Tuesday, September 30, 2008

More on the obscured ceiling

I've fielded some questions, on and off the blog, about my post last week on obscuring the ceiling--that is, on the ways we sabotage our own performance to avoid the pain that might come from discovering our limitations. Off the blog, an alumna asked what we do with this knowledge. In the blog comments, Katherine wrote that the post "reminded me of what people invariably say when you talk about applying for something: 'What's the worst that could happen?' This obviously implies that rejection is the worst that could happen, and that rejection isn't that bad. In fact, as you point out (without being flippant) rejection really IS the worst thing that could happen." Hilary wrote in response, "I would say then, Katherine, that the worst thing is not rejection, but a paralyzing fear of that rejection that keeps us from trying, learning and growing." And then Hilary added two questions for me: "who defines the ceiling (and, relatedly, success)? and is the ceiling ever actually a ceiling?"

Hilary has already hit upon the primary thing I would say in response to the alumna who asked for actions to take to avoid self-destructive obscuring of ceilings. I'm working all of this out for myself, but my sense is that the key lies in redefining the "worst that could happen," as in the question Katherine quotes.

Rejection is not the worst that can happen. Failing to know the best you can do, wasting your time, missing an opportunity to get valuable responses to your best ideas: these are worse. To paraphrase Yeats--Adrienne Rich reminded me of this notion in a reading last week--the worst case is failing to have the courage of your own thought.

Hilary's questions establish the ways in which having the courage to reveal your ceiling becomes a complex and fluid process. Who defines your ceiling? You do, you must, but you will do well to incorporate the honest criticism of trusted others. And is the ever ceiling actually a ceiling? Yes, in some ways--even Bolt isn't running the hundred in eight seconds--but in most circumstances, most of us have plenty of space to grow. Perhaps the best thing about refusing to obscure your own ceiling is the discovery that it's harder to hit than you imagined.

Rejection is not the worst that can happen.

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