January so far, although always hard as it’s so dark, has held some really good news, and February has knocked it out of the park in terms of nice events, with celebrating both a Professorship and Freedom of the City of London. One of the interesting things that has struck me about both of these though, is how reticent I’ve been feeling about shouting about them, especially in the lead up. Almost as if I fear that once I talk about them, they could be taken away. This is slightly ridiculous as they aren’t the kind of things that will disappear. They are however the kinds of things that feel really important to me and I don’t want to risk them being tarnished or diminished by others. We all know the people out there who will be: ‘well, you only got X because of Y’ or ‘that kind of thing isn’t really that important these days, is it?’ or even ‘I would have gone for that too, but we both know it’s just playing into the system, and I’m not about that’. The kinds of things that get said to your face, let alone the kinds of things that get said behind your back.
Now, I’m a grown-up (most of the time), and I tend to let these things wash over me, but it can certainly take the shine off things. Worst than that, sometimes I allow it to take the shine off things merely because I predict it will happen rather than waiting for the reality. Sometimes, I am my own worst enemy.
After all of these years, I’ve just accepted the reality of this, but I didn’t realise until very recently that in Australia and New Zealand they have a term for it = To Cut Down Tall Poppies. I think I’m probably late to the table, but in case anyone else is in the same boat (to mix metaphors), the term refers to:
The idea is that we, as human beings, do not like outliers. We do not like different or people who stick their head above the parapet and dare to be seen. This really hit a cord with me. There have been numerous times over the last few years where, as I’ve been fortunate enough to succeed, the reaction has not been particularly positive. Even from some colleagues that I trusted to support me, especially as I started to forge my own path, which was different to the one they perhaps expected.
The end result has been that sometimes, instead of embracing the joy of the moment, I’ve spent too much time worrying about others’ reactions. Sometimes, I haven’t even mentioned to colleagues and others the end results of things I’ve worked long and hard for, as I’ve been too concerned about making situations harder for myself. I’m super fortunate now to have a great team that always exhibit genuine joy or amusement for some of these moments, but it’s taken me time to get here, and habits can be difficult to unlearn.
So how do we move from a space where we feel like we need to limit ourselves, limit our futures, in order to feel safe in the space we occupy. How do we move from the person who cowers to the person who has the courage to stand tall and occupy the space they rightfully possess. The below are a few lessons I’ve learnt, sometimes the hard way, and some things I’m trying to embody in order to be a bit braver every day, especially when it comes to owning my success and supporting that of others.
Know when and how to apply your boundaries
I once was awarded a grant for over £600,000.00. When I mentioned it to my colleagues at the time I was made to stand up in a meeting and apologise for not including any medical colleagues on my application, to explain why I had not reached out to add them to my grant. I patiently explained it was a Healthcare Science fellowship, that I was on supporting another Healthcare Scientist. I was thrown by the reaction. I apologised before I had time to think whether I should. My immediate reaction was to say sorry for overstepping my bounds, for being outside of my box.
In reality, the opposite was true. It was them who were breaching my boundaries. I was just so taken aback by it that I was unprepared. I’m still a natural apologiser. My default is still to say sorry and run from the situation. I don’t like conflict. What I try to remember now, though, is this. Every time I am in that situation and I take the easy route out, I make it harder for the person that follows. I reinforce the thinking that asking me ‘why’ and forcing me into a scenario where I needed to say ‘sorry’ was the right response, instead of simply saying ‘congratulations’. I also make it OK for them to do it to me again in the future.
Sure enough, I don’t discuss my grant funding very often in-house anymore. I don’t tell people when I succeed. I’ve even gone so far as not to host most of my research in my department. It’s been shown too many times to me how it could be weaponised against me on a whim when I stepped out of my box too much or when I didn’t play the game. As something that is super important to me, I removed the risk by removing the opportunity for it to be limited. I’m aware that hasn’t helped break down those very silo’s I’ve avoided, though. All I’ve done is leave the same traps for others. So now my job is to be braver and to try and change things rather than hide from them. Now, I need to not only know my boundaries but stand by them to support others.
