What do you do when you’ve been underestimated? Counted out? When your skills and abilities have been made to seem inadequate? When someone in a position of respect and admiration has deemed you unworthy? When you confront the giant on whose shoulders you stand, and they convey that they don’t really want you there? How do you deal?
No. 1: Don’t take it personally.
You don’t know what another person is carrying with them when they choose to project their insecurities onto you. As a young professional, or an aspiring young professional, there is a great deal that you do not know. I’m not only talking about the substantive aspects of your profession, but also the inner workings of your organization. For instance, until you are managing a book of business and until you have clients, you will only have a theoretical idea of how billing works at your organization. You may understand that sometimes a partner has to write off some of the time you spent working on a matter, but if you don’t have a financial stake in the time that is being written off and you don’t have to make the decision to write time off, then you are not as affected. You also do not completely understand the intricacies of balancing client expectations with the need to make money. Additionally, if you are not the boss, or the board member, or the brand ambassador, or the owner, you will not understand the pressure the boss feels. This pressure is sometimes manifested in the way the boss/partner/object of your professional and personal admiration treats you. Their personal experiences coupled with their projection, conscious or unconscious, of those experiences onto you can make you feel stifled and may cause you to wonder why they don’t think you’re worthy.
The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz, declares that you should not take anything personally, and especially not someone else’s experiences, fears, anxieties, and pressures. Ruiz writes:
Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in. When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world.
Don’t take anything personally because by taking things personally you set yourself up to suffer for nothing.
As you make a make a habit of not taking anything personally, you won’t need to place your trust in what others do or say. You will only need to trust yourself to make responsible choices. If you keep this agreement, you can travel around the world with your heart completely open and no one can hurt you. You can say yes, or you say no — whatever you choose —without guilt or self-judgment.”
Can you imagine that? Saying yes, or no, without fear or judgment? It almost seems like a utopian way of living… except that it’s not. It is possible to live that freely, and it is a goal of mine to fully actualize the ability to exist without taking things personally. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend reading The Four Agreements. It’s a quick but resonating read. (Click the link in the photo caption to take you directly to the book on Amazon.com.)
I recently felt that my ability was in question and initially I was taken aback. Shaken, actually. I racked my brain to try to figure out why I was being doubted, what I had done to make this person that I admire question my commitment and skill. I worried. I wrote out my thoughts, feelings, frustrations. I came up with a plan of action to right the course of doubt. I made talking points for my next meeting. Then, I calmed down. And I spoke to my mentor and also to one of my friends who has the ability to talk me off the ledge when I’m getting too turnt (hey, I’m passionate and a Gemini). After all of this, it became clear. This person that I admire, that is a powerhouse, a giant, has their own burdens to carry, burdens that I will never know and will never carry. What came across to me as doubting my ability and commitment was really this person taking the precaution necessary to perform their job exceptionally. Simply, no slackers allowed. This person’s work is too important and they must ensure that whoever is a part of that work is ready to also carry their load. I came to appreciate that. I came to understand that I cannot take personally the statements that I perceived to be throwing shade at my skills and commitments personally. It’s not me. At the same time, that experience lit a fire in me.
No. 2: Use it as fuel.
I know my abilities better than any person on this earth. More than that, I know my potential and potential is immeasurable. Although I may feel an initial sting when someone, especially someone whom I respect and admire, has counted me out, I ultimately become powerful in their damnation of my ability. Don’t mistake me: I can count on one hand, not including my thumb, the number of times that a person has had the gall to doubt me. I hated it, but I loved it.
When I was in high school, there was a well-respected and well-liked teacher who told me that I should go to a historically black college or university because I would not do well at a predominantly white college. Never mind the gargantuan shade she threw at HBCUs, seemingly implying that an education at an HBCU would be less competitive, easier to handle, or some sort of ill-conceived cake-walk. This woman, for whatever reason, tried to scare me into a different path, one that did not include the University of Southern California.
You know what I did when I got to college? I slayed. Period. Not just because this woman doubted me, but because I wanted to. I was put on this earth to be amazing.
Around the same time, a good friend told me that his mother said I only got into USC because I am black. I knew then that her lack of faith in me and my ability was not born out of her perception that I lacked the merit to be granted admission into USC. So, why the grief with me? Probably jealousy. Let’s be clear, however. Her son did not get in because of his race or ethnicity, or because of any lack of merit on his part. No, her son did not get in to a more prestigious school simply because HE DID NOT APPLY. He took himself out of the game. More importantly, that experience and my reflection upon it as an adult, reinforced that I cannot compare my experiences and my credentials to his, or to how he or anyone else, perceives me.
“Comparison is the thief of joy.” Roosevelt.
No. 3: FOCUS.
On you. On what you do well. On what you need to improve if such improvement is imperative to your success journey. Be happy with yourself. Period. Manufacture and manifest happiness. Start from the deepest crevice in your soul and nurture your happiness until it seeps into every atom of your being and until it cannot be contained by your skin and bones. Your success, the success that you define and seek, unconfined by the restraints of society, will naturally flow. Understand what you want, what makes you happy and do that. Forget everything and everybody else. Forget everybody else’s naysaying. Forget their unsolicited advice of how sucky they think you are. Focus on what is important to you.
Let’s be clear: if your boss is genuinely concerned with your performance (notice I didn’t say with your ability), then consider those concerns. Ask for specific examples. How can you fix a problem that your boss has identified if you don’t know, clearly and definitively, what it is? You can’t improve if they hide the ball. For instance, if you’re dating someone and that person tells you that he or she finds you annoying, just generally annoying, then (after the initial “what the hell” shock), you might ask: “What about me, exactly, do you find annoying?” If they say, “I don’t like the way you chew with your mouth open, or the way you toot in the car with all the windows rolled up without prior warning,” then those are discreet and defined actions that you can choose to fix. A general “you’re annoying” declaration is just abusive language. You can’t do anything with that, and you probably can’t do anything with the declarant. I would seriously question why someone would make a blanket statement of my deficiency and they can’t point to anything specific that I can improve upon. I would wonder if they were interested in my success or in setting in motion my demise.
Being underestimated, doubted, or ridiculed is not permission to shrink. It is not permission to dim your light. And it is not permission to lower your expectations for yourself. Rather, it is an opportunity to engage in self-reflection, to evaluate the basis, if any, of the criticism, and to respond as flamboyantly as humanly possible to show that, indeed, you are worthy. You are more than a conqueror.
Wishing you unfettered strength, success, and style.