Cassandra – Melbourne, Australia
I walk into the meeting-room that has been booked for my mid-year performance review. This will be my first performance review with my new boss, Megan. Megan is savvy, smart and straight-talking. I’m a few minutes early. I want to make sure I am ‘on’ and ready to start at exactly 2pm. A large table sits at the centre of the room. I hesitate. Where should I sit? Should I choose a chair next to one of the corners of the table in the hope that Megan might sit next to me? Or should I sit at the head of the table to try to create the impression of confidence? I decide to play it safe and sit down in the middle chair on one of the long sides of the table.
As I arrange my pen and notepad, I suddenly realise how exhausted I am. It is Friday afternoon. I have been in New York all week, thousands of kilometres away from home. The week has been a blur of giving presentations, attending meetings, eating crappy food, drinking too much wine and staring at the ceiling of my tiny hotel room in the wee hours of the morning.
This trip has come off the back of one of my most exhilarating and gruelling career chapters to date. I have recently taken on a new, extremely challenging leadership role. I am not only bone-tired – I am also nervous. The moment I first read the job description for this role, I knew it was the perfect job for me. However, only a few months into the role I am already exhausted. I’m haunted by a feeling that I’m just pretending – at work and at home. Life has a strange surreal quality about it, like I’m having a very long out-of-body experience.
Megan walks in and sits on the chair directly opposite mine on the other side of the table. Almost two metres of table separates us. She does not look happy. Oh-oh. I do my best not to look scared.
Her opening line hits me like a blow to the stomach. ‘Cassie, if this was 1980, I would be telling you to put on shoulder pads and red lipstick. You are so small you lack any sort of gravitas.’
Wow. Okay, then. I think this is what they call ‘radical candour’. Ouch.
My head spins, but I manage to hold it together for the rest of my performance review, by doing all the right things, asking for specific examples, nodding, pretending to take good notes, thanking her for the feedback. Not crying.
It would have been really easy to tell myself that Megan was just talking about my stature – at five-foot-nothing, I have never been described as an imposing figure. However, I knew she was not referring to my height. She was talking about how I had been showing up. She had been paying attention. Damn it.
When the meeting ends, I noisily wheel my suitcase across the car park and fall into the back of the taxi that has been booked to take me to JFK Airport. I burst into tears. I am pissed. I feel betrayed. I had worked so hard and sacrificed so much – where the hell was my gold star? Later, midway through my second, very generously poured glass of wine in the airport lounge, I admit the truth to myself.
Megan is right. I am small. So much smaller than I want to be.
My agency is being diluted by subtle, all-too-familiar patterns of unhealthy striving and trying to prove myself. I have been lured into chasing a ladder-climbing-at-all-costs version of success that did not actually work for me or my family. I have clambered to one of the highest rungs in my organisation, but I am so petrified of slipping that I have completely lost touch with my sense of lightness and play. My clear-thinking had been clouded by frantic busyness. The ‘elephant in the room’ conversations I know I need to have remain well-rehearsed but unspoken. I’ve failed to earn the respect of my peers. I’ve only been harnessing a narrow sliver of myself at work – and that sliver is completely and utterly depleted.
However, I also realise that Megan is wrong. She is wrong about the shoulder pads and red lipstick.
If I could travel back to 1980 and give myself a good talking to, this is what I would say to the five-year-old-version of myself:
The world you are growing up in is a masterclass on how you should be. But you don’t have to be a good student. You will be very, very tempted to join the hustle and to strive relentlessly to collect gold stars – first in the form of good grades and later in the form of fancy job titles, ‘top-talent’ accolades and big salary packages. However, clambering your way to the top won’t fulfill you. It will never get you anywhere close to feeling like you are enough.
Instead, you can learn what it means to be true to yourself in life – and at work.
This will not be easy. The world of work will try to twist your kindness into weakness, and your desire to take care of people into a liability. Your playfulness and sense of humour will be made to feel inappropriate. Those single-mindedly clawing their way to the top will take advantage of your openness to gain personal leverage. Those in power will try to diminish your high ethical standards, labelling you naïve.
You will face many challenges, but keep on practising being you – short, kind, open, caring, playful, idealistic, imperfect and at times inappropriate. Be brave. Learn to trust in the importance of your uniqueness, the truth of your worthiness and the vastness of your potential.
Do this, and you won’t need to wear masks or armour – or red lipstick and shoulder-pads. Do this, and your enough-ness is off the table.