Search Results for: confidence

Reaching Beyond Your Grasp


Any day you don’t learn something new is a day you should 
have stayed in bed. ~Jerome A. Gottschalk

reaching-beyond-your-graspIf I heard that phrase once, I heard it a thousand times as I was growing up. It spoke volumes about my father’s commitment to education. Schooling was important, of course, but what mattered even more was the kind of education you get when you surround yourself with people who are smarter and more skilled and perhaps more talented than you. In my father’s worldview, every minute of every day provided an opportunity to learn something new. A corollary was that if you worked hard and “knew your stuff,” the odds were in your favor.

What that meant, as I was growing up, was that I was always reaching beyond my grasp. It began when my parents enrolled me in 1st grade at age five rather than six. At the end of 3rd grade, my parents arranged for me to go directly to 5th grade, where I arrived knowing nothing of the long-division and decimals skills my schoolmates had long since mastered. By the end of the year, I was at the top of my class. My parents expected nothing less.

That pattern continued into college and throughout my career.  I always seemed to be in over my head, always racing to learn what those around me already knew. Working as a financial consultant to Fortune 500 companies, I struggled, on a daily basis, to keep ahead of the sometimes breathtaking pace of innovation in the derivatives markets. I certainly stubbed my metaphorical toe several times along the way, but my successes were pretty incredible, particularly as a woman in a man’s world in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

And yet, I’ve spent much of my professional life locked into that 5th grade moment, terrified that I didn’t know enough, that I couldn’t keep up, that I wasn’t qualified. As I approach 70, I am still beset by a moment—very brief but still very real—of panic every time I walk into a roomful of strangers.

The memory of this persistent terror bubbled to the surface as I blogged on The Atlantic’s recent article on the confidence gap that assails so many women. At first glance, it seemed I could be exhibit #1 for their theory.

But upon reflection, it’s a bit more complicated. First of all, my lack of confidence never stopped me from reaching for that next challenge, from taking the next risk. I would even make the case that my self-doubts were a result of my insistence on putting myself in situations in which I was sure to go to bed at night having learned something new. After all, if you are completely confident that you know the situation cold, you probably won’t learn much.

And don’t forget the second half of my father’s dictum—that if you work hard and develop the necessary skills, things have a good chance of working out. According to Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, the authors of The Atlantic article, this is very much a man’s point of view (women assume failure is their own inadequacy rather than a result of inadequate effort). If I didn’t quite believe it in 5th grade, I certainly did by my early-30s, based largely on a heady string of promotions and salary increases.

Which leads me to my last but most certainly not least point: my parents never mentioned that the rules were different for females. I always operated on the assumption that if, after doing my best, my boss didn’t appreciate what I could do, I needed to find a new job and a new boss. It didn’t matter why it wasn’t working. Perhaps I wasn’t cut out for that type of work. Perhaps he was a lousy manager.  Perhaps he just didn’t like me. Perhaps he was a male chauvinist. Whatever the reason, it seemed more important to find a challenging job where I could make a difference than waste time trying to “prove” that my boss was wrong.

Which brings me back to The Confidence Gap. I have no doubt that the confidence gap is real, although I do not believe that self-doubt is unique to women. But I do agree with the authors that the best antidote for a lack of confidence is taking action. It keeps you from thinking about your doubts and reinforces your belief in yourself and your ability to get things done.

Have you taken action in the face of your own doubts? I would love to hear your story.


I will continue to blog on themes from A Fitting Place (now out and available on Amazon and as an iBook) and I remain very interested in guest blogs from readers and writers who’d like to weigh in on any issues relevant to the book.


Waiting To Be Asked


waiting to be askedAs I noted last week, socially accepted gender roles influence behavior in ways we do not always recognize.  My focus this week is on what I think of as “waiting to be asked.”

Most of my readers are familiar with social norms that encourage many types of assertive and / or aggressive behavior in men, but are less approving of it in women. Those stereotypes, which often label “assertive” behavior in women as “aggressive” are breaking down, but they are still with us.

A significant element of this stereotype, since the days of Gloria Steinem marching down Fifth Avenue in New York City, has been the assumption of widespread male chauvinism (defined by Merriam Webster as “an attitude of superiority toward members of the opposite sex”).  In other words, women’s failure to succeed is all-too-often the fault of men who do not appreciate their skills and or reward them accordingly.

