How to Stay True to Yourself—No Matter Who You're Talking To
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.
To forge caring connections, you don't need a stronger résumé; you need truth no. 2.