The perils and pitfalls of being smart

Last year, my oldest sister was on placed on hospice care. We did not have time to set up hospice at home – or even to get her moved into a private facility. The best we could do was to make her and our family as comfortable as possible in her hospital room. It wasn’t very private. It was often crowded with friends and family.

One day, a hospital patient wearing a fuzzy pink robe and bunny slippers shuffled her way down the hallway and into our room. Noticing the cart of coffee and snacks that the hospital provides for hospice family members, she exclaimed, “Oh, is there a party in here!?” I looked behind me for someone in the family – someone in more in authority – to answer. They were all gone. They left me holding the bag. After I stuttered a mumbled response to the poor woman, who was now clearly embarrassed, I turned to look for my family and – miraculously – there they appeared again.

“You jerks,” I said. “Where were you when I needed someone to answer?” Their response was, “You know we have social anxiety. And anyway, you’re the smart one.”

Meeting everyone’s expectations without losing sight of myself has been challenging

Every person has a story. My story begins with my birth. It was notable because I was the last of five children born to immigrant parents who were in their 40s. The myth in those days was that a child born late in life would be either handicapped or exceptionally smart. But I came out just fine. I imagine all six of them – my parents and four siblings – heaving a huge sigh of relief. And then leaving me to my own resources.

Challenge # 1 was that I was dubbed “the smart one” from the very beginning. I don’t think I was any smarter than anyone else. But that label stuck.

The thing is, we don’t become who we are because of anyone else.

Our stories are self-written. Which leads me to Challenge # 2: I was the youngest of five. These people did not have energy for me! And so – left to my own devices, I was free to be anything I wanted to be.

We all have role models, of course. My immediate role models were

  1. My mother. A hardworking woman whose young mother somehow found her way from Czechoslovakia to Ormrod, Pennsylvania in the 1920s (that alone boggles my mind!) – but who was very introverted and quiet for fear of speaking the English language incorrectly.
  2. My father. A self-taught electrician and carpenter who labored in the cultural melting pot of the Bethlehem Steel beam yard and taught us about doing the right thing no matter what anyone else said.
  3. My two older sisters – both of whom were married and out of the house by the time I was five.
  4. My two older brothers – who were five to seven years older then me, but frequently let me accompany them on trips to New York City, fed me pizza with too much hot pepper sprinkled on it (just because they didn’t want to share), and who loved to have conversations with big words in front of me so I wouldn’t have a clue what they were talking about.

No one modeled how to navigate a corporate world. No one told me what to be or how to be it. That can have its advantages. And disadvantages.

It was hard to be me in a world designed for men.

I wandered thru careers – in finance, insurance and managing a retail store – before I joined the corporate world. I entered there as an administrative assistant.

One day, a manager came out of a conference room where he was meeting with my boss, (we’ll call my boss Ken) and said, “Sherry, Ken wants coffee.”

I looked at him with my “for Pete’s sake” look on my face, dug into my desk drawer and handed a bunch of coins to the manager. He looked at me with a smirk and said, “you don’t really want me to do that.” I did. But I didn’t. I got the coffee.

And then I went back to college and moved into Human Resources.

At this point, I was

  1. Married
  2. The mother of two pre-school girls
  3. Working full-time
  4. And trying to finish my college degree at night

And here’s where I start to feel the pinch of being born late. My dad had died a few years earlier – and he was my rock. One person I could always rely on to watch the kids for a bit or to fix something that was broken. And now my mom was unable to walk without assistance thanks to a diabetic neuropathy.

My sisters would call me at work. “Sherry, mom’s basement is flooded.” “Sherry mom’s bank account needs to be settled – you know how to do that.” “Sherry I don’t know what to do with all these medical bills.” You get the picture.

And then my marriage just didn’t work out.

My life was chaos.

At 40 I started over. On my own, in a new house, in a completely new town, with two pre-teens. That should have been challenge enough. But – no. I chose to switch careers too.

This was the opportunity of a lifetime – although I didn’t know at the time. I was just ready to risk a change. I took a leap of faith and volunteered (yes – you read that correctly – I volunteered) to join an SAP implementation project team.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, our new home didn’t even have furniture. I would drive through the neighborhood and spot old stuff someone had left on their curb for the trash service, and I would pull over and put it in my car. (While two pre-teens squirmed and cried “mo-m!”)

A typical morning involved walking the dog, making breakfast, signing school permission slips, fixing hair, throwing in a load of laundry and placing the evening’s meal into a slow cooker before 7:30 am. In my office I hung a photo of Kayla with her hair died bright blue and a note that said “this is why Sherry is always late to work.”

And those mornings when the kids gave me a hard time – not wanting to go to school or scared of giving a presentation or taking a test? I sent them to school with this postcard that said, “Be Brave. Even if you’re not, pretend to be. No one can tell the difference.” (I’d been playing that game myself for years by then.)

At this point, I didn’t have time to be like the other managers (men) in the office.

When girls / women behave in unexpected ways they (we) are not very well received. And I wasn’t the only one experiencing this.

While I was feeling the stress of trying to be a woman in a man’s world, my daughters were experiencing their own authenticity pains. 

Kayla – my youngest – was this petite cute blonde on the school’s dance team. She got perfect grades. Chelsea’s report card was like a box of chocolates. You never knew what you were going to get. But she had other talents. She was a tomboy skateboarder, singer-songwriter playing in a pop punk band.  Kayla was a preppy girl who (it seemed) could do no wrong. She wore the right labels, hung with the right crowd, chose her courses and extracurricular activities with a lot of thought about appearances.

Kayla fought to conform. Chelsea fought not to. 

Meanwhile back at the office I was leaning in (not so successfully)

I have to say that leaning in was not really well accepted in a male dominated workplace. As a matter of fact, leaning in without a supportive spouse and a housemaid and nanny at home is pretty much impossible.

I mean, at work, I tried. First I kind of leaned in with body language – showing I’m here and I’m engaged and I have something to contribute. Then I’d try to speak. They most typically talked on top of me. Then I would raise my voice and make my point quickly. Typically – it turned out to be something they hadn’t thought of.

They said I was “direct” – like that was a bad thing. I just didn’t see any point in dancing around the subject. First of all, I didn’t have time to mince words. Secondly, I was a communications study who focused on listener and receiver and wanted to be absolutely clear – I wanted no misunderstandings.

My communication style became a constant criticism. Year after year on my performance review there would be a comment about my communication style not being up to par. But never any specific constructive feedback. Often the biggest critics were women.

Finally, one year I said to my boss, “Listen I don’t know who is saying that my communication needs improvement – and I don’t know what to do to fix it. I think I pretty much say the exact same things you would say.” He looked at me sort of stunned. “So,” I said, ” the next time we’re in a meeting together or you overhear me saying something wrong or not politically correct, please kick me under the table, pull me aside after the meeting, do something to tell me exactly what I’m doing wrong.”

I never got that criticism again.

I didn’t get a kick either.

In spite of myself I became a leader.

I would still say my lack of conformity is not well received by all. At work, I was made the manager of our global IT employee systems programs and later of our infrastructure mergers and acquisitions team. In my volunteer role with Americas’ SAP Users’ Group, I was nominated and voted into the Board of Directors.

In spite of being direct (aka “authentic”) . . .

In spite of my own expectations and others . . .

In spite of my fears . . .

My family, my life, my work left me no other choice. And it’s been a good choice.

As the graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat once said, “It’s not who you are that holds you back. It’s who you think you’re not.

Believe. Be brave. Be you.

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