Maybe they get annoyed because you are more successful than you look

Cancer Survivor’s Artwork Travels the World as an Inspiration to Others

Someone who looks like you should not be invading our space (image by Cindy Faust)

I just had an interesting conversation with a friend about a very specific kind of uncomfortable interaction we experience as we move forward in our career and become more successful. And that’s the push-back you get for being more successful than you look. What do I mean? Well, she described a number of very impolite encounters as a younger looking African American woman (three status reducers in a row… wow – how lucky that she is also extremely bright and resilient). And I had to think of a friend who got into a leadership position in a large organization before growing any grey hair.

As long as you are among your supposed peers (in terms of external visual factors as in age, gender, race, social background) and filling a role that is similar to other people in this group, you might rarely experience these behaviors. People are decently nice to you, you feel like we have arrived in the 21st century, achievements are based on merit, not external factors… And then, all of a sudden, just as you are feeling like everything is going right professionally and you are moving from one success to the next, you get all these reactions from people that look and feel like racism, sexism, any kind of -ism and all they are saying is: “Someone who looks like you should not be here. We are people of status and success and what on earth do you think you are doing here.”

What I found interesting in this conversation was to understand that it is easy to go through experiences like this and completely misunderstand them: Instead of thinking: “How come that all of a sudden society has become much more backward and hostile than it was a few years ago?” You might be thinking (once you can let go of the pain and disappointment): “This pushback is a sign of my success – of the fact that I am moving far beyond what others would expect of someone who looks like me and that makes them nervous. They feel like I am getting in their space and are insecure, fearing what would happen if there was an invasion of their space of privilege by people who look like me.”

While the second thought also doesn’t change the fact that you are having annoying encounters, you can feel the power. And you are not a victim.

What’s it worth if it doesn’t make money?

Don't dismiss these fish just because they can't fly (copyright by torbakhopper on flickr)

Don’t dismiss these fish just because they can’t fly (copyright by torbakhopper on flickr)

The new year comes with a lot of questions about where I want to go, how I want to live and love in the year to come and who I am. As my friends feel the same way, I have had a lot of interesting and inspiring conversations in the past days and here is one tought I want to share.

I was having lunch with a friend who is free-lancing and we were talking about the project that fills his heart with joy but doesn’t fill his pockets with money. As long as you are one of us, who have to work for a living, that’s a tough place to be in. Rent has to be paid. Bacon (or tofu) has to be brought home.

So, when you are in a situation like this, people may ask you: “What’s it worth if it doesn’t make money? Nice that you have a passion, but if it doesn’t pay the rent, it’s just a hobby!” Really? What do you want to be remembered for? What is going to be your little or great legacy? Maybe this burning passion of yours will change the world. Or make your neighborhood, family, dinner table a better place. It might lead you to do the most meaningful valuable things. And just because it cannot pay rent, you dismiss it?

You could make a long list of people with “hobbies” (things that didn’t pay the rent) whose passions led to legacies that long outlasted their physical existence and made the world a different place… Start with Jesus, Ghandi, Mandela, add most artists, authors and many famous scientists…

Sometimes we are in the lucky circumstances that there is a great overlap between what we are passionate about and what pays the rent. That doesn’t make our passions more valid, it just means we are lucky. If you are not in this space right now, how about uncoupling the two: Find something that is bearable enough that pays the rent. And give your passion all the respect it deserves. Instead of ridiculing it like a fish that can’t fly.