Something happened today that was like a total déjà vu moment. Well no, not really, since it wasn’t déjà vu – it was a moment almost entirely replicating itself. I was sitting down with my boss, an intelligent, thoughtful and passionate woman who I admire and who always fully supports me professionally and creatively (aka ideal feminist boss) and after discussing a bunch of ongoing projects, we ended up talking for a moment about life. She told me that she’d described me to her husband in the past as someone who does a lot of amazing things and has a lot of passion and energy. Obviously, that was lovely to hear. But then she told me that very recently, she’d decided that I do “too much” and maybe it wasn’t a good thing.
She then asked me if I finished all of the projects I started (yes) and how that worked out for me over time. This was all framed in a friendly way, and I took it well. She then commented that maybe that’s ‘just how I am’ if it really does work for me. Interestingly though, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard similar feedback in the same context. About four years ago, my then-boss, a woman I also greatly admired – a strong, intelligent, refugee lawyer – told me almost the identical thing. That I seem so passionate and full of energy, always pursuing projects, but that it was all “too much” and there almost was no way I could actually be completing everything to a high standard.
The first time I heard this feedback, I took it as being actionable. I didn’t see a problem with me, I saw it as a problem of perception, and of other people’s imagined limitations. I had no reason to doubt my own capacity because I always ensured that I delivered on every commitment I made, and had excellent references attesting to that. But as a takeaway, I decided to slim down my resume significantly. While other people might think adding a volunteering commitment of 10 hours per week for three years was a great thing to showcase, in my case it was one of many to be cut. This is because with all of my work and volunteering commitments, it put me at over 100 hours per week of output. That’s exactly how much time I was logging across different endeavours and supporting projects: but people like my boss (and surely others) looked on with disbelief. After I began to talk about only half of the experience I had, I started to gain more success when applying for other opportunities like leadership roles, other positions and events. I essentially noticed a direct correlation between making it seem like I’d done less, and being recognised and rewarded more.
I fully understand that for many people multiple full-time loads wouldn’t be manageable (but as I’ve pointed out before, I had dire circumstances spurring me on) but it seems quite ridiculous for an employer to assume it literally isn’t possible. Speaking from experience: it is. Over one six-month period I was running a non-profit organisation, studying a full time honours course load while writing a thesis, running a small migration law business, spending two hours a week tutoring refugee children, planning my wedding, and a permanent overseas move – then decided I was so busy I might as well start my Masters degree full time concurrently since it really couldn’t get any worse. Compared to that version of myself I’m doing very little now, and I’m still getting the “too much” line! So I’m not going to adapt to the feedback again, I’m just going to note that it’s a persistent issue, and keep moving forward.
Next time you feel tempted to dismiss a CV that reads like mine did (before the slim down), or to raise an eyebrow at a seemingly ‘impossible’ timeline or schedule – remember that you might be pushing away high-performing individuals. If someone really does have that much energy (and their references attest to it) and they want to swing some of it your way, you shouldn’t pass up on the opportunity to funnel it into your work. Seize those people and challenge them, then let them surprise and amaze you. The world of work is changing fast and who knows what skills and talents will be needed in 5, 10 or 20 years. The more energetic and passionate people you can attract to your cause, the better!
This is the eighth in a series of 52 Memoirs I will be posting weekly until April 2018. Look out for new posts every Wednesday!
My name is Keeya-Lee. I'm American-born, Australian-raised, living in London. I work in the humanitarian innovation / tech / social impact space. You can follow me on twitter here!