Courage, Inadequacy and Taking the Plunge

It’s almost two years since I wrote about the dangers of looking at people you respect through rose-tinted glasses. That post was prompted by a relatively junior scientist losing their nerve after they had directly challenged something I’d said and then feeling they had a need to apologise to me for their apparent temerity. I hope they have since come to realise that when someone is wrong, whoever that someone is, a challenge (politely done of course) is entirely in order.

I am reminded of that post by a recent encounter which was summed up by the other person involved in the tweet ‘Even plucked up the courage to introduce myself to the awesome Athene Donald‘. Now it is very flattering to be termed awesome, a word I can’t personally imagine using about anyone – I’m not the right generation for it to be in my lexicon – but I hate the thought that somehow my ‘awesomeness’ is equivalent, for this person and maybe for others, to making me scary to approach. And I must be scary, because if I’m not why would they need to ‘pluck up courage’? Since I had never met this person before, the scariness must arise simply from status. Yet amongst scientists, status should be earned by what you bring to the party not merely by seniority. It is not as if the person saying this was a teenager; they are a full professor at another university. They have much clout of their own yet somehow they felt it took courage to approach me. I think that is very sad (but read on).

I finished that earlier post of mine with the words

Choose your role models, your heroines and your heroes wisely, and dispense with them – or better turn them into valued colleagues – once the time is ripe, which may be sooner than you think.

That sentiment ties in very closely with that expressed in a recent article in the THE  in which Tom Palaima writes about the importance and value of mentors. He says

Indeed my mentor … was first an intellectual father figure, reserved, with traces of awkward kindness and human playfulness. By slow degrees he became a friend and, during visits or travels, a relaxed and delightful companion.

When one sets out on one’s career, it is of course probable that everyone seems scarily ‘better’ than you, simply because they have more experience and almost certainly more confidence. But it is worth pausing to think what better means. Your would-be mentors have to earn your trust just as much you have to earn your place in their sphere. Not everyone is cut out to be the wonderful kind of person Palaima describes in his moving piece. But, if you are lucky enough to find such a person it is important that, as you yourself mature, so does your relationship with them. It can be hard to do this and, in some circumstances, may be impossible because of who you both are and how the early interactions evolved.

Striking up an acquaintance you hope may mature into something more with people whose reputation you know and admire is both easier and harder. Harder, as the tweet that prompted this post highlights, because you are starting from a standing start. Easier, because there are no prior and hierarchical relationship difficulties to overcome.  However, looking way beyond academia these difficulties are equally present.

This was brought home to me by a write-up of the speed-dating event for girls I participated in and described in an earlier post, written by ‘Mrs Moneypenny’ in the Financial Times. Mrs Moneypenny, who is actually Heather McGregor, is clearly not immune to impostor syndrome. (By the way, this is a topic I keep meaning to write a further post about but haven’t quite got around to it yet; maybe soon!) She wrote

I am also reluctant to mention my girlfriends by name, and to admit how inadequate I feel next to them

– the girlfriends in question being the rest of us who were there with her to head up the speed-dating. So here is a woman writing a column for the Financial Times who has also, I believe, set up various companies and she still feels inadequate. The problem with feeling inadequate is that it means (amongst many other things), as the earlier tweet said, one requires courage to break the ice and strike up a conversation.

Mrs Moneypenny makes it clear she had no trouble talking to the schoolchildren. I doubt if any of us present did. But she didn’t talk to me: nor I to her for the same reason. I didn’t know her and I felt awkward. My impression, probably incorrect, was that many of the other women knew each other and I felt the odd one out being a scientist. I could talk to Bettany Hughes, because she was an academic and we shared some common background (and Barbara Stocking I’d met in Cambridge previously so that was easy), but these formidable women who had set up companies, ran EasyJet or dreamed up Mumsnet – no they were out of my league and I felt uncomfortable.

Do you see where I’m going with this? It is easy for me to think of the tweeter I met recently, why should they be scared of ‘little ol’ me’. In reality though, just like Mrs Moneypenny, I am quite capable of not having the nerve to address strangers myself in a strange situation, even those I’m essentially sharing a platform with, because what they’ve done seems so impressive compared with my own life. This, I’m afraid, is a case of do what I say not what I do. We all can be intimidated by unfamiliar people, the more so if you know something about them by repute and admire them. And yet each of us is probably internally quaking as likely as not.

