Somewhere between sucking up to superiors and talking down to assistants is a way of relating that's on the same level. The old woman across from me was obviously not a frequent flyer. She stared around wildly, hyperventilating and hunching into her seat like a terrified armadillo. Suddenly a flight attendant appeared at the woman's elbow. She half-knelt, bringing her eyes level with the passenger's, and began to explain how the flight would proceed. I was struck by how directly she spoke, without the slightest hint of condescension. The effect on her was amazing; by the time the flight attendant moved on, the woman was sitting up straight, calm and dignified.
Moments later a mild commotion erupted in the first-class cabin as a Very Famous Person boarded the aircraft. He ignored the other passengers, saying nothing until well into the flight, when he spilled coffee on his shirt and let out an angry yelp. The flight attendant who had calmed the old woman rushed over with club soda and a towel to help him clean his clothes. Initially the man was tense and silent, but as she joked with him, he slowly began to relax. They talked for ten minutes before the man introduced himself.
The flight attendant laughed. "I know who you are, sir!" she said. "Doesn't everyone?"
The man was taken aback. He must have assumed the woman's easy manner meant she didn't recognize him. Now he saw that she simply wasn't intimidated. He looked impressed. I certainly was. That flight attendant had interacted with the frightened old woman exactly as she had with the famous man, with the result that one passenger dropped her self-doubt, the other his self-importance. Both came away happier, and so did everyone watching.
The flight attendant was one of those rare individuals who cannot be distracted by the external markers of success—things like social rank, wealth, education level, and professional status. These individuals behave in ways that quietly but effectively elevate the lowly and humble the arrogant. How do they do it? They ignore two common misconceptions and act instead on bedrock truths about equality and individual value.
Each person's value is determined by rank on the pyramid of social success. Your worth as a person increases or decreases as you accumulate (or fail to accumulate) prizes like wealth, power, or fame.
Almost all of us believe misconception no. 1 at some point in our lives, and it's no wonder: We are approval-seeking machines. From our infancy, everything we do— crying, playing, using the potty—brings either praise or reprimand from the grown-ups around us. There's nothing wrong with this; it's the only way to socialize children. But it also conveys the pervasive idea that our value depends on behaving in ways that others see as praiseworthy.
Success-driven behaviors can undermine the very thing we think they will provide: the certainty that we are important, lovable, good enough. If you're waiting for the one huge achievement that will give you this certainty, prepare to wait forever. The only way to create such inner peace is to replace misconception no. 1 with the following truth.
Each person, including you, is infinitely precious. No success or failure can ever alter that fact.
We may give lip service to the idea that every human consciousness is equal and invaluable. But in practice we go on ranking everyone according to external measures of success, surreptitiously comparing their achievements to ours. And deep down, most of us conclude that we're a bit—no, make that a lot—less equal than everybody else.
It is this lurking sense of inferiority that makes us lust for success, consider ourselves pond scum, or both. Ironically, this mind-set is precisely what keeps us from acting in ways that would elicit natural validation of our true value from the world around us.
The next time you find yourself in a situation where you feel worthless, think about the most powerful, benevolent hero you can imagine: Jesus, Buddha, Grandma Moses, Smokey the Bear, whomever. Let's say it's Wonder Woman. Imagine how Wonder Woman would react in your place. Now consider this: Your hero isn't the one coming up with this new, self-confident behavior—you are. Whatever you see your hero do in the fantasy you've created is precisely what you can do in reality, once you choose to believe in your own value.
People will value me to the extent that I affirm the superiority of people who rank above me in the social pyramid, and my own superiority over people who rank below me.
Rochelle wanted desperately to succeed in the accounting firm where she worked, but she was having a lot of trouble. As she put it, "Everyone hates me." Rochelle's life was being ruined by misconception no. 2. She thought that the only way to be sure others valued her was to point out her position in the social success game, so she groveled to her superiors, tyrannized her subordinates, and never relaxed around anyone. The only good news was that Rochelle wasn't paranoid: Everyone at work really did hate her.
