November 23, 2009

Value & Power

How do I value myself? It’s a conundrum. I’m always on the lookout for ego, arrogance, self-centered thoughts, words, and deeds. I’ve spent a long time learning to fake confidence, but I’ve never enjoyed it. I want to be honest and forthright about what I can and cannot do. I don’t want to get in over my head. I don’t want to fail.

Yet at the same time, I do have a certain level of confidence that is not at all fake. Call it basic goodness, buddha nature, wisdom, or what have you. I’m smart, and at the risk of being immodest, I know I’m smart. If I don’t know something or how to do something now, I have confidence in my ability to learn. I understand the type of work I’m suited for and the type I’m not. I’m not afraid to ask for help.

What I am afraid of is that others will not perceive me as I wish them to. They will expect too much or too little, leading one or the other of us to disappointment. Therefore, the question has become increasingly critical as to how I value myself and how I present that value, as honestly as possible, to others. It is critical now, because I need those others to give me something – a chance.

I am once again a petitioner to power. I never really spent a lot of time contemplating power before these last few months, what it is, who has it, how it’s wielded. It seems to me now that power is the ability of one person to make decisions which affect another. To some degree, we all possess power. However, I am coming to contemplate more and more the meaning of power imbalances.

These people to whom I petition have the power to grant my admission, provide financial support, offer me a job, etc. I cannot dictate their decision making processes. I can only hope to anticipate, persuade, or inspire.

I feel to large degree that I am coming into this blind. I’ve never been good at other people, whether that is remembering their names, showing an interest in their lives, reading between the lines, or understanding their motivations. I’ve learned to cultivate extroversion, but that does not make me an extrovert. I understand on an intellectual level the interdependence of all beings, and occasionally I can even know it experientially. I value others very highly, but that doesn’t mean I always relate to them well.

A professor chastised me last week for appearing apologetic of my experiences. It was not my intention, but that makes her perception no less true. If I present myself in a way that indicates I’m not certain how valuable my knowledge, experience, and expertise is, then how can expect others to see value in it? Perhaps I was presenting myself that way subconsciously in order to fish for external affirmation. Is it more important that I feel my experiences are valuable or that others confirm it to me?

Yet the truth is, I do not know whether others perceive my experiences as valuable. Because of my inability to read people, I simply cannot perceive or anticipate such things as well as I would like. I have to ask the blunt questions, and when I’ve been put into doubt, those blunt questions become a sign of insecurity. After all, if she’s as smart as all that, she ought to know how to pursue valuable experiences and as a result know that her experiences have value, right?

In the end, because I cannot know the minds of others, their own experiences, their prejudices, preferences, and what they do or do not value, (not for certain, at any rate, though clues tend to litter the ground like confetti if I can spare the time to look and the wit to see) I must make those decisions myself. At the very least, I must vale myself if I ever expect anyone else to.

However, I must also judge the line between offering that value honestly and self aggrandizement. It is true that I can say I worked for two years in the residential construction industry, but I spent half my time simply making photocopies of building plans. At what point am I leading others to believe I have more experience than I do in building construction? If I add the obligatory ‘but’ to that sentence I immediately devalue that experience. That being the case, why bring it up at all? At the same time, I did learn a lot about the industry, more from observation than participation and more about how and why people make the decision they do than how houses are actually built.

In truth, I believe all my experiences have value. They have all informed my work, have led me to be asking the questions I am currently asking, seeking the opportunities I am seeking, opportunities others now have the power to grant or withhold. I can see the chain with the perfection of hindsight.

The California marketing company hired to write commercials had more influence on the homes that were built than the Nebraska buyers who were purchasing them. A single homeowner asking if you can vault the master bedroom ceiling was easy to ignore (especially for the largest cookie-cutter home builder in the metro area), but if you’re paying a high powered consultant thousands of dollars you feel obligated to listen to their advice.

Working for the mortgage company showed me how well banks lie, bully, and intimidate, while making sure to cover their asses by telling the absolute truth (buried somewhere in the paperwork). They like to make arbitrary rules which determine who can and cannot buy and what they can and cannot be bought, which have no basis in reality. They hold a great deal of power (wielded like the proverbial swinging cat) but very little expertise.

The men and women in the Military Science Department taught me you can still respect people you completely disagree with and that similar motives can lead to very different choices. There power was codified by strict rules, absolute but also limited, and respected both by those who obeyed and those who wielded it. It had a purpose which is absent from so many other manifestations of power, where it is accumulated for its own sake.

Later, I would find jobs and experiences more within my field, but these first few things I learned were no less important to where I am now than they are. I need to learn to value that and present it so as to demonstrate my value of it in a way that makes others opinions of its value if not unimportant then at least unconcerning. After all, I can’t change my past.

It is a search for genuine value free of ego-centric posturing. Even to say that I hope if I believe it, they will believe it demonstrates insecurity. It includes the negative ‘what if.’ I don’t think I’m going to be able to simply erase that from my emotions and thought processes over night, but maybe I can be a little more sanguine about it. So what if they don’t value my experiences? Do I really want to study or work with them in that case? (But what if they don’t value my experiences because they misunderstand them because I’ve presented myself poorly? – This could go on and on.)

Insecurity is a self-perpetuating perception. What-ifs multiply like evil killer bunnies. It is a spiraling thought process I need to nip in the bud from moment one, which is where mindfulness come in. I’ve trained in mindfulness. I’ve trained in basic goodness and resting in groundlessness and letting go of attachments to outcomes. It helps me when I remember those things and apply those trainings.

Maybe if I can’t always find value in myself, I can at least find value in that.


Teacher Jim said...

The question is not 'how can these people in power help me get what I want?' - it should be "how can I help these people?"

If you think too much on 'me', you end up trying to persuade or manipulate the outside world to get what you want.

Those in power are no different than you and me - they seek happiness and want to avoid suffering. And just like the rest of us, they have a deluded idea of how to achieve that goal. But we can still have compassion for them and try to use our wisdom to help them.

All you can do is present yourself as yourself, someone who is trying to help others including them. If you truly wish to help them, it doesn't matter if they accept or deny you, you have done all you can. And that's all any human being on the path can do.

So, next time, think "How can I help you?" instead of "How can you help me?" It just might change things for the better.

At least, that's what I think. Others might differ. [smile]

John said...

You are a good communicator. If you explain why your experiences are pertinent or valuable, your audience will appreciate them. Sometimes the process of explanation can be very impressive just in itself.

No worries.