For the first fifteen years of my career in high finance in New York City, I accepted Steinem’s proposition without much question, despite the fact that I was a successful woman in a predominantly man’s world.  My success continued in Australia, despite the fact that “Aussie Ockers” were reputed to leave male chauvinists for dead.

What was different was the way I saw women in Australia. There, for the first time, I had a peer who was an exceptionally competent woman. While I loved my job, she hated hers. I soon realized that one of the biggest differences between us was that she was waiting to be asked. 

In advance of client meetings, I would always advise my boss on what I needed to move my part of the project forward. Whether he incorporated my requests into his agenda or turned the meeting over to me, I always walked out with what I needed to do my job. 

My officemate, by contrast, believed that he should ask what she thought or what she wanted to accomplish. Except he never did, leaving her constantly frustrated by her inability to get the information and resources she needed. She was a perfect example of the phenomenon described in an inspiring little treatise, Lady Leader, 10 Ways to Play in Big Boy Business, by Mary Stier (at one time a top executive for a Fortune 500 media company). Stier points out that there are a host of reasons why women hesitate to speak out: fear of rejection or scorn, lack of self-confidence or self-awareness, family pressure to be “ladylike,” a misguided sense of entitlement, and/or misunderstanding of priorities. 

Stier’s point is that it is your responsibility to speak up. You can’t complain that you’re not appreciated you if you don’t make your voice heard.  For whatever reason, my officemate in Australia did not make her voice heard while I did.

The issue can be as much a problem in a personal dimension as it is in professional one. The protagonist in my novel, A Fitting Place, has no problem making her voice heard in a professional context. In her personal life, however, she has consistently withheld her opinions from her successful and prominent husband. As her same-sex love affair causes her to re-think social norms about gender roles, she also begins to re-examine her own responsibility for making her voice heard in a romantic relationship, whether it be with a man or a woman.

Do you make sure your voice is heard?   


This continues the series on themes that are significant in my upcoming novel, A Fitting Place.  If you would be interested in doing a guest blog on one of these themes, click here. 


Nostalgia, Neophilia and Now

NostalgiaLast week, I confessed to neophilia—a preference for variety in daily life, a high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, as well as a love of a challenge. But being a neophiliac does not preclude moments of considerable nostalgia.

Unfortunately, nostalgia sometimes gets a bad rap. Merriam-Webster defines it as a “wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to some past period or irrecoverable condition.”  This negative perception undoubtedly stems from the Greek roots of the word—nostos (‘return home’) and algos (‘pain’). 

The implication here is that if you tend to reminisce about the past, you’re probably not a lover of the new. In fact, I’d argue that nostalgia is critical to being a lover of the new. But my view of nostalgia is less a longing to return to the past than an appreciation for how your past has shaped who you are today.

Support for this point of view comes from Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In a 2012 article, What’s So Nice about Nostalgia?, Whitbourne argues that the experiences of your teens and early 20’s are critical to the person you become later in life. In her view, these are the years when most people begin to forge a sense of identity.

Whitbourne says that after age 30, “We shape and re-shape our life stories, reworking the narrative in a way that enhances the way we feel about ourselves now.”  She adds that “dipping into the past to remind you of how you’ve coped with previous life stresses can help you strengthen your confidence in dealing with what you’re facing now.”

Whitbourne provides a helpful frame for my own experience growing up with a mother who mocked most of the things I cared about and a school environment in which I was bullied on a regular basis. It was clear that I did not fit in; the harder I tried, the worse things got. By age 16, I was desperate to escape.

I went off to college, and then to New York to work in finance. I escaped my mother and the school bullies, but I could not escape the inner child who expected criticism at every turn. My solution was to keep moving on—new jobs, new friends, new adventures—before “they” could discover what I presumed my mother and school mates already knew.

I didn’t start out as a neophiliac. I started out a scared young woman desperate to escape the mockery and criticism of her childhood. But serendipity played a large role in making me one. 

Thinking about that serendipity is where nostalgia comes in. I always had an analytical and questioning mind. I always liked solving problems. I always hated routine, and was eager to take on a new challenge. Had my career started out, as so many do today, in a routine job with a boss who expected me to follow the rules, I suspect I would not be a lover of the new but simply a woman still trying to escape the inner bullies.

In fact, who I am now—a lover of the new—reflects, in very large measure, the fact that my early employers—all men—encouraged me to explore new ideas and take on new challenges. This was indeed serendipity at a time when finance and banking were even more of a man’s world than today. I have no desire to return to those days, but I don’t ever want to forget them.

