Do you suppose it’s terrible to talk about yourself or anything positive (or negative) that doesn’t happen to be about world events?
With everything that is going on in our world today, I feel pretty guilty writing about myself …yet here I am.
I just accepted a position with a company that will pay me a lot of money. They believe I am “a talented and gifted writer and strategist” at the “top of my game.”
Talented? Shakespeare doesn’t live here, folks.
Gifted?? Not inept, but far from masterly.
At the top of my game? Sure, if we’re talking minor league.
(My cover letter is pretty awesome, though. It begins this way: I consider myself a Swiss-army knife of strategic disciplines. I know writing and editing as much as I know business strategy. I am also a left and right-brain thinker. I believe in turning over every stone (in a piece of writing and every campaign), then polishing it so the whole thing sparkles majestically.)
Imposter Syndrome is real, but so isn’t my vision of greatness in work. Can one transcend self-limitations and be extraordinary when it matters most? The president of Ukraine proves it’s possible. No, I’m not comparing myself to President Zelenskyy. But some people are meant to rise higher in life. Some people have an unwavering attitude of gratitude and grit. They achieve this growth mindset and thereby achieve their moonshot dreams. I’m not even sure I know what my moonshot dreams are. And grit? I might have had nerve… back in my 20s. And do I want to rise higher in life? I’m getting old. I’m getting tired. I’m very comfortable in this mid-level area where I don’t have to work extraordinarily hard to maintain my innate drive to be excellent.
Now, a story about a pike.
Pikes are pretty forgettable fish unless you’re a smaller fish, in which case pikes are downright troublesome. (That’s what you call a creature that eats you alive.)
Scientists dropped some tiny minnows into a tank containing a single pike in an experiment. Predictably, the pike ate the minnows immediately. But then, a funny thing happened. The scientists lowered in the next group of minnows inside a glass cup. The pike, who couldn’t even begin to grasp the concept of glass and, using his tiny brain, began to smash up against the cup in chase of the minnows. He did this for hours until finally, he drifted to the bottom of the tank, dejected.
Then, the scientists removed the glass cup, and the minnows swam freely all around the tank, undisturbed by the pike. Tasty little morsels swimming right under his nose, and he didn’t move so much as an inch.
This is what scientists today call “learned helplessness.”
Learned helplessness is a condition in which a person (or animal) suffers from a sense of powerlessness due to traumatic events or persistent failure. It’s the reason we believe a situation is either unchangeable or inescapable.
What does this have to do with my new job and colossal paycheck?
Learned helplessness is also a form of thinking that we are a certain way, so we can’t do certain things. A job that pays a hefty salary usually comes with hefty accountabilities and responsibilities, right? Hiring managers don’t typically offer large salaries to entry-level employees. No, I’m not entry-level, but the idea that my salary has jumped as high as it did in one move makes me wonder what accountabilities I’m in for. Better yet, am I qualified for?
Back to the pike. He couldn’t get those minnows, so to him, he was destined to never eat another minnow again. I’m a bit like the pike today. I never pulled in this salary, and I’m reasonably sure I’m not that “level” of an employee. Hmm, how can I better tie this together? Try this: tasty little morsels are swimming right in front of our noses, evidence and ideas that suggest we should make certain choices or try certain things. But we don’t budge. We discount or overlook them. Like our ornery friend the pike, we’ve been trained into believing we are helpless in a situation – or in my case, not worthy of such a large salary.
This story runs in my head as I walk into my new job. And it’s the story that’s been running in my head for years. I think I’m suffering from a specific case of learned helplessness. Thanks to years of cultural norms beating a particular message into my brain, it was learned.
So, the appropriate next question is, if we learned something, can we un-learn it?
Yes! We can un-learn our sense of learned helplessness. How we view things may have calcified thanks to a previous narrative. Still, we can and should seek to change that narrative when we recognize our current story is limiting us. In other words, we can tell a better story in our heads, which then affects how we approach our work.
Unlike the pike, we aren’t running into the glass so much as other barriers. Every time we come up against one, we try to make sense of the moment. We explain the world to ourselves. The more we explain setbacks and obstacles, the more the explanation calcifies in our minds. If we aren’t careful, a pessimistic description can harden our worldview. We then suffer from learned helplessness.
We all do something complicated and daunting in our work, no matter what we create: content, companies, cultures, change in society. It’s daunting to think the product of our minds must be good enough to resonate with others, cut through the noise and spark action, and create movements, businesses, and legacies. That alone is daunting enough, but making matters worse is often how we explain the world in our own minds.
But if we knew about learned helplessness and how it formed, and if we could dissect our own explanations of the world, then maybe we could better control the way we see that next task or opportunity or challenge. We can harness our internal narrative for forwarding momentum and avoid falling victim to the tricks our minds play on us, causing us to shrink for the moment. We can un-learn any helplessness we feel and learn to show up better in our work and lives.
Perhaps I never pulled in a big salary because my work wasn’t worthy, but employers didn’t value it. And therefore, neither did I.
I guess what I’m trying to say is even though the world is in disarray, we shouldn’t put our own story on hold for fear of sounding self-consumed. We shouldn’t think we need only to speak the story of world events. In fact, in the end, the most important story we tell is the one we tell ourselves.