I learned something similar when I was in my 30s and a stay-at-home mom. Back then, successful days meant getting to the end with the house still standing and at least one kid still talking to me. Extra points if no one complained about dinner.
I was already boarded for a rare solo flight to visit my family when a tall, beautiful, finely-coiffed woman dressed in an expensive power suit came down the aisle. Silently I started willing her to another row, “don’t sit next to me, don’t sit next to me…” Not necessarily because I like having the row to myself– who doesn’t?– but she didn’t look like anyone I would have anything in common with and I was in the mood for in-flight chit chat.
Of course, she was seated next to me and a tasteful cloud of expensive perfume settled in around her. She was confident and impeccable, I felt small and frumpy. When she told me what she did for a living my brain translated it to “Upper Management, Financial something, Impressive Degree.”
If my emotions at that moment were described as my perfume, “small and frumpy” would be the base note, with “unaccomplished” as the top note, and a heart note of “intimidation.”
Within fifteen minutes she was asking for life guidance. She may have been professionally successful and confident, but she was personally very insecure. That flight made me realize that most people are great at something, but most people also have parts of their lives that are a mess…just like the rest of us.
That fact became my mental equalizer.
I don’t know about you, but I often have to relearn lessons. I don’t forget them as much as I misplace them, it makes me feel better about myself if I think of it as relearning them for emphasis–like a life exclamation point.
Maaaany years, an actual career, and a new definition of personal success later, I was at a professional conference cocktail hour. Along with my co-workers, we were planning an exit strategy so that we could head out for our collective dinner plan when we spotted someone we knew of: a person who was at the top of the game in our industry. The person who had lived the dream of rapid and overwhelming success in the field–so successful that people outside of it would know his name. (Yes, even you; no, I’m not spilling the name.)
And this pinnacle of success was standing alone, nursing a clear plastic glass of a clear liquid, ice cubes, and a lime wedge.
As the designated extrovert in the group, it was quickly established that I would go over, break the ice then the rest of the group would join and invite him to go to dinner with us.
Crossing the hotel’s ballroom-turned-networking-club, I did feel nervous. Just because someone is extroverted that doesn’t mean they are confident…or at least it doesn’t in my case. I am not very good at networking events, I say really stupid things and always manage to find a couple people and stick with them the whole time which totally negates the purpose. That night I had seen this guy in several group conversations, although I hadn’t been in any of those. I thought to myself, “He looks so serious, he’s probably sick and tired of people ‘picking his brain.’ ” When I passed the point of no acceptable social-detour and he made cautious eye contact I thought, “Holy crap, I’m intimidated.”
I mumbled an introduction and invited him to come with my group to dinner and, as per the plan, my pointing brought all of them over. Chatter began, not business chatter but a talk about anything but our industry.
His face melted to a sincere smile and his quiet demeanor took over his previously intimidating stance. I realized that while he earned his professional confidence, personally he was as awkward as me (only less animated about it.)
He couldn’t join us for dinner, one of those earlier, better at networking groups had invited him, but when we parted his, “Nice to meet you” was very sincere.
As was mine.
I’ll probably have to relearn this, again–my life needs a lot of exclamation points–but I’ve not allowed myself to feel intimidated since.
Impressed, yes, but not intimidated.