Dammit, don’t tell me I need to be more “assertive”!

 
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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, SEP 15, 2004

You’d think a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from an Ivy League school would count for something in the business world.


Dear Cary,

On paper, I am talented, bright, creative … almost perfect. I am 33 years old; I have a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from a prestigious Ivy League university. I’ve been married for 10 years to a wonderful husband. However, if you met me, you would not be able to surmise any of that based on how I look and act.

I work as a copy editor for a small company. I have the most credentials of all my co-workers and yet I am constantly passed over for promotions or leadership roles in projects. Time and time again, my reviews have indicated that I need to be more assertive and confident. I’m very shy and rarely speak in meetings.

I was the same way in graduate school. Yet not only did I manage to earn my degree, but I also taught undergraduate classes and presented papers at conferences. Basically, when it was time to perform in public, I somehow gained the strength and got through it. But these experiences seemed like walking on fire. I dreaded them. After graduating I had several promising interviews for teaching jobs. But I failed horribly and never received an offer. Five years and several degrading jobs later, I am now in my present position. Instead of being proud of my education, I have come to resent my Ph.D. I feel like I wasted those 10 years on graduate school. When I meet new people, I no longer tell them I have a doctorate for fear that they will look at me like I am a freak.

I want desperately to be confident and possess the spirit and aura that befit my achievements. I know I can do better, but I am paralyzed. I’ve taken more public speaking and assertiveness classes than I can count. They have not helped. I’m beginning to think it’s genetic and I am destined to be underemployed and miserable forever. Please tell me I’m wrong.

Cubicle Dwelling Ph.D.

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Dear Cubicle Dweller,

Of course you don’t have to be underemployed and miserable. You just need to find a place where you fit in. If I were to meet you on the street, I’d know for sure, but just from your letter, I’m going to guess that you are an introverted intuitive type. That would explain a lot — why you were so successful in academia, why your interviews went poorly, why you’re slaving away in a job that you’re probably doing very well but not getting credit for, and why people keep telling you to be more assertive.

If my hunch is correct, telling you to be more assertive is like telling a cat to bark. It’s not that you lack self-confidence; I’m sure you’re quite confident in your own abilities. But you’re stuck in a world whose symbols are alien. Business is burlesque! Competence is signaled symbolically. You go around acting all confident and assertive and people go — Look! She’s confident and assertive! We’d better promote her! Business is filled with people who aren’t really thinking straight. It’s full of voodoo. If I were you, I’d get back into academia fast.

But first, let’s talk about your type. Perhaps you have never given much thought to your underlying type. Perhaps “type” seems mundane or shallow; perhaps you find the idea distastefully deterministic. Perhaps you think of Jung as cultish. But I have found it useful to learn about Jungian types as they are simplified and codified in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

The introvert is the ruler of a vast interior dominion. For the introvert, everything happens there. Who else would get a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature? Who else would live in a world accessible only through art? We extroverts out here in our hiking shorts and blazers don’t get to see what’s going on inside that head — whose eyes are sometimes cast slightly downward as if trying to see inside themselves. It bugs us that we can’t tell what’s going on in there, and that she won’t just come out and explain how she got to where she is. When the introvert speaks, sometimes it seems to come out of nowhere. What is she talking about? It seems as though she’s jumped from A to Z.
The introvert doesn’t share her feelings with us in that easy, cooperative extroverted way that we snowmobilers prefer. She’s not going to say, Hey y’all, come on in, let’s all do therapy together, let’s tinker with my dreams! Paradoxically, the introvert doesn’t really notice her interior world as something distinct from who she is; to the introvert, the interior is real. We extroverts crow about our grand excursions into psychic space, but we’re just tourists there, handling every object with dumb amazement: Look Ma, I’ve found an intuitive connection! The introvert sits on her porch and watches with detachment — or perhaps mild annoyance — as we bumble through her domain.

You get what I’m saying? Some of it may ring true, some may not. There are degrees. I’m winging it. That’s my talent. I’m an improviser. It’s an extroverted talent. I don’t mind getting up here and winging it. I’m a bit of a showoff, something you probably don’t like in a man, but there it is, we’re different. The thing is, though, I know who you are. And I know you don’t belong in an office full of people who think you should be more assertive.

So if I were you, I’d begin looking again for employment in academia. If you cannot find a teaching job, take another job in academia. That is where you thrived. That is where you belong. That is where you will be appreciated. If you can’t get a job in academia, then look in fields where intellectual talent is valued above a go-getter’s bravado — in research, for instance, or publishing, or journalism. Look for a firm where others with advanced degrees also work; chances are if they are happy there, you can be too.

And then, once you’ve secured a new job, go to your old boss and say, “Hey, motherfucker, get this: I don’t do ‘assertive and confident’! I quit! I’m an introvert, damn it!”

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