I will finish with a story my mother used to tell me. The message will be correct although the exact facts may have got garbled over the years in my mind. During the war, as a teenager, she acted as an informal general factotum for an organisation that oversaw leading musicians travel around the country giving concerts. She hefted double basses around, carried coats and pointed the Great and Good musicians of the day towards the facilities. One day she was responsible for looking after the great pianist and accompanist Gerald Moore.  After his recital she remarked, very tentatively how much she’d enjoyed it but said he must get bored of hearing such praise. ‘No performer can ever have too much praise‘ was his response. You can see how this fits in with the general picture. Everyone (well almost everyone; there must be the odd exception) is secretly feeling their performance – for which read lecture, paper, contribution to a committee meeting or whatever – may not have been up to snuff and kind, appreciative words will always be well received.

It seems to me it is all too easy to assume that others have perfect sang froid in every situation, always know exactly what to do and don’t need your support, enthusiasm or just general friendliness. I believe that the opposite is more likely to be the case. We should all take heart and ‘pluck up courage’ to talk to others – those more junior and more senior – and recognize that so many of us are likely to be inwardly feeling out of our depth or just plain shy.






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9 Responses to Courage, Inadequacy and Taking the Plunge

  1. Jenny Koenig says:

    I wonder how much of this is cultural? As an Australian who has lived in England for 20-odd years the reserve of the British still strikes me as very strange. You often see people at conferences who have clearly gone there to meet people and they are just standing around the edge of the room looking uncomfortable. Is it that the British are just so much more worried about “knowing their place”?

  2. Sarah Martin says:

    “it is important that, as you yourself mature, so does your relationship with them” – so very true! It took me 18 months to pluck up the courage to ask Cait McPhee to be my mentor, and then one lunch to turn us into collaborators. It’s been a brilliant four years.

  3. Rebecca Hoyle says:

    This is such a lovely post about something I have been reflecting on a lot recently. I am very guilty of assuming that I am so insignificant to people who mentored me earlier in my career that I although I think of them often I rarely tell them so. As it happens yesterday I ‘plucked up the courage’.

  4. Pam says:

    I do remember in the earlier days of AWiSE and when we were setting up MentorSET, Joan Mason (not the most intimidating figure but older and more experienced than the rest of us) often having difficulty getting across that she was merely putting forward a suggestion amongst our other suggestions, and not trying to hand down an edict from on high.

    Athene, I remember how encouraged I was long ago by your enthusiastic chatting to me when we met at random somewhere and I was surprised that you even recognised me. I would give you good marks on approachability!

    • Pam – If I remember the occasion aright I was fairly new to the ‘women in science’ agenda at the time and was glad to find a friendly, familiar face! You see, it was me that was feeling nervous…..but I’m glad it came across as a positive.

  5. Laurence Cox says:

    I found Cherie Blair’s article in yesterday’s “The Independent” interesting and particularly the reference to VW Connects – a social network and e-mentoring platform for young women.

    Here is the web site referred to in the article

  6. Ok so i’ll own up as the tweeter! While I agree with lots in your post in this case at least it is not to do with you as an individual being scary. In fact i find any networking activity incredibly stressful (yes the imposter syndrome is alive and well but that’s for another time.) It’s precisely because your blogs and tweets are encouraging and not intimidating that meant I could “practice” doing something I wouldn’t have done a year ago. Thanks. (In case it helps inform the debate I am in no way an early career researcher!)

    • Glad to know this was nothing personal Ellie! I agree, networking can be hard although frequently rewarding. As my response to Pam shows, I am most certainly not immune to that fact. I remember leading a discussion for ECR women with a senior male colleague. The women were saying how they found networking at conferences hard; the senior male said he felt exactly the same. Jaws visibly dropped, but I think this is a very common issue. Some people disguise it better than others.

  7. Rebecca Hoyle says:

    Reading Ellie’s comment made me smile broadly. I am also a full professor in physical sciences (and mother of two young sons, coincidentally) and would rather do almost anything else than have to ‘network’ with a bunch of people I don’t know. I only hope that next time I have to do it, there will be someone as approachable as Athene to ‘practice’ on!

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