Although few people reach Rochelle's extremes of behavior, many of us have dabbled in the same waters. We feel lowly and ashamed around big shots at work. We believe that if we had a bigger house, more expensive clothes, or more academic degrees, people would value us more. But success is a currency that is not accepted by the heart: You can't buy love. Only people who are caught in the same misconception will bond with your accomplishments. Success-based relationships are parasitic, and they vanish when the fame, money, and power do.
People will value me to the extent that they believe I value them.
When Rochelle finished venting about her dirty rotten coworkers, I asked her one question: "What are you feeling?" Her officious manner melted like sugar in the rain. "I try so hard to be a good person," she whispered, her eyes filling with tears. "But nobody ever likes me."
"Rochelle," I said, "I'm going to repeat some things you said, in the same way you said them. Watch." I parroted some of her words, imitating her angry tone and body language.
Rochelle recoiled. "You're kidding!" she gasped. "But that can't be. I'm so small, so weak."
"No, you're at least 5 foot 9, and you could beat me mud wrestling in about three seconds flat," I told her. "You feel small and weak, so you compensate by armoring your real personality and constantly pulling social rank with those around you."
This is true of virtually all arrogant, domineering people. Most of them (like Rochelle) spent their childhoods being cruelly devalued. As adults, they are starving for validation, and they try to force people to acknowledge their significance by sucking up to the powerful and dominating the weak, which tends to create the very hostility they fear. There are much better ways to get the acceptance we crave. One of the easiest is what I call "tossing fish."
If you've ever been to Sea World, you've probably seen trainers reward the dolphins and seals by feeding them fish. Sea mammals will do anything for anyone who's carrying a bucket of what they love most. They're a lot like people, that way—and you just happen to have a bottomless bucket of what humans love most: approval. Individuals like Rochelle treat approval as though it were a severely limited resource. They give it stingily, if at all, as though every bit of approval aimed at someone else leaves less for them. But the more we express genuine approval, the more we motivate positive behavior in those around us, and the more approval we'll receive from them. (By the way, it's crucial to fully internalize truth no. 1 before you set out to toss fish. Otherwise your compliments and newfound interest will come across as a Machiavellian ploy.)
Rochelle managed to keep truth no. 1 in her thoughts by picturing the souls of her coworkers. "Someone once told me to picture intimidating people in their underwear," she told me. "Well, if my boss came into my office wearing only his underwear, I would get really nervous. So instead of thinking about his bare skin, I try to imagine his bare self—what worries and motivates him. Then I can offer him encouragement and support, just as I do with my subordinates, and I don't sound like a toady."
Rochelle also mastered a technique I learned from Barbara Browning, a brilliant media trainer who teaches people how to come across well on television. "When you're being interviewed," Barbara tells her clients, "treat the interviewers as though they were guests in your home." This is exactly the opposite of most people's first reaction. When the cameras roll, all their mental functions cease and they just sit there drooling (I speak from experience). But when you enter the mind-set of the "gracious hostess," you equalize your own perception of the intimidating person's power versus your own. The more lowly and inferior you feel at those particular moments, the more important it is to get out of that frame of mind and into reality. The "hostess" trick can help you make the transition.
It took Rochelle several months of practicing these techniques before they came to feel natural. During those months, she gradually won more friends and positive performance reviews than she had in her previous five years at the firm. As she began believing in her own inalienable value, she stopped obsessing about her position in the office hierarchy and began to treat others warmly without even thinking about it. Career success is one result (she has racked up a promotion and a raise), but more important, she is now well liked by her coworkers and her own fine self.
It has been a long time since I watched that flight attendant level the ground between a scared old lady and a world-renowned celebrity, but the memory of her actions never faded. It reminds me that we are all inexperienced travelers on this uncertain voyage through life, and that we cling to the twin isolating myths of inferiority and superiority out of fear and fear alone. To transcend that fear and connect honestly with others, priceless soul to priceless soul, is to succeed in the truest sense of the word.
Martha Beck is the author of Finding Your Own North Star (Crown).