…and many years later, I’m still choking on it.
“Why are you always thinking so negatively?” I am constantly asked. Some of my friends IRL who read this blog mentioned this post and a few others regarding my fearful attitude.
Tonight I’m going to write on why I infamously (according to my friends) struggle to believe in myself, even when I set smaller goals and even when others see things in me that I’m all too dumbfounded to see in myself. Be it running, career or various aspects of my personal life.
For those of you who know me in real life (particularly from university) I’m not talking about our (Ivy League) university experience – yes, that is humbling indeed, studying, learning and competing with (academically) your fellow peers, the crème de la crème. You go through high school as one of the best and then wham, you’re brought back to reality. There’s always a bigger fish. That’s a challenging environment, yes, but that’s one where competition in most cases motivates and drives people to reach for their goals and dreams.
I’m not talking about that at all though. I’m talking about the environment I grew up in.
I’m talking about waking up every day and being told that my best was never good enough because I was not perfect or because I did not come in first place. I’m talking about every night trying to help my mother cooking in the kitchen and being chased out every night because I was unable to master a recipe as “perfectly” as she has. I’m talking about being referred to as the slow one in every athletic competition growing up and constantly being told by others – including coaches – that my time would be best spending it on other activities.
I’m talking about my best never being good enough because I did not want to pursue medicine. That I was veering from “the path” (that my parents had planned for me). According to my mother, I was to have my medical degree at 26, and my first or second child by 30. “Medicine is the badge of prestige, and anything less is worthless,” she’d tell me periodically throughout high school. I remember asking my parents about investment banking my junior year and I remember her saying, “You are too good for that. If you aren’t a doctor like others in our family, your best will never be good enough.”
Today I am told that my best will never be good enough. “You will never amount to anything good,” my mother tells me now. “Look at everyone else. Look at you. Look at everyone else. And look at you.” Every visit home is an interrogation. “You’ve made no progress in your relationships, your career, anything. At this age, you will amount to nothing.”
Being torn down was a daily ritual in my life. Not periodically, not monthly. Daily. I grew up in a family where teaching basically occurred beating one over the head with what was being imparted. This is just how life was for me. I knew nothing else.
They say time heals all wounds, all faults. This is true when a wound is incurred once. It is an entirely different story when pain is inflicted multiple times.
I’ve gotten the question many times before: “How do you get so down on yourself when you’ve gotten through UPenn?” Or even worse from my closer friends, “How did you put the negativity out of mind in order to get through university?” And little do they realise my problem has nothing to do with university and everything to do with environments I’ve been in before and after. University and my interests proved to be an escape for me because if I pursued what I liked, the rest would take care of itself. It exposed me to other points of view, to how others coped with stress. As a result, my grades never suffered even when the rest of my life did; incidentally, my best semester in school (spring of my third year) was also the very same semester I tried to take my own life. (Note: I have since sought counselling and recovered.)
When I made the transition into career, it was brutal regardless of whether I was in the lab or in the boardroom. I enjoyed the troubleshooting in the lab, but I resented being told that I’d never be a good scientist. I know results have to be reproducible, and if they aren’t I know I have to find out why. I know principal investigators (PIs) get frustrated – their precious grant money is down the chute with every failed experiment. We understand how hard it is.
In the boardroom it was even worse. If I didn’t pick up methods on the first try, I was “slow.” Asking questions – even after doing research – only led to a common response from most (but not all) team leaders: “you’re wasting my time and yours – we can’t be sitting down here with you.” “By having to answer your questions, you’re just taking money off the [profit] table.” I tried addressing questions earlier in engagements, but that also didn’t help. “The people who don’t pick things up on the first try perish,” I was told.
From this, I’d only learnt to dread the results. I always dreaded performance reviews. In university, I was told they were supposed to be constructive. They weren’t.
I would be told I was nothing. I learnt nothing.
Social life: don’t get me started. Never had a date for homecoming, almost missed senior prom because I struggled to get a date (which I got just minutes before ticket sales closed). Our school did not allow people to go single to the prom. After university, I was told people of my kind “aren’t attractive.” Even the ones who wanted to be politically correct told me they weren’t “attracted to Indian women.”
After hearing that 20 or so times, I decided to focus my efforts elsewhere.
I left my last job because I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I made the changes to my life that I needed to.
Fast forward now. I feel I’ve accomplished so much in the past year, and 2010 has arguably been one of the best, if not flat out the very best, years in my life. But even through all this, still I find it hard to believe in myself. Case in several points, the self-doubt seems to affect my way of thinking – running, career or otherwise.