What role does nostalgia play in your life? What are you nostalgic about?


To read Whitbourne’s article, click here.

This continues the series on themes that are significant in my upcoming novel, A Fitting Place.  If you would be interested in doing a guest blog on one of these themes, click here

Old Bones: The Cost of Keeping Secrets


The cost of keeping secrets is the focus of my blog this week. This discussion has been contributed by historian and writer Frances Susanne Brown, who explores the impact of secrets for those who do not know quite what the secret is.


Skeletons in the Closet

SecretsThe phrase came into use in 19th Century England and originally referred to hereditary or contagious disease. Folks whose families suffered or even died from an illness preferred to keep the information private, lest they be shunned or judged in social circles.

From this, the idea of a hidden body found its way into Gothic fiction, such as in Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Black Cat. Author William Makepeace Thackeray used the exact phrase “skeletons in closets” in his novel, The Newcomes: Memoirs of a most respectable family (1855). Occasionally, the skeletons of unwanted infants are still found hidden behind the walls of old houses.

Notice here the emphasis on the social repercussions associated with keeping secrets. The basis for keeping certain information out of the public eye seems directly linked to the notion that it will preserve a family’s reputation, or their status in society.  

But keeping secrets has a cost. Like rotting corpses, these secrets fester, lingering as never-healing wounds. And secrets, we all know, seldom stay confined to one person. If they are shared with other family members, particularly children, the repercussions multiply exponentially.

In January of 2013, Psychology Today published an article entitled “Keeping Secrets” by Frederic Neuman, M.D., Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center in White Plains, N.Y.  He found that phobias in adults are commonly traced to a secret their parents told them to keep. These range from the trivial – we have wine in the house – to the more profound – don’t tell anyone Daddy has been treated for alcoholism. Dr. Neuman claims that by telling our children to keep secrets, we teach them shame, inferiority, vulnerability, and fear.

Other research reveals that a secret represents an actual, physical load we bear. In May 2012, Tufts University psychology researcher Michael Slepian concluded, “The more psychologically burdened the participants were, the more physical burden they experienced.” This study was based on cognition, the theory that the body and mind work together to process information. Slepian asked participants to recall a secret – either big or small – and then presented them with a picture of a hill. Those with big secrets perceived the hill as much steeper than those whose secrets were, in their own opinion, of minor importance.

Don’t Tell Anyone 

These three little words can actually affect our health, and make our everyday physical tasks more difficult. They can shape—or warp—a personality, cause phobias, and, ironically, impose as much damage on family members as the original public judgment or scorn they were trying to avoid. A particularly frightening realization is that a family “skeleton” can be passed down, like a genetic defect, even if the actual secret is never disclosed. 

How do I know this? I have lived it.

I grew up with a crippling lack of self-confidence and a poor body image, perpetually plagued by a fear of failure. It was as though a huge chunk of me was missing or inferior. Although I had no physical deformity, I felt emotionally disabled. It was not until I was in my fifties, had raised a family and buried both parents that I discovered the cause. My mother’s birth certificate, which I had never seen, allowed me to embark on an ancestry search. 

The secret I uncovered has explained me to me. My mother’s “skeleton” wasn’t even her own – it was my Grandma who said don’t tell anyone. I believe her family secret made my mother timid, self-conscious, and afraid to assert her independence. She never shared the secret with me, and tried all through her life to protect me from knowledge that she felt would be harmful.  Evens so, its effects, like the miasma of a rotting corpse, clung to her. Unintentionally, she passed those damaging effects on to me.

Every family tree is partially constructed of skeletons. We teach our children to treat others with honesty, respect, and acceptance, but how can they go out into the world and embody these concepts if we have also taught them secrecy? How can we hope for them to enjoy full, happy, loving lives if they secretly harbor shame, guilt, and fear?

The cost of keeping secrets can be profound, and can affect future generations, even if we believe the skeleton is safely, and permanently, hidden in the closet.


Frances.S.BrownFrances Susanne Brown grew up in New York State, earned her MFA from Lesley University, and presently resides in Massachusetts. Her historical articles have appeared in Herb Quarterly, the Family Chronicle, and Renaissance Magazine. 

 Her memoir, Maternal Threads, is due out in 2014 from High Hill Press. You can find her on Twitter @francessbrown, on Facebook, at and

 Herewith, we resume the series of blog discussion on key themes from my upcoming novel, A Fitting Place. If you’d like to join the discussion, please contact me here.