Don't let your personal flaws swamp your career (essay)
“Life is short and full of blisters.”
-- African-American Proverb
There are articles on the web about career Achilles’ heels, so that is an image I’ve certainly encountered before.
But I offer another phenomenon to pair with that. And although it’s not limited to heels, it’s not excluded from them either.
Just as actual blisters form as the result of an irritant that rubs on a sensitive spot too persistently – the back of an ankle, for example – a career blister is a vulnerability that may be somewhat apparent to one’s self (or maybe not yet consciously acknowledged) and yet evident to others.
You can’t ignore blisters, though. They can fester, get infected, leave a scar.
And don’t pretend you are impervious to the rough edges of your own personality -- whether you are on the job market or comfortably in the job of your dreams. Yes, sometimes one must “toughen up” (as in the advice to form a protective callus to avoid future blisters). And we must acknowledge our assets and learn to verbalize signature strengths powerfully.
Nevertheless, a career blister may grow unsightly and keep you from the position or promotion you want. It may undermine work relationships. It might just make or keep you miserable. So take careful stock of yourself. Note raw, sore points – even if you would rather ignore them.
Blister 1: You don’t like me! You really, really don’t like me!
I have a friend with a disability not apparent to others. Raised in an affluent suburb, she feels that others judge her as privileged, even though her life was derailed by a serious illness and its aftermath. Her dreams of a specific career had to end but she still works diligently. An extrovert, she is easy to get along with when others are responsive. However, when some people do not know what to make of her ebullience; they may pull back or give “a look.” She can then bristle at perceived rejection.
Max Bazerman has written in Environment, Ethics, and Behavior: The Psychology of Environmental Valuation that “thick character armor” may shield one from anxiety. A crusty person may, indeed, be frightened or guarded whether an introvert or an extrovert approaches – and may have assumed this stance over many years. Crusty people may feel very cold to others but that may indeed be an adaptation to difficult situations. I’ve tried to share with her that some people are more accepting, others less so, of extroverts. My “logic” is not the balm she needs for her emotions.
Adding to my friend’s frustrations is awkwardness with people of other races. She cried in one conversation, frustrated with her inability to connect as she would wish. Race is always going to be a dimension of our national and global identity; diversity is a reality and so is, as one of my students put it recently, unity.
Balm: I am not the judge of my friend’s tolerance or empathy, but I do gauge that she is in distress. There are many kinds of resources to help broaden mind and heart. In her own fear, she may be making challenging situations more uncomfortable. It is -- admittedly -- difficult to walk in someone else’s shoes, whether they are different due to temperament, culture, heritage, socioeconomic status, and myriad other factors.
Blister II: She’s the star. There no room here for the rest of us.
Whether it’s the heralded book, the big grant, the promotion to greater responsibilities or some other enviable recognition, she/he is at the front of the pack. Again.
So what are the rest of us: chopped liver?
The generous path, I think, is to sincerely wish someone well. And if that feeling does not emerge right away, try to work toward it. As psychiatrist Abraham Low put it, “an insincere gesture is better than open hostility” in trivial matters of life. But it’s not always so easy to dispense with afflictive envy, and some eloquently express the power of venting such emotions.
Growing up in a family with two older sisters with extreme sibling rivalry without closure, I very early became weary of jealousy. I witnessed much unhealthy conflict; when I see dynamics of this sort in the work place, I might wish for mythical parents to make all feel appreciated and to create equitable conditions for all employees to excel.
Balm: If support from without cannot materialize, that self-support is something we might cultivate inwardly. Don’t kick your colleagues. Don’t kick yourself. Don’t hit your sister over the head with a garden shovel.
Blister III: Our “enemies” are morons.
I once overheard a heated conversation between a couple at a religious gathering. They were widely known as advocates for many good causes. Their conversation was very agitated. “Oh, they’re all going to be dead soon,” said the husband to the wife firmly, referring to fellow parishioners who had disagreed with them vehemently on a dilemma. The interaction reminded me of the adage: “I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand” (attributed to Charles M. Schulz). Sharp words are a sign, perhaps, of impending burnout …. with so much (too much?) invested in an outcome, losing sight of opponents as people.
Balm: When rhetoric takes a nasty turn, perhaps it’s time for a break from the work altogether; put your feet up. If you are hostile to those you are helping, that may be a send of impending burnout.
Blister IV: I’m not chosen for the team: again!
A sense of rejection is indeed a tough blister to bear, and every career has a fair share of it. A contact of mine got a job at midlife after her children were grown and felt that “the clique,” as she called it, of younger colleagues simply would not accept her. She strived to be friendly and approachable but was rebuffed time and again. A colleague faced a similar situation as “the oldest student in her class” on a campus where she had invested substantial time and tuition. “They won’t even establish eye contact when I enter the room,” she said.
No one wants to walk around as if invisible; the conscious and unconscious reasons people “exclude us” are too numerous to list. There is still a choice in such situations. Accept, strive to change the situation, or move on. If a department, office, boss, or college ignores your talents too many times, prepare an escape route. In the meantime, find supporters. We are social creatures, even the introverts among us.
Balm: If there is a place where you can let your talents blossom and where you might cultivate them, put on your walking shoes and head in that direction, even if it’s a risk.
Blisters are a gentle warning. Don’t let them fester.
This is part of a column, A Kinder Campus, that explores human relations in the academy. It offers anecdotal and research support for the idea that when we work kinder, we work better. Workplace morale, civility, and collegiality count. Goodwill is free, so stock up and spread it around. Topic suggestions are welcome. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.