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.



  1. Mary, this is another thought-provoking and insightful essay that hits home on several levels– I too had a strong father who valued education and supported all my efforts and achievements and I grew up in a society that undermined and devalued the role of women in the workplace. End result-lots of mistakes and side trips which forced me to believe in myself. Dad always told me, “Cream always rises to the top” when I’d share my latest crisis in confidence. After a while, it became a habit. I agree that the best antidote for lack of confidence is action.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Kathy … there is no doubt in my mind that I was very lucky. Wall St was a man’s world and very competitive, but my value could be measured in dollars and cents. Your career in nursing and Susan’s journalism (see below) had more subjective and perhaps more culturally biased measures of success. I’m so proud of what you both have accomplished against the odds.

  2. I’m with you, Mary. You won’t gain confidence if you’re hosting a pity party. Get out and get moving!

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Yeah, Joan … that’s advice I really need to take to heart these days, when I get discouraged at book marketing (my least favorite activity after ironing)

  3. On my desk I have a quote by Sylvia Plath: “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” Obviously, she walked down the wrong path in the end, but her wisdom still resonates with me. I received kudos as a college professor in a field I was trained for, but now as a beginning memoir-writer, I often feel “in over my head” in a highly competitive field. My huge advantage: Many online followers who are cheering me on and providing resources to keep me moving in the right direction.

    Nice touches: That goose-necked lamp on the photo and your father’s wisdom. Such words pack power!

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Sylvia Plath was a idol of mine … and she had so many things that went her way. A sad commentary on how fragile life is … and a reminder to me again that I was so very lucky. It wouldn’t have taken much to hurtle me down a very different, and far less satisfying, path.

  4. I’m coming into this from a bit of a different perpsective. I had a father who as long as I could remember said to me, “Susie, you can be anything you want.” It was interesting because Dad was raised by a strong woman, virtually a single mother since her husband was a traveling salesman. Dad was an only child. So I go careering out there believing the world is my oyster. I attended graduate school at an Ivy League college and eventually ended up working for a major newspaper . . . slam, that’s where I again ran into a male-dominated profession, although for years I had felt the dominance of men in everything from when I taught high school English and the vice principal was a man and disliked me because he was threatened by me, to my editors at the newspaper, 80 percent of whom were men.

    I had been at the paper maybe 12 years when they finally appointed their first woman editor-in-chief, and I always felt that was a calculated move on their part. So that is why I believe strongly in women taking action, finding their voice through writing and not letting their confidence be eroded by the paternalistic “powers that be” which are still thriving – wage gap difference as just one example. And oh yes – as anyone who has been following me and my memoir journey knows, I had a wonderful supportive husband, which if you’re going to be married, is crucial for women.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Susan … you are always a breath of fresh air. As I noted in my reply to Kathy above, you both had all the tools I had, but started your careers in a world where the markers of success were more subjective than in Wall Street. I can’t imagine the dark hole I would have slid down into had I started my career in writing rather than in finance.

  5. It’s interesting to me how influential fathers are in the lives of high-achieving women. For my father. the emphasis was not on learning or opportunity so much as on work and honesty. “A good name” was his watchword for trust.

    Thanks for including the link to the Atlantic article, Mary. I had read about it but had not read it until you posted. Very interesting!

  6. I enjoyed this very much — a thought provoking essay! My parents instilled the idea in me that I needed a college education to better myself. My mother was also adamant about learning something new every day. She also insisted that her three children take typing lessons (in the 60s and 70s) so we’d “never be without a job.” Actually, it did help!

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Tina … thanks for stopping by … I too took typing lessons for the same reason … and it was how I survived when I went to NYC after getting my MBA. It took 3-4 months to find the “right” job, and in the meantime, I worked on the night staff (aka typing pool) of a major NYC law firm. I might have starved otherwise.

  7. Chuck Robertson says

    Hello, Mary. I can’t agree more. I’m in a new job now and can’t help but feel a little apprehensive about it. There’s no substitute, however, for just putting one foot in front of the other.

  8. Mary Gottschalk says

    Chuck … new jobs are always scary, even if you are totally “qualified.” Good luck!

  9. You’ve given me much to think about.
    I think there are many times I did not pursue things, career choices and such, because of the self-doubt and “what-ifs.” At the same time, I don’t really regret my choices.
    I also have had that moment of terror whenever I’m asked to speak somewhere. I learned from a really bad presentation I did though–that I should have just insisted that I speak on what I knew about instead of asking the woman what she wanted me to talk about and then trying to condense thousands of years of history into one talk.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Merrill … thanks for stopping by … getting past those frights and terrors is a very long process.
      I stopped by your site, and loved your mother’s day poem. I’d also like to find out more about your work on sexuality and culture, as it is a key theme of the novel I’ve just released (A Fitting Place).

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