Know how we impact others by our choices
The problem with being too set in these boundaries however, is that you may not allow room for growth and change. We can get so caught up in protecting ourselves that we go too far the other way and isolate ourselves, closing off both ourselves and the setting. This is the difficult balancing act. The thing is, nothing stays the same. People change, both in how they interact and whether they are still decision makers. Personnel in general change, so we also need to be aware that boundaries may need to shift and flex rather than staying the same. In the example used about boundaries above, many of those people don’t work with me anymore, and so imposing the same rules now as then, may no longer serve the same purpose. We do ourselves and others no favours in being immovable in our responses. Instead we need to try to remain agile enough that we are aware of potential challenges without losing opportunities.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt is that to remain open requires you to be brave enough to be vulnerable and to potentially face disappointment. If we don’t and just assume others won’t have your back, you have thereby remove their opportunity to support you and therefore you won’t ever have their support. In addition, let’s be honest here, some of the fear of telling others is definitely linked to imposter syndrome and the fear of being ‘found out’. In the end I think it comes down to being aware enough to set boundaries when they need to be set, but also spending enough time reflecting and trying to live your values. That despite the risks, you decide to be seen anyway, because that is what will help and support others. It is what will ultimately lead to change for all.
Own your own path
During the first workshop for the Nosocomial Project, a mentor who I admired greatly said to me, ‘Don’t you understand that you are taking an enormous risk? What if it goes wrong?’ The thing is, by avoiding risk and listening to people who, often kindly, warn us about the possibility of failure, we ensure that the best we will ever be is average. We will never truly reach our potential if we fear what it is to be seen or to fail. You won’t always succeed. It won’t always work out. You will however always learn and it will bring you one step closer to succeeding next time.
In moments like the one above, you have to be able to look inside yourself and have the strength and the determination to carry on seeing the vision or the end point. I’m not saying you won’t have self doubt, I’m not saying to not have fear. I have all of those things in spades. What I’m saying is that you need to make the conscious decision not to let them stop you. Have fear, but do it anyway. Don’t let others make you listen to those inner voices more than they deserve to be heard.
Often, we say to ourselves in these moments, ‘Who am I to…….’. The way I respond in these moments to myself (and don’t laugh – or do because it sounds ridiculous) is by saying ‘I am Dream Fucking Cloutman-Green and I am because I can’. It’s my mantra and combined with my ‘Get Psyched’ mix it has got me through a LOT of days and moments of self doubt. Find the thing that works for you, and don’t let others pressure you to be less, and sure as hell don’t pressure yourself to be average.
Let’s change the conversation
The change starts with us, every interaction we have, every moment when we choose jealously or fear of failure over joy for someone else. I am not a saint, I sometimes have that moment when someone declares great news where my brain flashes the ‘what about me’ message to my eyes. The things is that response isn’t based upon reality because a) there are more than enough opportunities for everyone to succeed, therefore someone else’s success doesn’t come at a cost to you and b) even if it did cost you just because we are trained into thinking everything is a competition does not make it so. Therefore, I hope that despite what my initial reaction in my head might be, I would know that it was built on false thinking and that joy was always the correct response. This isn’t Highlander. There can be more than one (lovely 80s reference for those of you who are old like me – to the rest of you, YouTube it).
We change the conversation by being aware of the way we have been trained to think and behave towards each other. Not by denying that that taught behaviour exists, but by acknowledging it and actively dealing with it each time it rears its ugly head. Every time we respond initially in the moment, in our minds, with less than joy we need to course correct. Ensure that words out of our mouths and our body language demonstrate that joy, but also take some time afterwards to understand why it triggered us in the way it did. Being open with ourselves opens the door to reflection and learning in order to improve who we are. Nothing changes by accident, each and every one of us needs to put in the work.
So my final thoughts are:
- Let’s actively welcome in the good rather than looking for the bad
- Let’s choose to celebrate with the four people that see us and raise us up rather than focus on the one person who can’t
- Let’s acknowledge our journey, our progress and not get distracted by the stumbles along the way
- Let’s fertilise the soil rather than beheading the outliers so we all grow healthier and better to achieve our potential
All opinions in this blog are my own