Had an odd thing happen at work today, something that gave me pause for several reasons. We have consultants doing an assessment for us over 13 weeks and it’s about halfway done. They’re conducting a series of interviews with personnel in different departments. I’ve participated in a few of the meetings, both as an interviewee and observer/contributor.
This young female attorney is part of the team. She’s whip smart, confident, stylish, and attractive. The whole package. Frankly the whole team is relatively young and incredibly sharp. Sigh. Reminds me of the days when I was younger, sitting on the other side of the table, flying around the country doing similar work. You learn a massive amount of knowledge in a short period of time working as a consultant, and I miss those days sometimes. What an incredible way to build a foundation for a career.
Notice I said “when I was younger” and not “when I was young”. I don’t care what my chronological age is, I’m not old. I may not be the youngest in the room, I may even be the oldest in the room, but I am not old. That’s the one of the beautiful things about being so intensely curious, you don’t have time to grow old in mind or spirit. Forever young.
Anyway this young woman seeks me out to grab a cup of coffee to continue talking about one of the matters that arose during the interviews, and I was happy to oblige. Part of me was surprised, because outreach from younger people rarely happens, so I wondered if there was more to the request.
Shortly after the conversation began, she confessed she sought me out deliberately. “Ever since law school, everywhere I go, I look around for the power women.” That’s who she wants to know and she’s taking the time in her consulting career right now to meet these women wherever they are across the country since our industry doesn’t have an influx of women in it. She wanted to understand how I got into my line of work, what my experience has been, how I balance career and life, and where I think our industry is going.
We talked for nearly two hours. Our chemistry was immediate, and frankly, it was incredibly cool. I learned about how she immigrated from western Asia as a pre-schooler in the mid-90s and how she was he first in her family to go to college, let alone law school. How the professional and personal path she is carving for herself is very different from her family of origin, and it is important to her to seek mentors. When she goes home, she has no one to guide or advise her because they don’t understand her career or lifestyle, nor do they always agree with her choices. Choices that look very smart to me, but nevertheless radically different than what her family knows.
I sat across from her, humbled, honored, and full of admiration for her initiative. I wished there were women mentors like that available to me when I was her age. When I was her age, my office had one woman partner who was strangely aloof toward the younger women staff. She finally softened up in her late 40s, only after she learned she was dying from cancer. She passed a few days after she turned 50. Back then I wished there was a thing called LinkedIn where I could easily remain in touch with the few women I did meet. I’ve been on LinkedIn since 2002 or 2003 but it seems like only now is this the day and age where staying professionally connected online is a thing. And good for my coffee date to have the foresight to network like a boss early on in her career.
Now part of what made today feel so good was the ego-stroking, I’ll admit. I admired my new friend from across the consulting table and the feeling was mutual? And even better: she called me a power woman.
Damn straight, I am.
I may not know everything there is to know in my line of work but no one does. I’m curious, bright, and a holistic and strategic thinker. I can figure things out. I’m resourceful enough to know who I need to collaborate with internally and externally to my company to make things happen and I have the initiative to do it, so I do. I see the sweet spot where company need, my skill set, and my interests all intersect and frankly, I am one of the only people I know who can pull it all together. Deep in my bones, I know that about me and I have total confidence in my ability to deliver.
But this is where the conversation felt odd and I wanted to be dismissive: I don’t claim the “power woman” label. Ever. I know I should own it, but part of me is too humble to go there. Part of me was looking over each shoulder to see who she was talking about. Did she actually mean me?
Now the crazy thing is, humility can be a good thing – and sometimes I hear overpowering Christian messages to be humble – but humility is not helpful when you’re eager to contribute and live a life of meaning. It often requires stepping far outside your comfort zone. And the Bible even guides us not to hide our talents under a bushel.
But back to humility: I mentally struggle with whether I have arrived at a place of enough significance in my own life and with my own accomplishments to own the “power woman” title. At what point have I actually “arrived”? I don’t know the answer to that question.
I come from such humble beginnings, the fact that I even went to college for an undergraduate degree was a big deal. The knowledge I’ve gained since then is enormous. And the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know.
Take the case of some volunteer work I’ve agreed to do. I have reluctantly joined the finance committee of a non-profit. I say reluctantly because I struggle to think I’m the smartest financial mind to tackle the issues at hand. Surely there have to be others who are more qualified. But there aren’t. It’s me. I have what it takes, and what it takes is someone to step up. And now that I have, I’m committed to solving the problems. I can’t just kick the can down the road when I know a better way to handle it. Part of me wants to blow everyone away with improvements (seriously, the running list in my head is already endless) but I also need to pace myself being that it is volunteer work after all and I don’t need to burn myself out. Nor should I drive changes at a pace that overwhelms everyone involved. So yeah, I am the power woman who can make it work.
Still, it’s hard work to strip away the limits I put on myself. I can keep growing if I so choose, and I know this to be true because I’ve proven it over three decades of professional life.
I mentioned before that courage is my word for 2019, and I’ve challenged myself with a couple of quotes:
What would you do if you knew you could not fail?
And this one:
There is no passion to be found in playing small and settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living. – Nelson Mandela
Both of those are meant to jolt me awake, especially the Mandela quote which truly speaks to me.
Still, I told my coffee date about how I don’t consider myself a power woman, and we laughed about it. We both knew the story of Oprah who was asked to give Harvard’s commencement speech, and she was nervous about it. She wondered if she was good enough to live up to the honor, it being Harvard after all.
But she’s OPRAH. She practically written the book on how to carve a life of meaning on your own terms.
And my coffee date and I then laughed over the story of how Beyonce turned to Oprah on another occasion, and asked whether her performance was likewise “good enough”.
Queen Bey said what?
Both of these women are powerhouses in their respective fields, frankly superstars who have transcended their original line of work to be true artists, and they’re asking the same question? The same question I’m asking?
At least I’m in good company.
I know you’re not supposed to care what other people think of you, but I do. I don’t want to look or be foolish or arrogant. There are plenty of men and women with titles higher than the one I hold right now, and frankly, you could easily argue that it is their responsibility to make the magic happen, not mine. But then I think of yet another quote:
Leadership is not about titles, positions, or flowcharts. It’s about one life influencing another. – John C. Maxwell
I also think of a friend of mine, this intoxicatingly strong woman, a power woman if ever I met one. She’s a surgeon, author, and pioneer in her chosen specialty. She tweets pictures of herself and her activities with the hashtag #Ilooklikeasurgeon to educate people what women do and how they succeed in the STEM fields. My admiration for her is through the roof.
We had a recent conversation about self-worth which spawned another hashtag, this one called #knowyourworth, and I know this: my current title is no indication of my value. I know my value. I know my stuff, yet I am likewise savvy enough to recognize the need for expert advice to close the gaps on things I don’t know. I often think I need to own my worth to the same degree as I know it, taking my cue from my surgeon friend.
But my coffee date? What a way to start a Monday.