Sunday, August 19, 2012

Who Built That – Women, Pride, and Success

This Post Also Appears at FEM2.0

I was raised with the idea that pride is a sin – one of the seven deadly sins, in fact. Even children whose families weren’t religious probably heard the adage that pride goeth before a fall. And most of us were taught that bragging is impolite.

How deeply I’d internalized the warnings against pride didn’t become clear to me, though, until I started practicing an exercise in Anthony Robbins’ book Awaken the Giant Within.  Robbins suggests asking questions each morning designed to focus on what’s great in life.  The questions include “What am I happy about?” and, the one I find the hardest, “What am I proud of?”  It’s not that I don’t feel I’ve accomplished anything.  My difficulty is that each time I think of something, I feel almost guilty taking credit for it.  I remember that I couldn’t have done it without having certain advantages – like two parents who loved me and always encouraged me to do my best.  Or I think that it’s not “really” a great accomplishment – for instance, publishing one of my thrillers independently doesn’t count as an achievement because I didn’t obtain a traditional publishing contract and I don’t have through-the-roof sales like John Locke or Amanda Hocking.  Or I fear that the moment I say I am proud of something – for instance, that I’ve successfully run my own law firm for four years – things will immediately take a turn for the worse.  (I’m knocking on wood now.)

I am not alone in this.  Studies show that women much more than men find it difficult to take credit for their accomplishments and talk about them with others.  Organizations formed to recruit women to run for office find that women are far more likely than men to believe they lack the qualifications to hold public office – even when they have the same experience that leads men to believe they are eminently qualified.  Similarly, in business, women are less likely than men to take credit for what they’ve achieved, and more likely to attribute success on a project to the contributions of others.

I saw this in the large firm where I practiced law for many years.  If a new male lawyer worked on a trial team and the case was won, the lawyer was likely to tell everyone he met, “I won my trial.”  Even if the closest he got to the courtroom was to e-mail research findings to the partners actually trying the case.  In contrast, women lawyers in junior positions were more apt to say things like, “We won the case – but all I did was some research.”  Neither statement is entirely accurate, but the male lawyer certainly sounds more confident and experienced. 

In any business, working hard, even if it produces good results, isn’t enough.  To succeed, not only must a person do well, but the people around her or him must hear about those accomplishments.  This is more and more the case as businesses and firms grow, and people stay in positions for less time.  Often the decisionmakers don’t know firsthand what their subordinates are doing.  That women generally are less likely than men to toot their own horns is one of the reasons women fail to rise as quickly as men. 

Of course, there is a downside to too much bragging. People grow tired of hearing someone who only talks about herself or himself.  And a lawyer crowing about “my win at trial” (or the equivalent business deal) can alienate others who know who did what on that particular matter.   

How much credit we can or should take for our accomplishments is something I’ve thought about a lot throughout my career.  When I became an attorney at age 34, many of my younger colleagues had parents who’d paid most of their way through college and sometimes law school, had family members who were lawyers or held high positions in corporations who eased their way into professional life, and/or had social backgrounds such that they never feared picking up the wrong fork during the all-important interview lunches or client meetings.  On the flipside, criminal defense attorneys I know sometimes represent two or three generations in one family who never finished high school and spend their lives in and out of jail.  In my family, getting a speeding ticket was a matter of great shame.  I didn’t know any CEOs, but I had role models who held steady jobs, valued education, and engaged in volunteer work.  I’d like to believe I’d still be an author and an attorney if I had a different background, such as one where most of my friends got pregnant by fourteen or fifteen or where no one I knew went to college.  But that’s impossible to say.

In the end, I want to strike a balance between the issue I share with many women of downplaying accomplishments and the more stereotypical male approach of grabbing the spotlight, between mischaracterizations of Mitt Romney’s approach to business and the mischaracterizations of Barack Obama’s.  So each morning, I think of something I’m really proud of, whether it’s a new sale of my novel, winning an appeal, or helping raise money for an important cause.  Doing that has increased my confidence and made me happier.  At the same time, each day I identify something or someone I’m grateful for – the children’s librarian who encouraged me to write poetry and hunted down books she knew I’d love when I was in grade school, mentors and friends who’ve advised me throughout my life, being born in a time when women can practice law, own a business, and make their own choices. 

Who built that?  I did.  And we did.

Lisa M. Lilly is an attorney and the author of THE AWAKENING, a thriller, and of THE TOWER FORMERLY KNOWN AS SEARS AND TWO OTHER TALES OF URBAN HORROR. All royalties from 2012 for THE TOWER are being donated to The Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists (AAIM) in honor of her parents, who lost their lives due to an intoxicated driver's choice to drink and drive in January, 2007. THE TOWER is available at:

THE AWAKENING is available at: