11 February 2009

I've been thinking a lot about my life lately. I've been thinking a great deal about my self-perception and the perceptions of others about me. In my life, there appears to be a schism between those two realities. This disconnect has recently caused me great discomfort and I will be honest...my objective in self-reflection is to assure that source of discomfort is lessened in the future. So this isn't sheer vanity. This is about my desire to live out my life in the greatest happiness and with the least upset.

Although I haven't much thought of it recently, one of the reasons I decided to pursue a Ph.D was the desire for professional autonomy. I was not happy in the traditional business environment. The culture of work has some serious flaws. It is a power heirarchy populated by too many people with no leadership training. It is a military model with no need for lock-step support of corporate ideals. In my job, no one's life hung in the balance if I left a preposition dangling, but I had bosses react as though the world depended on matters less important than that. Does rejecting the model label me as insubordinate? Overconfident? Yes, I am confident. I know that I have talents and I fully employ them to my own benefit. I work hard. I have direction, ambition, and clarity of thought. I get things done. I can motivate people. I can organize the hell out of a project. I have a lot of useful, relevant professional experience. I do not think that I overestimate the value of my talents or my experiences, but I also understand more clearly than anyone my weaknesses. My bullshit meter is full up. I have low tolerance for lazy people. I bristle under absolute authority. One of my pet peeves is people who refuse to accept responsibility for themselves. But really, are these bad things? To understand that I work better in a cooperative environment than a rigid, heirarchical one? To know that I'm better as part of a team than as somebody's bitch? To assume that part of being a professional is acting professional? That where you are paid to work, you are expected to work? No one is perfect, but I don't consider high ideals and a strong work ethic as a personal failure or professional flaw.

But really, there was a bigger issue that I had with the corporate environment.
I was sick to death of pretending that the company was my family and my boss was my parent. Take for instance when you blow something at work. I'd lost too much productivity dealing with feelings of being "in trouble" because "mom" or "dad" was disappointed in me. I don't believe that shame and disappointment have any place in a professional environment. Making the occasional mistake doesn't mean that you aren't doing a good job overall. Making a mistake doesn't mean you should be relegated to the dog house for days or weeks or years. You should be alerted to the problem, counseled and sent on your merry way. What value is shame in the workplace? Now I realize that no one can completely remove these moments from their life, but I was determined to lessen their frequency--especially in the workplace. A Ph.D. offers a measure of autonomy, and the more people I could get off my back, the better. What I didn't realize then was that graduate school simply compresses a lifetime of those crap experiences into 5-7 years, presumably following which you are released into the wild to experience it no more. At least that is my experience. Unfortunately, I'm a few years from re-introduction into the wild. Which brings me back to my moment of self-reflection.

Recently, I was the recipient of unsolicited, undesired, and unflattering criticism from a mentor. While going along and minding my own business--during a phase of rather uncharacteristic productivity, optimism, and happiness, I might add--this person said some fairly insensitive and highly critical things to me about me. Oh, people have said unflattering things about me before with little more than a wink and a nod from me. While I'm sure it never occured to the speaker, the comments suggested clearly articulated that I lacked the personality and personal qualities to fulfill the position that I seek post-graduation. I believe this criticism was untrue, yet it means that the mentor I have trusted with my professional development doesn't know me. This was a serious WTF moment.

The effect of this exchange with this person was that my life was turned on end. My productive screeched to a halt. My optimism evaporated. My happiness turned to panic. This is precisely the chain of events I came to graduate school to avoid. I spent one day in disbelief. I spent three days in complete anger. I had to spend two additional days dealing with the "feelings" of the person who criticized me, who upon learning that I was "upset" about their behavior, became upset with me. Count those days up. I lost a week of work. As I journeyed through this time, attempting to regain my footing and my proper place at the helm of my own life, I had to wonder why this episode had to happen at all. In subsequent discussions, it became clear that this person and I viewed this interchange quite differently. They felt they were giving me "unsolicited advice"; I felt I was being pingeonholed and unfairly stereotyped. Now, it would be easy for me to set this at the other person's feet and say that they simply don't know me. It is easy for me to say that it was something that happened to me, and not that it was something that I participated in. It would be easy to treat this as an isolated event. But that would be untrue. This is not the first time that this person has--for lack of a better description--turned on me and let me have it. And this person is not the only one. There must be a reason these exchanges, that I detest with such passion, happen time and again.

I think we all depend on a certain level of control over our lives. There is a sense of powerlessness when the reins are yanked from our hands and someone else sets the immediacy, tone, or agenda for us. I think there is an additional burden of betrayal when those reins are co-opted by someone who is supposed to be supportive of us. I recall the first time such an event took place with this person. I was accused of not being serious about my work. I was accused of "not wanting it enough". To say that I was incensed was an understatement. But the injustice of that remark was so immediate that I was able to instantly respond. I pointed out that I had sacrificed everything I have, everything I have worked for, and my entire future on pursuing this work. I remember that day because I had to stop myself from saying "How dare you ignore and discount the sacrifices that I have made in my life or the work I have done here?" Looking back on this event, I thought that I had made perfectly clear that I did not and would not accept personal attacks. I am saddened to learn that the lesson didn't stick, The result is that I have lost the trust I felt toward this person. I've withdrawn and am determined to keep our interactions strictly professional. I have decided, if such an interaction happens again, that I will simply explain that I don't find such 'advice' helpful and it distracts me from my work.

I believe that we teach people how to treat us. We give them a sense of our ideas of acceptable behavior. It is the reason that we understand that we cannot act with our grandparents or parents they way we act with our siblings. It is in the way we understand that we must modify our language given the group. Somehow, in my life, I have failed miserably in training others. Quite often, the people closest to me don't treat me with the same humanity that they treat others. I noticed this first in my parents, who I realized treated me very differently than they treated my sister. Whereas they treated her with a great deal of sensitivity and concern, they were often blunt, frequently neglectful, and sometimes uncaring in their interactions with me. With my sister, the kid gloves were on. With me, it was bare knuckles. At one point, I asked my mother why the difference. "Because we never had to worry about you," she said. "You could take care of yourself."

They were lazy and careless with me because I was independent and confident. They had no idea that I longed for a greater measure of concern for my feelings that would communicate to me that they cared.

Almost humorously, I have prided myself on my thick skin. In the writing business, you grow one or you get out. People who could not string together a simple declarative sentence felt competent to critique my writing. I improved my work by becoming my own worst critic and listening to those who had something meaningful to contribute. The vast flood of comments, I had to let roll off my back. That I so seldom become upset by scathing criticism is one reason that people think I can handle it. I admit, I do take criticism well. With more obviously sensitive people, we couch our criticism. We are careful. With someone like me, no need to bother. I can take it, right?

I can handle someone telling my work needs improvement.
But there is professional criticism and then there is personal attack. I can't imagine a circumstance in which someone would call any of my fellow grad students aside and make such casual and biting comments about their personalities. I can't imagine any of them "taking that" as well as I did. However, I am fully confident that I didn't handle this as well as I should have. I attempted to defend myself, but I was so afraid of pissing this person off further that I was submissive and almost pleading in my self defense. It was pitiful really. The response I got was flippant and dismissive. I don't trust that my mentor will refrain from such personal attacks again. In fact, I worry that knowing how this affected me will be used against me at some point. It is clear now, after two similar episodes that my personal relationship with this person is non-existent. My professional relationship feels tenuous. Not that our interactions are uncomfortable anymore. It is simply that I have lost my absolute trust.

Graduate school is a period of intense study in which professionals mold you into a professional yourself. I remember my first job as a supervisor. I was new and I had been hired to supervise someone who had also applied for the job. I didn't know this and therefore didn't understand the animosity I encountered in my first weeks. In one of my first project planning meetings, this colleague challenged me, and I respond to him sarcastically. It wasn't the right thing to do. I wish to this day I could take it back. It was my first test as a supervisor and I'd failed. It is possible that my mentor is in the process of learning to supervise. I have to allow for that. It is also possible that I have unwittingly stepped on toes. But it is also possible that my mentor firmly believes that I lack the qualities necessary to excel in this profession in the future. And that is the greatest shame of all because it is simply not true.

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