I’m a black woman millennial who went to college and who is now imperfectly navigating the early stages of my career. So HBO’s Insecure—a show created, executive produced by, and starring Issa Rae—is a crucial part of my weekly ritual. Also, I’m a media studies professor, which means that what would otherwise be an unhealthy amount of television engagement is completely normal for me because: research. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get to a gem that writers dropped into episode four.
Molly, a young attorney who is in the middle of transitioning into a new position at a new firm, is frustrated by what she assesses as a lack of progress. Despite her legitimate experience and quality ideas, she finds that she has not been able to get enough traction, leaving her to fade into the background rather than shine like the star she believes herself to be. In the middle of venting, her therapist disrupts her complaints in the way that all good therapists do, with a powerful question. Have you considered that maybe you’d be less frustrated if you focused on how you can be helpful rather than where you should rank?
When you’ve worked as hard as Molly has to establish yourself as a worthy professional, the answer to that question is: Really, Dr. Rhonda?! At least that’s how I imagine Molly answered in her head. The notion that forging ahead with a hustle-hard approach may not be the most efficient strategy reads like an insult at first glance—a sexist or ageist insinuation that Molly should fall in line and wait her turn while the status quo goes undisturbed.
After watching this episode for the (ahem) third time, I can fully appreciate the wisdom in Dr. Rhonda’s question. She is not suggesting that Molly’s frustrations are invalid, nor is she advising her to fall back or dim her light. The therapist’s question is intended to encourage Molly, and us, to explore the most productive way to showcase her talents. What do you do when the success strategies that you have used in the past no longer yield the same results? How do you manage the environmental shifts that render your ways of being and doing less useful?
I’ve been reflecting on these questions a lot lately as I encounter changes in my personal and professional worlds. What does it look like to live a healthy lifestyle when so many of my hours outside of the office are filled with ensuring that my toddler eats the right things and gets enough physical activity? Which methods that worked well for me as a graduate student and a postdoc need to be updated to fit my new role as an assistant professor?
Transitions are inevitable and often bring unanticipated challenges. Changes at work bring the added pressure of being connected to our livelihood, and often, our sense of self-worth. But what if we were intentional about placing smart parameters around what happens in our professional lives?
Molly’s resistance to exploring different approaches to standing out at work were in part impacted by her reliance on professional accomplishment for affirmation. She was dissatisfied with compromises she had been making in her love life, and was looking for work to provide a sense of stability and progress. There’s nothing wrong with feeling good about professional achievement, but when we depend on our careers to fill emotional and spiritual voids, we are setting ourselves up for disaster.
When you and I maintain that work is what we do and not who we are, we free ourselves to weather the storms of change more peacefully. Join me in some experimenting this week. Try applying one new tactic at work that will help you advance in an area where you’ve been frustrated. As a graduate student I often stressed about the gap between the excessive effort I put into teaching and the mediocre comments I sometimes received on course evaluations. So this week I’m committing to operating within the time limits I’ve set for lesson planning, and not going overboard out of fear that students won’t like me or won’t recognize my skills as an educator. Email me or leave a comment below to share your approach. Here’s to freeing ourselves to work smarter, not harder.