Building the Plane While Flying It

Taking (and giving) advice is a tetchy process. We all come at life and career from unique positions.  Even identical twins have their slight differences.  The greater the differences among us, the harder it is to generalize — something very important to consider if one is in the business of giving impractical advice.  I have a friend with this mini-lecture,  “That Shit Don’t Work for Me.”  It was the the start of a great conversation that she can have (with the right audience) about how she has had to find her own way in figuring out her career and life path.   (We wanted to start a podcast. May do that one day).   We have to figure out what advice and guidance we can take, what we can’t take, and what we have to give.

Sometimes People Don’t Get It

According to my friend, a highly accomplished professional woman of color, mid-forties, who (like most women in our age group) continues to struggle for the recognition, respect and credibility we deserve, it’s hard to negotiate in conflicted situations–it’s hard to ask for and get what she wants.  If a woman of color makes demands, she may be seen as “too demanding.”  Or worse, “angry” — which totally throws her credibility under the bus.   She notes that the advice and help of (white, male) mentors to be highly assertive is usually not going to get her what she wants.  No matter how well-meaning and high minded the would-be mentors are, trying to provide guidance for dealing with workplace conflicts and needs, their tactics just won’t work for her.  They are perplexed.  She must not be “doing it right.”  For a few, the light does dawn, however, as they begin to realize that they themselves do not have to wade into the fray wearing a female body and a non-white exterior–a non-privileged exterior.  She cannot expect to get the same respect, benefit of the doubt, or baseline attention of others that a person of privilege gets.  She has had to create her own solutions to these problems.  She’s had to “build the plane while flying it.”

Though not a woman of color, I have helped a number of diverse individuals along the way as a mentor and I have to say that this is right on the button.  Some of the career leadership books and training out there just work better if you fit the mold of what the workplace sees as “leadership.”

The one thing I’ve learned is that not all of my experiences are necessarily going to be a good guide for my friend.  I’ve had a hit or miss with advice from leadership books myself. In fact, I find that my friend’s advice is often better. She speaks from a position of even greater constraint than mine, and so has had to be much better at figuring out the angles to get what she wants.

And Sometimes The Most Unexpected People Completely Relate And Have Helpful Views

I recall sitting in the company of some very accomplished, older white men, some of the top people in my field, watching the Baltic sun set after a particularly amazing conference.  It was one of those interesting bull sessions in which I, over fifty, was the young “ingenue” in the crowd.  These gentlemen hailed from Great Britain and had long, distinguished careers.  We discussed their struggles and eventually got on to mine, with all my gripes about sexism.  They listened with polite interest and to my surprise,  began to totally relate to the problems I was having. They had also had trouble getting respect and consideration.  Their ideas were also passed over for patently ignorant ideas of others.  They were man-splained, as well, but for a different reason: because they were of a different social class, with a very different education and research perspective.

It’s often surprising where we can make connections.

The conversation turned to struggles for finding our voices in the workplace. It was a great discussion that really opened my eyes.  While gender, class and ethnicity make for some considerable challenges, others are struggling, too, to be heard, respected, and taken seriously.  One of these senior scientists said to me,

 It’s been a constant battle.  As a social scientist, I was outside the circle of trust.  I didn’t come with the same background as the engineers and computer scientists.  I didn’t have the same cycle of jobs and companies that the others did, especially not the leadership.  My experience was so outside of their own, my perspective so different.  They needed those differences, but had no idea how to evaluate my pespective, my ideas, or me.  Often, they resented having to try.

You meet people who relate in the strangest places and allies don’t always look like you may expect them to.   Many people out there have to build the plane while flying it, that is, create a career and a path ahead with no guide, having to innovate as we go.  It was very helpful to understand that not all of my problems are entirely centered in sexism (though some undoubtedly are). Getting into the “circles of trust”  when one’s experience, viewpoints and understanding of the world are very different is hard.  It takes great patience, huge persistence and repeated performance.   This is harder for people who do not fit the mold of “leadership” — in the conventional sense.  We have trouble getting those first opportunities to prove ourselves at all.  And failure can be more damning.

This is changing, slowly, and in interesting ways.

Sometimes Those Differences Can Help

“Oh, you still need to get Dr. Blah-Blah for this conference. He’s just the best. You’re not going to get anyone better.”

When I heard my friend say this,  I looked at him and raised a brow. He had referred Dr. Blah-Blah to another colleague, who had just told us that Dr. Blah-Blah had not just turned down an invitation to speak, he had behaved somewhat arrogantly, as if he were too important for the venue.

“In what way is he the best? ”  I asked.  “By what criteria are you using? Does he have lots of breakthoughs?” (No.)   “Why is he leading?”   My friend did not have any good answers that could not just as easily have been explained by privilege.   Dr. Blah-Blah had gone to an Ivy  League university, (privilege), was teaching at an Ivy League university (privilege again) and his students were enjoying a network of privilege; oh, sure, they were churning out papers, still, it was all fairly pedestrian fare–not many new ideas.   In every other criterion of leadership and creativity, Dr. Blah-Blah was not a standout.  He was, frankly, a bit of a dud in everything but prestige (which he had bags of).

My friend had never considered a different criteria for evaluation.  Does he work well with lots of other people across many fields? No.   Does he contribute to workshops and conferences where a diverse spectrum of  scholarship was present?  (Oh, absolutely no).   Was he helpful to the person who asked him to speak?  Oh, very much no.

Very often the best person for the job is the one who really wants to work collaboratively.  Lone rangers are no longer all that effective.  It’s all about teams now, leading teams but also about sharing leadership–and even being an effective contributor, no matter how small.  That’s what makes for real success.

He had never considered looking at a scholar from the point of view of what that individual contributes to a bigger effort.   Our conversation opened his eyes up just a bit.

Becoming A Radical Giver

When we’re building a plane while flying it, creating a career, a vocation, a unique business, we’re going to need help.  Adam Grant’s book, Give and Take, is my favorite read for understanding the process of building a strong, diverse and truly helpful network.   (Yes, I am an Amazon affiliate. I’ll get maybe 10 cents or so if you buy this book through my link.  Amazon will give it to me, not you.)

The book takes us through tons of research, told through some interesting stories, about why helping others in today’s hyper-connected world is a great strategy.  Grant explains, with great stories, that some of the most successful people–especially in new technological fields–are radical givers. They give to just about everyone, and not on a tit-for-tat, what can YOU do for ME basis–helping people who can’t help us back is actually the best way to go.  Grant’s research demonstrates this.  If you’re looking for how to get ahead, look around you.  Who wants your help?  You’ll be surprised how often that the help you invest comes back to you, from very unexpected directions.

If you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together.



Author: Lola

Recovering academic, real-life, honest to cornflakes anthropologist (Ph.D. and fieldwork and everything), tech-head and social media researcher.

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