One scene from the TV show Friday Night Lights really stuck with me. For those who don’t watch the show, Jess (pictured above) is the daughter of a former high school football star. To get closer to the world of football coaching, she washes jerseys and jockstraps for the high school football team (the life!). There is a poignant scene where after telling one of the assistant coaches her insights on why a play isn’t working, she overhears him repeat her advice (as his own) to the head coach. The head coach is impressed and delighted. The camera pans back to Jess who smiles contently as she continues to fold jerseys in the background.
You liked it, you really liked it
At first this scene warmed me – I thought of all the times I have experienced the same exact feeling. When I hear my boss say something I had said in a public meeting, or when I see a report or document that has been published with bulks of my writing untouched. I listen, look through, and smile to myself with my own sweet, secret validation.
But as I continued to think about it days later, this scene began to gnaw at me. It seemed less warm, even frustrating. Why was I so happy with just the validation that I had something worthwhile to say (while others get full credit), rather than actually being heard myself? I’m not saying you shouldn’t pay dues, and that it isn’t natural and normal that established and successful people employ others to support their work. I don’t think a company president needs to publically mention each assistant individually for their respective contribution, I’m just saying that moving beyond validation to pushing for my own visibility, voice, and credit is something that doesn’t naturally occur to me.
It’s hard to put yourself out there, you know, in front of everybody
To be honest, I’ve even gone out of my way to purposely conceal my involvement, and instead seek validation through other less public routes. A former (great!) manager wanted me to present something I had worked on for months at a conference, and I pretty much begged them not to make me. The idea of turning down an opportunity like that now is absurd, but at the time it just seemed potentially painful. Working under someone who will pick and choose amongst your work behind closed doors can act as a great buffer between your insecurities and the real world, whereas saying something at a conference (or to the head coach) provides a clear opportunity for someone to very publicly tell you you’re wrong.
There’s always a next time
I did end up presenting at that conference (because my boss insisted), and I’ll admit it wasn’t a slam dunk – while some people liked it, the feedback was mixed. But what surprised me was that it didn’t make me crawl in a hole and swear to never open my mouth in public again. It was actually quite the opposite – it made me more confident about what I would do better next time. It made me much happier I did it. I’ve had similar opportunities since, and I’ve honestly done a world better.
Getting out of the comfort zone
In the real world, you don’t get consistent, structured performance feedback like you do in school. This is an obvious reason why many Asian Americans are top performers in school, but represent a much smaller share of managers and executives. Your progress depends on knowing certain people, pushing for ideas that may or may not succeed, and, most importantly, seizing opportunities when you find yourself in the right place at the right time. For me, having a voice for these occasions – one that has been developed by taking risks and getting feedback from audiences out of my comfort zone (like this blog) – is really integral to succeeding in whatever I do. Insisting on my own voice and credit is an evolving process that progresses through small statements in meetings, or sometimes even random blog posts on the internet.