A week ago, I turned forty. Age is one of those things that on one level we can all recognize as relatively meaningless, and yet, birthdays still manage to have quite the impact.
With turning forty, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and self-reflection, and I have a great deal to say about women and confidence and leadership. But I want to take some time to do the topic justice. (Also, I am pet-setting a very emotionally needy poodle who has taken to sitting on my feet when I’m not paying enough attention, so deep analysis may be a little tricky this week).
So for today, I just wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on some of the lessons I’ve learned in my first forty years of life.
I’ve spoken before about how I am not a fan of the word nice. To me, nice means behaving “properly” and how society wants you to act, especially as a woman. It’s a perfect little box that we are meant to fit in. Nice means prioritizing making others comfortable, even when they’re being sexist or racist or homophobic. Nice means asking politely to be treated as a full human being, and then not making a fuss when once again, the powerful put themselves first. And as I hit forty, I realize, I have no time for nice. I don’t care if the rich white man is uncomfortable with being called out for his bad behavior. I don’t care if the white woman gets teary at being called out for her privilege. I don’t care if the racist or sexist or homophobic jerk gets in trouble for ranting online. Nice doesn’t matter.
But kind does. Kind means looking out for those who are most vulnerable. Kind means seeing the humanity in those most marginalized. Kind means calling out your own biases, and holding yourself accountable when you do damage. Kind is understanding that your intent doesn’t matter, and you need to do better. Kind is realizing that it doesn’t minimize your own struggles to acknowledge your privilege. Kind is putting people over profit. Kind is loving both yourself, and others.
Nice is a cage. Kind is a key.
The world is unfair. Fight for fairness anyway.
I can safely say that before I worked in the world of Child Welfare, I had some pretty significant blinders on. That job is largely responsible for my high level of cynicism about the innate goodness of most people. There’s a difference between knowing what people are theoretically capable of, and then learning what people are literally capable of.
I also had another tough hit the night of the 2016 election. That’s when I realized that the misogyny in this country was still so strong that a large number of people would prefer an utterly incompetent male leader over a competent female one.
And over the last few years, my heart has broken countless times at the blatant abuse of power and victimization of marginalized groups. There is a part of me that believes that humanity will always be doomed, because of those selfish and corrupt individuals who would happily pull all of us into the pit just so they can stay on top as long as possible.
I honestly don’t know if we can fix climate change in time, or stop some other kind of disaster for humanity.
I also know I’ll never stop fighting for a better world anyway. It may be futile. But I’m pretty sure that no one reaches the end of their life and says, “Wow, I wish I was a bigger jerk to people.” or “Geez, I really should have exploited more people for profit.” I don’t have faith in a lot of things, but I do have faith in myself, and that choosing a life trying to make our world more fair for the oppressed is a life I can be proud to live. No matter the outcome.
Surround yourself with the right people.
I think a lot of us, especially women, have a tendency to make allowances for others who are not treating us right. So often we question our judgement, tell ourselves we’re overreacting, make excuses. One gift of age? You eventually realize that life is too short to put up with toxic people. Your radar gets better. You realize that blood ties do not excuse bad behavior. That people who make you feel bad about yourself do not deserve to be called friends. That you can cut out those who would pull you down. That you can find your people, find your family, in a myriad of places. You deserve kindness and love, and don’t have to tolerate cruelty or toxicity.
This is not to criticize those who may be in genuinely abusive situations, which are much more difficult and dangerous to get out of. But so many of us tolerate negative, toxic, and harmful behavior when we don’t have to. We want to give grace, we want to be forgiving, we want to believe the best of those we care about. Yet what about giving ourselves grace, forgiving ourselves, believing in our own best? We deserve that, and to do it, we need to give ourselves the gift of being surrounded by loving, supportive, amazing people.
There will always be a reason not to.
One of my work teams once did an activity where we wrote down notes, anonymously, saying what we appreciated about each other. I was both surprised and complimented when multiple people described me as fearless or adventurous. I would never describe myself that way. In my mind, I have bucketloads of fear, and feel like I generally play things very safe.
However, one thing I’ve realized is that I have gotten better at moving through the fear. (Better, though not perfect).
Because, in the end, there will always be a good reason not to do something. A good reason to not move, to not change jobs, to not travel to that distant place or try that new thing. Only you can decide which reasons are too big to overcome. But if every reason is too big? That’s a good time to think about your choices, and the cost of fear.
I gave up a lot of security by quitting my job. I took a lot of risks moving to a state where I knew no one. None of it was easy. But I don’t regret a second. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be who I am today.
You do you.
A side effect of being unpopular in school is that you grow up with a heightened sensitivity of what you choose to share with others. It’s taken me decades to get to a point where I am completely unabashed about how utterly geeky I am. I remember the day we had a work meeting, and everyone talked about a hobby they enjoyed. For the first time, I spoke openly about playing video games and how I found it really therapeutic to fight enemies in a game (I also may have used the phrase “big-ass sword”). People were surprised, and thought it was funny coming from me. They also accepted it unconditionally.
Accepting my weird, geeky self has led to writing a blog that uses a superhero figurine as metaphor and stories about video games to talk about leadership. And I love it. This blog is genuinely me.
So often the lessons we learn as children are the wrong ones. You don’t need to hide. Love what you love, be who you are, in all of its delightful weirdness. There will always be people who won’t accept it, but like I said above, you don’t need those people. There are plenty of us who will think you are wonderful, just the way you are.
I don’t know what the next few months will hold, much less the next decade. But if past history is any indication, I’m feeling pretty good about where I’m going to be. There will be failures ahead, this I know. But oh, what glorious failures. And in the end? I get to come out the other side even better.
Interview with Maya Angelou, May 19, 2013
Oprah: “So when whatever it is hits…”
Maya Angelou: “Thank you. Because I know something better is on the road for me. So you fired me? Good on you. And very good on me. Cuz what I’m going to get darlin’, you would long for.”