Saturday, August 14, 2004

Being an icon, or "why does it piss you off so much?"

Saturday evening. I'm back and, after 10 hours of sleep last night, feeling as though I might just survive. I'd just like to point out that even the 45 minute delay on the tarmac at Portland Airport while waiting for some guy with a private plane to take off didn't diminish my excitement at being homeward bound. After nearly a week away, my messy, disorganized, completely without a decorating theme home felt like Shangri-La.

So, the conferences (there are two, held jointly in the same week) are an annual affair with most of the same people in attendance each year. Although I hadn't attended since 2002, have recently chopped most of my hair off, and wore glasses most of the time because the headaches overcame my vanity, the feeling of being recognized and "known" nearly everywhere I went was really gratifying. Gratifying and uncomfortable all at once, if truth be told. As you might have noticed, I'm not someone blessed with a healthy sense of self esteem and, when a devilishly charming man from Birmingham, Alabama (hi Mark - although he'll never in a million years read this page) introduced me to a new acquaintance as "Denise Elliott, with VLSCI - she's a Project X icon*" the unfamiliar glow of admiration started in the pit of my stomach, followed immediately by an intense need to downplay and deny the praise. (*He, of course, used my real company name and area of expertise.) I have no problem understanding why I am uncomfortable when someone tells me I'm attractive or that what I'm wearing looks nice, because I know they're either being polite or exaggerating. I mean, honestly, nothing looks good on you when you're as fat as me and, truly, do you not think I am acutely aware that I'm the fattest girl in the room, but why do compliments about my mental abilities have the same effect? In a lucid, truthful moment, I know that I am smart and that I truly have played an enormous role in the adoption of Project X industry-wide - what Mark said was true. Later on in the week, the chairman of a committee I sit on congratulated me in a speech before our entire association for having initiated and led a process change that significantly improved the efficiency of a critical communication tool used by the entire industry and our critical suppliers...and the only thing going through my mind was how embarrassed I was, even as I appreciated what he'd said. I told him how nervous I'd been that he was going to make a joke or something, instead of the compliment, and he asked, "why do you always think the worst is about to happen, Denise? Why would I ever say anything that wasn't complimentary of you?" Why indeed.

With these thoughts drifting in the back of my mind, the other attendees from VLSCI (there were seven of us from Tuesday through Friday, while I was the lone attendee from Sunday until Tuesday night) included my buddy, Joel. Joel works in Texas for another division and is one of my internal customers. What I love most about him is that there is no bs with Joel. (Joel, by the way, would tell me that not spelling out bs is chickens*** of me, but he's never going to read this, either, so there you go.) When something goes wrong, he'll let loose with a really good epithet and then we figure out how to fix it. In any case, I'd never actually met Joel until Wednesday morning at the conference, which makes what happened this week even more remarkable. Wednesday night, after our dinner cruise along the river, a big group of us closed out the hotel bar (last call there was 11:45pm - what's up with that???) and then trooped off to someone's hotel room where several enterprising men brought cases of beer from Safeway and the fun continued, unabated. There were no chairs (that's what happens when you've got 20 people in an itty, bitty room with one bed, one desk chair, and a balcony), so Joel and I sat on the floor and gabbed the night away. We talked about hundreds of things - some work related, some not - and, at one point, the topic of conversation turned to my inner turmoil regarding the politics of the leadership team in my group (see my post of August 4th for details). I told Joel about my theory that Team member number two might just, possibly, be feeling threatened by me and he said something to the effect of, "yeah, and?" I explained that the thought of anyone being threatened by me was laughable and he just looked at me as though I was an alien. "Why would you say that?," he asked. I gave him a laundry list of my faults, including the fact that I'm nearly certain to be getting a mediocre review this year, to which he responded, "you'd better be wrong about that because you practically ran the day to day operations of your department for three months and, from what I've seen this week, you have the universal respect of an entire industry. What did you say in your self assessment?" When I told him that I hadn't done my self assessment because my (now former) boss hadn't asked for it, he went apoplectic and asked, "why not?" Why not indeed. This time, I explained myself, opening up to Joel in ways that only my closest friends know and understand, telling him my doubts, my fears, my worry that I'm going to be passed over by the "new guy" (who made a truly spectacular first impression at the conference - think "walk of shame") and left to languish, alone, in a sea of mediocrity while the two superstar darlings - they of the highly polished organizational skills and amazing ability to get things done without procrastinating - go on to higher and higher levels of achievement within the company. He just looked at me with incredulity and asked, "why does it piss you off so much? Seems to me you've got two choices: you can lie back and take it or you can sit up, shake off the dust, engage that amazing brain of yours, and go out there to kick some ass and take some names. Personally, I suggest the latter approach because, from what I can see, you're one of the brightest people in your division and it would be pathetically sad if you never gave anyone else a chance to see that." I actually remember it, verbatim, because, even through the alcoholic fog, what he said hit me right in the core of my being. Thanks, Joel, for the late night talks, for your unshakeable confidence in me, and for making me see that it's all right there for me to grab if only I can put aside my irrational fear of success and walk forward with grace, confidence, and the certain knowledge that I can do this.

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