This week, I’m speaking to Zoey, a 37-year-old licensed attorney and business consultant who is in the process of transitioning into a career in software engineering. Zoey is a pseudonym to protect her identity. Here’s our conversation (edited for length and clarity).
I would love to hear about your relationship to your own ambitions.
It feels really conflicting a lot of the times, because if you voice them too loudly, even to yourself, there’s an element of guilt or shame that I’m not prioritizing other things that society thinks I need to prioritize — which is marriage and babies and being a “good” daughter or sister or whatever — and you simply can’t do it all.
The outside pressure to achieve peace and calmness in your relationships can sometimes overpower the ambitions because it feels like the ambitions are just for me (as if that’s not enough).
(Related Reading: Weddings and Babies Aren’t the Only Milestones Worth Celebrating)
Is it that doing something for yourself feels wrong?
I distinctly remember being a child and being told I was selfish and thinking, What’s wrong with that? If I’m not thinking of myself who is thinking of me?
I’m the youngest of all boys. And I just knew if I wasn’t taking care of myself, I was leaving it up to these fools. Like no, that’s ridiculous.
Being the youngest and being the only girl and being the only one who went to college – and not just college, I have a JD, I’m a licensed lawyer – I have so much guilt around that.
I have guilt and shame around the fact that when I was a litigator, I was making more than my mom made. She told me that, andthe wave of shame that went through me of like, “Oh my God, I can’t make more than my mom”.
I would often keep myself down so as to not overshadow or outshine my brothers too much and to just kind of maintain my place.
You talked about this feeling in your family – how did that play out when you went into the workplace?
My first job out of law school I was a litigator and I was not vocal about the bullying that was going on in the workplace. It was actually happening to me from another female litigator. I know that a lot of that came from an insecurity she had around the fact that I was working really hard and I was one of the only other female associates. And I had really creative problem solving skills, so I had the ability to come up with arguments that weren’t just boiler plate arguments. There’s an opportunity to be innovative in law, and I think she saw that as a real threat.
(Related Reading: Why We Love to Hate Ambitious Women)
Have you ever had any moments where you did bring these things up with people at work?
I’ve done it when I have felt safe to do so. And that’s what’s also hard to admit, is that in those moments when they’re happening, they can be so shocking and it’s fight or flight. And so to survive that moment, you chuckle, or whatever your defense mechanism is, and then you go back to your office or your work space, and you are just like, Did that just happen? And you sit with it and it affects you.
There was one individual at this firm that I worked at, he sent me an inappropriate text in response to a Halloween costume (I was a Ninja turtle). I was so appalled at his response. I didn’t say anything. I just shut down. And it wasn’t until I quit that I got back to him and I was like, “This was inappropriate. I hope you never speak to somebody that you work with like this ever again.” But that took months.
I had a previous client who sent a very aggressive email and caused everyone to kind of rethink whether or not they wanted to work there. And I remember receiving a lot of text messages about this, and at the time, my income was very dependent on working there.
I just remember thinking, if someone treated me this way in a romantic relationship, this would have been the thing that I would have been like, I am breaking up. But for some reason, because it’s a work environment, and because there’s so many things tied to it healthcare, income, retirement – you put up with it.
You mentioned being called “too entrepreneurial” …
This actually happened twice. This company that I was interviewing with, I got down to the final interview. There were seven interviews – the final stage, they tell me like “It’s between you and this one other person.” And it was a business development role so I was like, “Okay great, I’m gonna actually bring in a client to show you how I can do this. And so I did. I actually set up a meeting – brought in the client. Did a job for free, but to prove myself
And then I suggested something at the end of the email. I was like, “And by the way, this person does X, Y and Z, it would be really neat if we could include that, or here’s an idea – we can include that in what we’re providing and expand our services.”
Email back: “We think you’re just too entrepreneurial.”
How did you respond?
I think I just said “thanks”. Cause how do you respond to something like that?
And then, when I was actually working, I was told the exact same thing when I brought up an idea to expand this company’s services. And that was my job. My job was to spitball ideas and make them happen.
I don’t know what else business development is if not being innovative and entrepreneurial. I also don’t know what else startups are. Like when you work exclusively with start ups – if you’re not entrepreneurial, what are you?
Was that an email as well?
No, no, that was a group call – other people heard it too. I was totally shocked. We were all on camera. I think I might have even been like, “Are you joking?” Because it’s so shocking when that’s your job.
I think the highest privileged people in our society have no concept of what it feels like to be questioned all the time, or to feel like they aren’t equal.
I think at the root of so many of our problems right now is this lack of compassion – truly understanding what it feels like to be in another person’s shoes.
It’s exhausting but there’s support. A lot of those people are going to be tired and exhausted, but hopefully at different times, so we can support each other when we need it. But if you are not dealing with it, please be supportive of someone who is.
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Picture from Kaboom Pics