So I came across a post over at BNET the other day that suggests that our high school selves sometimes come back to kick us in the pocketbook when it comes to our careers. According to business writer Jeff Haden, our professional lives are “like high school with money.” But what might have led to acceptance by the mean girls back in the day can actually be disastrous out in the business world.
He points out that the survival skills we learned when we were fifteen sometimes stick with us when we’re thirty – or beyond — and they rarely end well. You can guess the ones: Looking to the wrong folks for advice; doing what everyone else is doing because, well, everyone else is doing it; making decisions based on the “shoulds”; and caring far too much about what other people think. All these patterns, he writes, can be roadblocks when it comes to building a professional life.
His point, in a nutshell: For good or for ill, most of us got it wrong in high school. And yet, old habits die hard. All of which got us to pondering: Do our high school selves mess with more than the corporate ladder? Are our grown-up perceptions still colored by the girls we once were?
For many of us, life took an abrupt left turn once adolescence reared its awkward head. Maybe we were one of the cool kids. Maybe we were irretrievably dorky. In either case, we were filled with self doubt. Self-definition came in the form of how someone treated us at lunch or whether the phone rang that night. So silly. And yet.
You have to wonder how much of that insecure self stays with us into adulthood, whispering in our ear, making us second guess our decisions, and nudging us to replay those invisible patterns etched long ago. Are we still looking for approval from erstwhile best friends? Is there a part of us that still wants to please the arbiters of ninth grade taste — or show them up? Hello there, mean girls! Take a look at me now!
Didn’t matter whether we were beauty or brains – or none of the above; the prom queen or the wallflower; whether we were picked first or last for volleyball or had our ass routinely kicked by Algebra II. Deep inside, or maybe not even so deep therein, we were all just a little bit miserable because of, or in spite of, how we perceived ourselves back in the day. And what we wonder is this: Did we every outgrow that awkward adolescent? Has she left an indelible mark on our iconic self?
Is she part and parcel of the master narrative we sometimes use to frame our lives?
Don’t get us wrong. Painful or not, high school was a pivotal time. After all, a lot of serious developmental stuff goes down during those formative years, and chief among that work is individuation – figuring out our identity, defining ourselves apart from our parents. It’s a search that leads us logically toward our peers, with this one nasty byproduct: we tend to see ourselves as others see us.
Or, worse yet, the way we think that others see us.
Sure, men are subject to this process, too, but here’s where it’s different for women. We’re hard-wired – or maybe socialized — to please. (Nature or nurture, who cares?) Which is why we listened to those imaginary whispers when we were in high school – and sometimes do it still. We see ourselves through others’ eyes. We judge ourselves by others’ judging. And we ask ourselves: Do we measure up? Do we fit in?
You have to wonder if this is one more reason why decisions are so loaded for women, especially when we’re trying to figure out what to do with our lives. Could this be why we’re always lusting after that greener grass? Why we have such a hard time figuring out what we want?
All of which leads us back to where we started. We can’t help thinking this lingering desire to fit in impacts women more than men, especially as we navigate the somewhat unfamiliar turf of today’s workplace. Because we are unsure of the rules, do we take reactions more seriously? Are we more tentative? Continually looking over our shoulder to make sure those whispers in the corner aren’t about us? Worse yet, do we avoid even putting ourselves out there, sticking with Mr. Safe Path, so we can avoid the risk of rejection?
Good questions, right? But meanwhile, even as I type this, I hear a tragic little ninth grader – the one with the bad hair and the big glasses — whispering in my ear: What will (choose one) think? To which the only grown-up answer is: Who cares. Because while we may assume we’re being judged, more often than not, the only one who’s doing the judging is our high school self.