Who Do I Admire?

My head hurts. Not from a classic, garden-variety headache but from the feeling of too many ideas elbowing each other for space in the clown car that is my brain. I’ve spent the last four days with talented, capable women who (like me) are focusing on their professional development and it has been all I can do to furiously jot notes down for future consumption. I’ve probably got fodder for 10 future blog posts, but my head is stuck on one question:

Why can’t I name someone I admire when the question pops up?

Here’s the thing, facilitators and speakers love to ask this question. I’m sure my psychology major friends could provide a scientifically framed explanation, but I have a suspicion. I bet it’s a great way to generate positive feelings and a list of worthy attributes based on one’s lived experience. But, no matter why it is successful, I will tell you that it is so common that it has happened three times at this conference alone, not to mention the myriad of times over my lifetime. And every time I am asked, I pause frustrated as my brain goes foggy. And I guess that would be fine if a shiny hero walked out of the fog with her sword ablaze — but she doesn’t.

What is wrong with me?

I’ve always had a mental gap in idolizing famous people. The weird thing is that it is not for a lack of respect. I have an abundance of respect for the mega-talented, but it has never translated into a desire to put those individuals above others in my pantheon of admiration. If I’m honest with myself, I think it’s because of my need to know someone, in a “sit down and chat” kind of way, before I can see them as a person worthy of admiration. Yes, I can observe someone’s capabilities from a distance (acting performance, sports accomplishment, company’s stock price, singing voice) and be in awe of their skill in their craft, but a question pops up in the back of my head.

“Yes, but is she a good person? How do I know she is a good person?”

On the other hand, the people I know in real life are like flowers flourishing in a garden of admiration. Each one is unique and beautiful, no two admirable for exactly the same reason. If you were to walk through my garden and point at each one, I would be able to share a story or a moment that would bring their petals and color to life.

  • That one, she’s resilient — life has knocked her down over and over again and she simply rises up again with grace.
  • That one, he’s brilliant and witty with a self-deprecating humor — he struggled to find his confidence and took his insecurities out on people when we were younger, but grew through it and now is an ally for the outsider.
  • That one, she will make you work to be worthy of your friendship, she wants to know you will stick — but once you do, she will be your shield mate and support for the long haul.

When I scroll through my Facebook feed they all make me smile, each of them so worthy of my admiration, whether they believe it or not.

Tuesday night, as the conference was coming to a close, I chose to skip the big celebration. Mentally exhausted, I gifted myself the solitude to let my brain quiet and try to process the big learnings. I called the hotel salon and grabbed the last manicure appointment of the day, walking quietly in the dark across to their building.

As I sat across from my nail technician, a woman many years my senior who had emigrated from Lebanon, I started to frame her flower in my head. Courage, for bringing her three boys to a foreign country. Nurturing, for holding her now grown sons together by cooking them dinner every Sunday. Patience, for absorbing the disappointment of customers without anger. At the end of the hour, her flower was as bright and beautiful as my shiny red nails.

Don’t get me wrong, I love heroes. I watch every super hero movie that comes out and my favorite books are high heroic fantasy where someone rises from a challenge to achieve greatness and save the world. But, in my real-world there are no long-stemmed roses that can be handed over as a perfect example of admiration. In my world, there is a bouquet where each flower adds its unique beauty to the vibrance of the whole. I know the question will come up again and I have just one request.

Ask me why I admire someone, don’t ask me who I admire.

A Room with a View

As I was boarding my plane yesterday I smiled at the woman merging in front of me and observed cheekily that people were nicer on Saturday. She looked uncertain so I clarified, “Absolutely. You should see people on Thursday at 4:00pm. It’s completely different.” She laughed then and noted that I must travel a lot. The irony was undeniable as we were standing in the group six cattle call and I was heading to a middle seat at the back of the plane. I looked at her wryly before retorting in good humor, “I travel a lot, but not enough to get status.”

