My path to owning my awesome at work began when I was returning books to my library.
I was going through an awful separation, and needed to be doing something more than sitting home feeling sorry for myself. I saw the notice for a circulation clerk, and it seemed like the perfect job for me. I interviewed and accepted the position, taking a job to give me extra cash and something to do during the day.
I loved working that front desk. I chatted up patrons as they checked out books, and charmed children who needed help picking out the perfect sticker. I was thrilled to help keep the library tidy, and oh-so-excited to be a part of something which felt like a perfect match.
When the children’s librarian was leaving, my director called me into her office to discuss applying for her position. After a brief interview, she offered me the job. I went home to talk with my mom about it, but knew that I had found something that would make me happy to get up and go to work. I rushed back, and happily accepted.
While I trained for the job, a few co-workers seemed less than pleased. I called them choice names in my head, but the one that seemed to stick was “The Trio of Trouble.” They were all old enough to be my mother, and each had worked at the library for many years. Co-worker A pulled me into the office one day and after closing the door asked if I fully understood what the job was about. After lecturing me about what was expected and how SHE did things, she told me that I should really, really think about whether I wanted it, or wait to see if something else opened up.
I was then confronted by Co-worker B. who helpfully informed me that if I did anything wrong there would never be another Black person hired in my position. Co-worker C shared that she was “very surprised” that I was even considered, but when asked would not elaborate on the reasons. I was nearly in tears by the time I left, and cried all the way home. I was afraid that I would do a terrible job, “mess up the position” for anyone else who came after me, and tarnish the library’s good name.
After a moody few days, I went to my director and told her that I was worried I might not be the person for the job. I was reluctant to share what my co-workers said, but eventually spilled the beans. She listened, then advised me not to listen to them. She assured me that she thought I was the right person for the job. Her words comforted me. I respected her opinion and felt more confident knowing that she believed in me.
That confidence was fleeting. For the first few months, I was paranoid about everything that I did. As I fine-tuned the schedule for summer programs–the biggest programming for our library at the time–I was often warned not to do certain programs because “they never worked.” It seemed like sage advice, but a part of me thought people would whisper about the “Black girl” not being able to cut it. I tried to fly under the radar, but it seemed as if the staff, and even some of the library patrons, started to compare me to my predecessor. My desire to get along with everyone was strong, so I smiled awkwardly while feeling as if everything I did was wrong. Co-worker A attended one of the first large programs I ran alone, and took notes to inform me of everything that I did wrong afterwards. I cried as she told me what I didn’t do, and what I should do differently next time. My sister was there, and she told me I should speak up, but all I could hear were the negatives: what I did wrong, and how and why I was wrong.
After this incident, I felt like giving up. I was so skittish about what my role was, and how to own it. Each time I introduced an idea, it was discouraged “because that one time long ago” someone tried it and it didn’t work. I had what I knew were fantastic ideas for programming or events, but would initially be discouraged, only to have someone then suggest the same idea–my idea–with slightly different wording. The feeling of being judged was strong. Co-workers happily shared negative feedback from patrons, attendance at my programs dropped, and I was just wiped out. I started to hear only the negative things, and to take it all personally. I actually started looking for other jobs.
It was during this time that I became a bit friendly with some of my library patrons. I shared some of my feelings of unworthiness with one of them, and she got angry on my behalf. She waxed poetic about the great job that I did, told me everything that her children were learning from the library, and refused to hear me voice another negative thought. A few other parents independently shared their positive library stories, and I begin to think that maybe I really was doing a good job.
Shortly after that, two of my negative co-workers left. I was relieved because I do not enjoy confrontations. I felt empowered then to finally approach the remaining co-worker during one of her bouts of complaining about my work. There was no dramatic showdown; I just asked her what the deal was. She told me that she only wanted the best for me and that she cared about me, which was why she was so hard on me. This answer sounded hollow, but I had finally reached a point where I was ready to stop hearing the negatives and focus on the good. I was able to articulate my concerns and successfully set some boundaries with her.
I felt freer to make the job mine. I was not my predecessor, nor any of my peers who had their own way of doing things. I was Rachee, a silly ham who is passionate about books. I researched the best program plans, added my own flair, and–if I say so myself–turned programming that was someone else’s into something that makes me proud to call my own. Once I stopped hearing the noes and the “shoulda, coulda, wouldas,” my job became a joy.I stopped letting myself worry about work. I started to own my awesome , and let it work for me instead.
I use this example with my daughter. She is a people pleaser like her mother. This can be stressful, so I tell her to own her awesome, too, and not to let others tone it down. I only hope that it won’t take four years of working in a job she feels badly about to help her see that.
This post is part of BlogHer’s Women@Work editorial series, made possible by AFL-CIO.