Wednesday, May 20, 2009

My Favorite Quote, and Why

"Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't." -- Margaret Thatcher, UK Prime Minister 1979-1990

I'm not sure when I first heard this quote, but it definitely registered on some level and has just grown ever since. Besides being a great statement about power itself, it has WAY broader applications about personality and identity. Put simply, it says a ton about just being who you are, not being defensive about it, and maintaining a healthy level of skepticism anytime it seeems someone is trying too hard to convince you who they are with words instead of actions.

Here are three examples of statements that have recently set off my BS detector:

(1) "I don't care what anyone else thinks of me." This is one that we've all heard plenty of times, and maybe one we've all said before as well. If it's intended by the speaker as "I don't care what certain people think," or "I'm not primarily concerned with the court of public opinion," it may be true -- it's noble, and I respect it. However, let's be real -- there's no such thing as a person who truly doesn't care what any other person thinks of him or her. Let's start by admitting that whether it's your mother, your father, your child, your boss, your colleagues, or whoever, other peoples' opinions of you affect your sense of well-being. If you still believe that you really don't care what anyone thinks, how about I plaster flyers all over your neighborhood with your name and picture and the words "WARNING: DANGEROUS REGISTERED SEX OFFENDER." Guess what might happen? Suddenly, you might say 'uncle' and realize that yes, sometimes you can be affected by others' opinions.

As I said in the beginning, I really have come across people who are unafraid to take unpopular stances, correct people even when it would be easier to just walk on by, or to tell the emperor that he's not wearing any clothes.

Guess what they all have in common? They don't need to constantly prove it. Just as Lady Thatcher's quote suggests, someone who really tells it like it is doesn't need to constantly, loudly remind people that they do it. And what's the ultimate irony behind a guy who does?

He's probably making such a point of it as a way of trying quite hard to exert a devil-may-care, plays-by-his-own-set-rules persona. In other words, because he cares tremendously what the listener thinks, or at least a lot more than the great median clump of people that sometimes care, sometimes don't, but don't need to make a point of it.

(2) "I never get stressed. I'm Peyton Manning in the pocket on 3rd and 6...yup, I'm unflappable."

Again, I'll grant that some people are way quicker or slower to lose their cool than others. But as I've said a time or two before on this blog, and will probably say again, show me a person who's upset about something and I'll show you someone who gives a rip. I've mainly seen this shine through in work experiences -- the people who don't get excited about anything get away with it because they're not invested in it. They're happy to let others do the work, put their feet on the desk, and then talk about what cool customers they are. Hardly impressive, and hardly a Super Bowl MVP on third and long. Wait until these people have something they're actually concerned about, like a pay issue, a promotion exam, or something in their personal life come up, and somehow all that stress bubbles to the surface.

I feel especially qualified to say this because from 2005 to 2008, I had the neat experience of living and working with people who would meet anyone's definition of a tough guy, or of someone who might know how to handle stress. There were definitely times I saw people get emotional, use four-letter words, and show other outward signs of stress. It was done at appropriate times, it was controlled, and it was the natural outgrowth of someone showing genuine passion about what he did for a living. Right or wrong, one thing's for certain -- I never heard anybody putting their tough guy credentials, or their ice-water-through-the-veins credentials on display.

(3) Any emphasis on one's own humility.

This one should pretty much speak for itself. It's like, if you invite me to your house for dinner, I'm not going to start telling you that you don't have to count the silverware before I come over. Whether I would even think of stealing your corkscrew or pizza slicer is so beyond the pale that it just won't come up. I think of humility the same way.

On a couple occasions, I've heard people go on and on about how humble they are -- in one case, with the stated reminder that "...and let's just say there's a lot I could choose not to be humble about." Huh?

I know plenty of humble people, and it shows every day, in the thousands of little interactions they have with people of all ranks and from all backgrounds. They probably never have to stop to think about it, and they certainly don't have to go around telling others about it.

I've written about this quote at least once before and I know I will again.

In fact, last night at the annual Canal Place I owners' meeting and trustee election, someone who was clearly disgruntled about the way a decision was made to overturn the ban on welcome mats interjected into his comments that, "I couldn't care less about welcome mats."

With a nod to the great humor writer Dave Barry, I swear I'm not making this up.

This guy followed that zinger with a couple paragraphs' worth of comments about welcome mats, and why certain material should not be allowed for the residents who do choose to put the mats in front of their doors.

The many in the room who actually couldn't have cared less about welcome mats demonstrated this lack of concern by not saying anything in the first place, and then politely waiting for this guy to wrap up his comments (it quickly became clear he had not thought to address this before the board previously, as the pro-mat people had repeatedly done) before moving on with their lives.

Before I wrap this entry up, I am going to mention another reason this quote matters to me -- rather than just use it to place value on what's subtle and can go without being said, it also serves as a reminder not to be defensive. This may be reading into it a bit too far (if you don't already know, I'm a huge fan of Margaret Thatcher), but I think it can also apply as life advice for a lot of other situations.

Much like Ralph Ellison's "I yam what I yam," or Martin Luther's "Here I stand, I can do no other," I interpret this quote to mean that sometimes it's not worth explaining yourself if you feel misunderstood or mischaracterized.

Personally, I'm equal parts idealism and ambition, something I've never tried to hide. But I'll admit that it's stung a bit to have people doubt my sincerity, which has happened a time or two from someone making a pat, superficial assumption based on connecting point A to point B on a resume or trying to fit some other decision into a neat narrative.

So here's what the Thatcher quote says to me about that: Stop worrying about the peanut gallery. Be who you are, rather than explain who you are, and charge forth without apology.

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