were afraid to have, and the decisions we waited too long to make.” When we think of life this way, competition should not intimidate us since we should give no one the power to make use feel insecure or unsure of our futures.