Check-in at the hotel was another remarkably predictable experience. Many years of business travel have conditioned me to have my ID and credit card out and to respond knowingly to the questions asked by the employees working the front desk. As the woman concluded my transaction I accepted my room keys without pause, shuffling off to the elevators. I was pressing the up button before I even realized that I’d been given a room on the lowest floor. My sinking feeling got worse as I exited the elevator and saw the sign for the room numbers. My room was closest to the elevators and once inside I walked to the window and grimaced at my view: a flat gray roof displaying in mechanical systems, pipes and a satellite dish. Before I could stop myself the self-pitying words framed in my head.

How did I end up with the worst hotel room here?

It’s amazing how quickly and easily the human mind can complete a comparison and find itself wanting. Within a minute I had gone from being excited to disappointed, forgetting all about the opportunity I had been given to develop my leadership capabilities among other talented women. Why? Because I would be spending a handful of hours over four nights sleeping in a room without a view. And, to be honest, I might have stayed in that frame of mind and grumbled about my sorry lot if it weren’t for a recent podcast I listened to this week that put what I was experiencing — envy — into perspective.

The podcast was Counting Other People’s Blessings on the show Hidden Brain. I’m a new listener, but the show positions itself as using science and storytelling to “help curious people understand the world — and themselves.” I found it to be a fascinating exploration of why individuals compare their lives to others and as I stared out the window I connected back to what I had heard. I realized that I wasn’t mad about getting a bad room, I was mad that I got a worse room than someone else. I was envious of the people on the higher floors with views of sunsets and skylines. I wanted what they had, because what they had was better.

Comparison can be positive, helping us identify role models and aspirations, leading us to be better people. I regularly feel inadequate at these type of leadership conferences because I am surrounded by talented, sucessful people who remind me of all of the things I can’t do and may never accomplish. I’m certain that I went to Smith for the same reason, to push myself to develop capabilities in an environment where it couldn’t be argued that I was already done. Surround yourself with enough amazing people and the idea that you are finished growing becomes more and more laughable. How could I think I was successful when she’s done that? I mean really, what the heck was I thinking?

But comparisons can also be toxic and disempowering, leading to victimization. I felt righteous indignation about being stuck in a poor room, but what was I complaining about really? The room was large, well-appointed, and comfortable — it had everything that I needed. If I had returned to the front desk and pleaded my case it was a certainty that someone else would have ended up with it. I was embarrassed to consider what that person would think and how they would react to my assumption that they were somehow less worthy of a great view and a quiet night than I was. Ultimately, I decided that the best thing I could do was accept the judgement of the hotel gods and take a swipe at envy by sharing it in a post of my own. I could laugh at myself and the feeling of being slighted by shining a light on my own experience.

In the grand scheme of things, feeling envious of a great hotel room is a small matter or a witty Facebook post. Maybe the bigger issues is that we talk so rarely about the ugly side of envy, how we look at the successes of others and instead of feeling warmth for them we use it as a measurement to diminish our own happiness. We don’t talk much about envy in our polite society, but maybe we should. Maybe we should shine a light on the many times each day that we compare our lives to others and find ourselves wanting because guess what, someone always has more. ╬ťore money. More beauty. More success. More stuff. Someone is always getting ahead faster or easier or better. How many times do we ask ourselves, in the dark moments we don’t admit out loud, why can’t I have what they have?

I don’t have an easy answer; this blog isn’t about easy answers.

All I know is that I find I am happier and more able to tackle life’s inevitable obstacles when I start with supporting people in their successes and looking inward to create new opportunities for myself. So, I channeled that mindset this morning when I got up and headed to the bathroom to get ready for a day of learning and growth. Focused, I laughed out loud when I turned on the shower and found myself staring at the best water pressure ever in a hotel bathroom. Ok, I thought, message received. It is not the worst hotel room here.

For all it gave me, it might just be the best.