“How are YOU doing?” chimed Sergio as he strolled into my office Wednesday after completing a task for his team leader (whose office is next door to mine). “You know, you’re in taper week…and I just wanted you to know you have everything it takes to run a full marathon.”
“Sergio, are you kidding me? What do you think I have that I can complete a full?”
“Look, you’re in very good shape. You eat very properly. You are insanely dedicated because you are one of the few that sticks to your training plans.”
This is true. My employer sends me everywhere, but my running shoes go wherever I go. I ran 15 miles in San Antonio, about that much in NYC, and approached 100 in DC and about 50-odd in Boston whilst I was still building my base.
“I just built myself up to a half. This took me a year. Do you understand the amount of time it takes to build my body up for another thirteen?”
“Oh I know! But you have the dedication!”
I’ve learnt to do what I love and love what I do. “Sergio, running isn’t a chore. I have the will, yes, but I don’t have the power. I need the time to train if I have to build myself up. 26 doesn’t come on its own. But what if my body hits its limit before 26? I wasn’t born athletic.”
My boyfriend tells me the same thing. “You always think so negatively!” Jeff will remark as I cringe upon thinking about my performance review for my current job and the stresses of preparing for my GMAT and applications for grad school. “You’re going to be fine, I’m confident of that.”
And speaking of grad school…
“I am curious. Why aren’t you applying to the top programs?” Sergio asked me sometime back when I mentioned it to him.
“If I had the need to, I wouldn’t apply because I’m not an investment banker for Goldman [Sachs], Morgan Stanley or UBS or a consultant for McKinsey, Bain or BCG [Boston Consulting Group],” I responded, “and those top programs feed off those [top-tier business] firms.”
“Wrong. Where you see weakness, I see opportunity,” Sergio responded. “You bring elements to the table that others don’t have. Your professional experience now gives you exposure those bankers don’t have. In your old career, people told you in clinical research not to treat them because they were going to die anyway. And you had to tell people they were going to die. I’d say that takes a bit more gumption than telling someone they are missing Wall Street targets.”
I’m not asking for a pity party here. All I really want to explain is why it’s so difficult for me to think positively. The above examples show I struggle with that today.
The good news is I’ve recognised the problem, now I have to address it in the different facets of life.
People look at me that I’m nuts when I am so passionate about running. Let me tell you why: it’s not because of the weight loss.
Running – and its community – has provided me what the vast majority of my life was sorely lacking: positive mentorship.
In the case of Sergio, receiving that on both the running and career fronts, as previously mentioned, is helping me leaps and bounds.
Recently I ran my second 5k in ages. I told my father Pierre – who ran 7 minute miles back in his heyday – about my PR. His response?
“Every second down is an accomplishment. Keep it up.”
Another instance was when I ran the NERR half marathon tuneup 24 October. “Alright,” I told my friends who’d raced with me in the tuneup. “I got side stitches at miles 3 and 5. Not sure why, but at least I can focus on what I did wrong and fix that in two weeks.”
“No,” said my cohort Erica, “you didn’t do anything wrong. Don’t focus on what you did wrong. Focus on how you can improve.” She proceeded to tell me that I was getting side stitches because I was not breathing in deep enough.
I stopped short. Why was she repeating herself?
No wait…she wasn’t.
I just had to adjust my technique and I had not known any better.
It’s very interesting what changing a few words does. I’m starting to realise that now, after more than 15 years of “never” “you can’t” and “nothing.”
Running has taught me to surround myself with those who will encourage me, not just on the pavement, but also in my career, and also in my personal life. It has taught me that it’s never too late to improve.
Running has taught me that I can overcome and that I will.
If you’re some sort of mentor, teacher, coach, boss or even a parent and if someone needs improvement in something, please choose your words carefully. If you are a boss in the corporate world under the gun, and if someone is underperforming, please be professional and attack the problem, not the person. And lead into how that problem can be fixed if it’s more complex. Contrary to what some may think, positive reinforcement is not sugarcoating.
My dad is very blunt. My colleague Sergio is as blunt as they come. The best mentors don’t need to sugarcoat. They address the problem, what is causing the problem, why the problem is a problem (in certain cases) and any possible solutions. That’s it. That’s all that is needed.
And this is why I truly mean it when I say that running has changed my life on multiple levels. This is why I will continue to run as long as possible. The community has been fantastic. And for that, I thank my fellow friends on the pavement as well as those other mentors in my life that have challenged me or pushed me to succeed wherever in life recently. My boyfriend Jeff has been wonderful in that respect. Keep on motivating each other, on (and if applicable) and off the pavement. The results will show for themselves and I can attest to that.
As for my own self-confidence, I’m working on it. It will take some time. But I do feel I am turning a corner, even if it is after more than 15 years.
It’s never too late.