Occasionally in my coaching practice I get an email from a client and I get to write a response. Here is an email I received and I have the client’s permission to share.
Dear Coach Iyabo,
I work as a lawyer at a big law firm. I have been at my job for seven years. I was informed I did not make partner. I am devastated. I feel that I have done everything right for nothing. I am frustrated. I have worked 80-hour weeks. I have not dated or allowed myself to get deeply involved in any relationship as my work has come first. Every headhunter that came my way, I turned down. I went to the best schools. I have tried to play by the rules in this white, male-dominated environment. I did not go home when my mother was sick. I put work first. I have given it my everything and this feels like a slap in the face. I am angry as hell. I have worked harder than my white counterparts and I know I do a damn good job.
I think my being a black woman played a significant role in this decision. Do I confront my employer?
Isolated and Silenced in Atlanta, Georgia
Dear Isolated and Silenced,
I wish I could tell you what to do. But I cannot. What I hope to do in this response is give you some tools to help you get to that place within that is wise and knows what action you should take. I do know that you do not have to live “Isolated and Silenced” for long.
How To Find The Sound of The Genuine Within
So as to not make a wrong step, try to dig deeper to figure out how you got in this place in the first place. This is called finding “The Sound Of The Genuine” within. The term comes from Howard Washington Thurman, an American mystic. Here are some goodies for you to explore:
1. What have you been trying to prove? Oftentimes, we take a job because we were desperate to find a job or it was the best job offered to us. Or somewhere, in the back of our mind, we thought it could somehow elevate us to a higher social standing. Sometimes, we have taken jobs for the wrong reason. Sometimes we took a job just because it was expected of us. Here is the truth: No job can fix your self-esteem. You have nothing to prove. Trying to fix your self-esteem with your job is like trying to sew a torn hem on a dress that no longer fits and that you will never wear again. Drop it.
2. Nobody owes you anything. Guess what? Working for someone else is often only transactional. You work, they pay. If you are lucky, you may get rewarded beyond your paycheck. It would be nice, but it is extra and not mandatory. I wish it were different but this is what I have seen. A nice working environment that will see your hard work and appreciate you beyond your paycheck is not the norm. It is the standard in this country. Change your expectations.
3. Take back your agency. You gave agency to your job to promote and celebrate you for hard work. No. You get to do that for yourself. You abandoned yourself. You expected your employer to bring you “into the fold” based on hard work. It does not work that way. What is “YOUR fold?” What is it that you want to do in this world? What makes your heart sing in the morning? Why the heck do you get out of bed every single day? What is your reason for living? If you cannot answer that, then you have turned to your employer to answer that and I am so glad you did not get the promotion, because now, you must listen to your soul! Taking back your agency is like discovering your name again. It is revisiting your own self.
4. Institutions shape us. I promise you, your job is an institution that informs who you are and it takes a strong person to hold on to his or her identity when you are giving that institution 80 hours of yourself every single week. You job has values. I can tell you several of them: Tradition, hard work, the white masculine intellect is superior and success on our terms. Is that the type of environment you want to work in? Know the values of the institution you serve. Here is the kicker, if the institution does not have mutuality as one of its values, then you cannot thrive in such an environment. You will be stuck in the cycle of proving yourself to a blind, deaf and dumb institution that does not see you and only relates to you as a transaction.
5. Know your values. From your note, I hear that some of your values are along the lines of mutuality, loyalty, recognition, a strong work ethic. These are great. However, do you really want to reduce the value of family? We do not live in a utopia so it will be difficult to find a job that matches your exact values. However, some of your values should be non-negotiable. Healthy relationships are like oxygen. We need them to function in the world and we have to make them a priority.
6. You do not have to work in the area you were educated in. I know. It was a huge investment to go to law school. Money and time. Lots of it. However, if it is not a good fit, do not be afraid to step outside of it. The way the legal training has shaped your mind will stay with you forever so it will always be relevant. Explore. Embrace. Don’t feel bad about leaving the past in the past. It has its own value.
7. You are not alone. Many people, men and women, after working hard, do not make partner, do not get the promotion and often, life just does not work out the way we thought. What a blessing! There is so much more out there that wants to celebrate you and is just waiting on you. Talk to people. Speak up for you. You can do this and you can do it well. Life happens. There are always lessons to be learned.
I intentionally did not address race and gender. Why? Those are issues outside of your locus of control. You cannot control how other people perceive you. The only thing you have control about is yourself. You have to strengthen your position by getting clear on who you really are before you can influence those outside voices. My focus is on you and not these outside variables.
I am biased. I used to practice law. I do not believe in working 80-hour weeks except maybe, and that is a big MAYBE, if it is my own business. Consistent 80-hour workweeks mean you are neglecting your body, the need for rest, relationships and all the things that make you a whole person. However, I know many lawyers who have made peace with the demands of the profession and live full, thriving lives.
With much love,