The thing about words is that sometimes they lift us up and sometimes they can bring us way down. And they can linger in the psyche for years and torture you and haunt you for years.
Maybe it’s just me.
Regardless, I’ve been thinking about a certain word for a week or so now. Ever since I read my friend Ashley’s blog post about the word that gave her so much angst for so many years.
Her word was: arrogant.
My word? AGGRESSIVE.
Just like Ashley, my word was said to me at a time when I was particularly vulnerable to criticism. I was in my early 20s at the beginning of what would be a decade-long career working for the mouse in Florida. I had aspirations of climbing the corporate ladder and so I networked with people and took advantage of any opportunity to learn. Willing and eager were two words that could describe 22-year old me.
I was a Guest Relations host in the Disney theme parks and had recently been promoted to a semi-permanent position called “a lead” – which is Disney-speak for an entry-level supervisor. I was thrilled to have this new responsibility and quickly tried to learn as much as I could so I could get better at my job.
A good friend of mine was also a lead in the same department. He took me under his wing and gave me some suggestions and tips. He encouraged me and was a good shoulder for me to lean on as I learned the ropes. I tried hard. I failed. I tried again. I took whatever shifts were given to me, even if it was the 4pm – midnight shift, which no one wanted. I came in early. Stayed late. And tried to learn as much as possible. This was my first real opportunity at Disney and I didn’t want to blow it.
And then I had my annual performance review.
My supervisor, who was not much older than I, sat down and was quite friendly. At first. And then he said, “You’re doing a good job, Kim … uh … but some people think you are a bit … uh … aggressive.”
His words cut me down. They caused me to second-guess everything I’d done up to that point. Was I too headstrong? Too determined? Too goal-oriented? Or was I really just a bitch?
For years after that interview, I played the good girl at work. Oh sure, I moved around laterally within the company. But I always played it safe. I went after easy jobs knowing I had a damn excellent chance of getting them. And while the years following this review were some of my fondest years at Disney, I look back and wonder if I might have had different experiences had I possessed more confidence in myself.
That word shaped how I thought others viewed me. It affected how I behaved, whether I applied for a new opportunity – or not. And it colored how I thought of myself. I didn’t want to be labeled “aggressive.” Who does?
Here’s the mistake I now realize I made: Rather than letting “aggressive” be his word for me, I ascribed it to myself. It became my word. It was the hesitation I felt when I had to have a difficult conversation with a boss or co-worker. It was the uncertainty that crept up on me when I tackled a new project or responsibility. It was the imposter syndrome I felt for years (and admittedly, do still feel from time to time) when someone asks what I do for a living and I sort of hesitate and say “I’m a content creator – I’m a writer.”
Now that I’m older and wiser, I’ve come to realize that words really do have power. (As someone who makes a living stringing words together, I’m fully aware of the irony of that statement.)
I’d like to say that I’ve let it go. I’ve moved on. The day of that performance review has faded from my memory. But that would be untrue.
And believe it or not, I’m sort of glad. I’ve had the most amazing job opportunities. I’ve formed the sweetest friendships at work. And I’ve been lucky to work with and for some incredibly talented people.
I like to think that I’ve thrived in spite of the doubt his words placed on me that day. In fact, maybe while playing it safe, it caused me to work a bit harder. I don’t know.
There’s another “A” word out there that I haven’t quite mastered yet: ASSERTIVE. For the record, I am SO not assertive in most situations. But I’m getting there. If I get really worked up about something, I’ll have no problem telling you exactly what I think. But in the everyday stuff of life, I still find that I play it safe most of the time. Little by little, I’m pushing my comfort zones and becoming more assertive.
Yes, I think that’s a word I can rally around.
In fact, I’ve decided to make it my new “A” word. No performance review needed.