The Shriver Report – Standing Up to Dumbing Yourself Down

Special Edition

Standing Up to Dumbing Yourself Down

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If life is less about what happens to us than how we respond, the same holds true for our children who bear witness to our lives, values, choices and attitudes, day in and day out. They absorb the good and bad, the fair and unfair, forming opinions about the world that have the power to influence and shape the very course of their lives.

As a mother, I am acutely aware of this, ever mindful that I am my daughter’s first and most important role model for what it means to be female in this world — at home, at work, and in life at-large.

With that in mind, I share the following story:

A few weeks ago, I received disappointing news regarding a job opportunity that was well aligned with my strengths and experience, in an environment well-suited to my temperament, values and drive for achievement. After multiple rounds of discussion and review, it was determined that I was overqualified and would not be further considered for this particular position. The merits of the decision aside, I tried to handle the news with as much grace and good sportsmanship as I could muster up in the moment.

I was admittedly disappointed on multiple fronts and for various reasons, though far more significant than the disappointment itself, was my ten-year-old daughter’s response:

“But mom…” she earnestly asked, “can’t you just make yourself less smart? Just forget things. You know… Tell them that you don’t know as much as they think you do. Isn’t there some kind of test you could take? If you could, it might be easier for you to find a job.”

“Maybe she’s right,” an associate remarked early the following week. “Have you ever considered just not including all of your experience on your resume? You know, Sharon, people don’t want to hire someone who might one day want a bigger role. It’s too threatening… It’s the whole hierarchy thing.” (In my book, it’s also called fear.)

Privately incensed, I thought back to similar messages I received in recent years since my accelerated, albeit bumpy rebound and re-entry into the workforce; advice I was determined to ignore: “Stay in your lane” (though I think in circles). “Practice being underwhelming” (what exactly does that mean?). “Pretend to be a beta” (which by all accounts I am not).

I’ve resisted the advice because pretending to be someone you’re not is not sustainable and betrays both the self and ultimately, others. I’ve resisted because authenticity is foundational to building trust with others and influencing lasting change. I’ve resisted, because these messages contrast sharply with past advice that had heretofore served me well in the early years of my career:

“Have a succession plan Sharon, and seek to grow others beneath you.”

“Always surround yourself with people smarter than you so that you can continue to learn, grow and move up.”

“Don’t be afraid to step up, take risks and speak out.”

So I did and here I was, at a once unimaginable and seemingly unnavigable crossroad in my career.

Publicly incensed, I thought about the challenges and complexities of raising children as a single mother and why as mothers, we sometimes choose to step out or step back in our careers, perhaps pursuing new endeavors or those that we might well be over-qualified for, not from a mindset of ‘settling’ for less than we are capable of, but from the satisfaction of knowing we can leverage our experience to create and add value for others while choosing honor the needs of our families.

As I listened to my daughter’s words, filled with love and eager to help, I was deeply touched. For a moment my heart melted, before it gave way to a deep ache and later anger, as I contemplated the implications of her reply. She had only been trying to help, but perplexed by my reaction, she told me she felt guilty, afraid she had said something wrong, wishing she had said nothing at all.

That’s when I began to worry…

What message do we send to our daughters when (for women) ambition, achievement and self-determination are potentially viewed as liabilities instead of the assets they are? How can we encourage our daughters to rise up and lean in, when far too often, the world’s message back to us is to dumb it down, blend in, and play small?

Most significantly for mothers, if we choose to step up, how do we navigate and balance leaning into our leadership with the complexity of raising a family? If we step out or step back for our families, how do we overcome barriers to re-entry or the challenge of over-qualification?

In the aftermath of her reply, I told her I couldn’t… no… I wouldn’t dumb myself down, try to forget things or choose to stay small. I would not deny, diminish or discount what I’ve worked hard to achieve, acknowledging that my achievements have been tempered with an equal dose of humility along the way. I would not succumb to the notion that I’m somehow threatening to others when the foundation of my success has been built on the principles of team, collaboration, transparency, and trust.

No, I would not do these things — not just because I’m stubborn, but because true leadership is rooted in authenticity; because personal integrity is non-negotiable; because while being sensitive, situationally aware of others and making tweaks and adjustments accordingly is often necessary, appropriate and good, subjugating your strengths, minimizing your experience, and pretending to be less than you are is not.

That day I made a choice for my daughter, as much as for myself. I couldn’t change what had happened, but I could choose how to wisely respond. I couldn’t change her response, but I could guide her to a better solution. I could choose to seek understanding, fight for myself, and in the process, begin to build a better dream. In doing so, I chose to honor the truth of who I am and the potential of all that she might become.


This post originally ran on Sharon E Reed’s Blog, Musings on Life, Living & Heart-Aligned Leadership.

Sharon E. Reed is a Reporter for The Shriver Report.
Civic-minded and globally focused, Sharon Reed is passionate about building bridges of understanding and empowering others to make a positive difference in the world --through innovation, communication, collaboration, education, empowerment and engagement.
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