I had a relational meeting today with another organizer, someone who, like me, had just started a position in a new context. We had set up a time and a place, and we had found each other in the crowded cafe. Now we were sitting, coffees in hand, phones turned upside down on the table.
So, tell me about yourself. What drew you to this work? How long have you been involved?
I have been brainstorming, writing, practicing, testing out different “stories of self” for the last month. Different narratives I could keep in my back pocket, bring out as needed. I pulled on a couple, shared them. Asked some questions and the organizer shared, too. But it didn’t quite feel right. It was a little too . . . scripted.
So I took a risk. I went off script. I took the conversation meta. “I’ve been working this month on further developing personal narratives, and I’ve found that reflective process really rewarding,” I said. “And honestly, I’m also still struggling with how to not have that preparation for conversations turn the conversations stale, commodified.”
A look of relief crossed his face. “I’ve been feeling that same way!”
It was a turning point. We shared with each other for another hour before I remembered the clock, that I had a 2:30 and needed to go, that we should we should define our next steps and wrap up.
This story represents a continual tension and challenge for me, namely how to hold a balance between preparation and openness, presentation and vulnerability. It often feels all too easy to tip too far, in either direction. There can be consequences, too. I’ve been called out for being “too confident in my assertions.” I have been told I should take more of a stand. I have left meetings elated at the quality of the connection and the enthusiasm with which we’d set next steps, and I’ve left others with a pit in my stomach, worried I shared too little, or too much. For women, the lines we walk can be particularly thin. How do I, how do we, navigate all this?
I’ll take it meta again – that last paragraph, was that too much? There’s a voice in my head, right now, that is telling me I have a feminist imperative to not display signs of self-doubt. If I do, people will shred judgment into me, and as a result will not take me seriously, and then they will take that out on all women, forever. Ah! Better to pretend I’m infallibly strong, confident, quick-witted, perfect.
And then there’s another voice piping up to weight the other side of the seesaw. “Pretending” to be someone I’m not – trying too hard to put forward and protect a particular image – does not make me strong, says that voice. Trying to live up to the unrealistic and frankly over-individualistic, masculine expectations implicit in much of society does not make me infallible. My true strength, confidence, and quick-witted perfection exist in the constant rebalancing. Even when I mess up. Especially when I mess up! It’s how we learn. It’s how we connect.
There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to this work, no rule of thumb applicable to every situation. We need tools in our tool box, and we need to stay open enough to know when to chuck the toolbox out the window. Sometimes, we goof. We all do it, and we all know this, I think, on some level. Yet, writing this today has got me wondering: what would it mean to really fully live life as though we know that even our goofs are openings for connection? How much more present and whole would that allow us to be? That’s when I remembered the scratchy and immortal words of Leonard Cohen: “forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”