The Styrofoam Cup: Reflections from Leaders Eat Last

Last week, I was at home while my students ran an event on campus.  I had spent a significant amount of time dedicated to my marketing committee, both in and outside of work hours, discussing with them how to promote this event through social media.  After the event ended, I noticed that social media was silent: they had forgotten to make their posts, a simple task that I had invested my time and energy into ensuring would happen.  I took matters into my own hands and made the posts myself, typing furiously on my bed at 10pm.  My frustration mounted, my chest tightened, and I spent the next day venting to anyone who would listen.  I became all-consumed with my work and my event.

Shortly after the Social Media Crisis of 2014, I was in the process of live-tweeting my current read, Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek.  I came across a story about a former Under Secretary of Defense who spoke at a large conference.  The former Under Secretary revealed that the previous year, when he was still in office, was flown to the conference in business class, escorted to his hotel room, and treated to a cup of coffee in a ceramic mug.  When he no longer held the position, he flew to the conference in coach, drove himself to the hotel, and poured himself coffee into a styrofoam cup.  Then came the part of the story that just jumped off the page and slapped me in the face.

“‘It occurs to me,’ he continued, ‘the ceramic cup they gave me last year…it was never meant for me at all. It was meant for the position I held. I deserve a styrofoam cup. This is the most important lesson I can impart to all of you,’ he offered. ‘All the perks, all the benefits and advantages you may get for the rank or position you hold, they aren’t meant for you. They are meant for the role you fill. And when you leave your role, which you eventually will, they will give the ceramic cup to the person who replaces you. Because you only ever deserved a styrofoam cup.”

At work, I’ve been called a “woman on a mission”, so mired in details that I’ve missed out on meaningful moments with students.  I’ve neglected doctor’s appointments, given myself anxiety (see above chest pains), and snapped at countless friends/family members over my job, and for what?  The former Under Secretary is right: whether we want to admit it or not, we are all replaceable.  We all deserve styrofoam cups.  I spend countless hours dwelling on the all-important community service event (granted, community service can have a great impact on students, as all of our work can have) without even regarding my own health or happiness.  Not only that, but I do my students a disservice as I toil away on tasks they could learn, generating a catering order or drafting a reflection workshop.

svc1

As a student affairs professional, my goal is for my students to do amazing things for Community Service at Rutgers, not me.  It’s not my work and my event.  It’s their work, and they should celebrate their successes and analyze their failures (with my support).  My students are the ones who should be in the spotlight, giving amazing Ignite-style talks at conferences, being quoted in the campus newspaper, and drinking from their ceramic mugs.  It’s their precious and exploratory four years to pave their way into a career, not mine.

As one of my great friends put it, “If we’re doing our jobs right, no one will even know we are there.”  I tend to agree.  I’m shifting the spotlight over to them.  After all, I am only in the background watching them shine, drinking from a styrofoam cup.

Advertisements

What Tina Fey Taught Me

I’m three years late to the party, but on a long road trip to Baltimore this weekend, Dan (my husband) and I listened to Tina Fey’s Bossypants audiobook.  It was my first audiobook experience, and I thoroughly enjoyed spending six hours with Tina (especially because Dan was there with me) as she spoke about the challenges facing a professional woman in today’s society.  At times, I imagined that it was me reading my own stories out loud (Tina, I just love squirrels that eat food with their hands! I also have no idea how to decide when to have kids and when to focus on my career! I’ve been asked that exact same question while stuffing my face with cake!).  Other times, I just listened and soaked in what Tina Fey taught me.

Bossypants

“Do your thing and don’t care if they like it.”

Tina shared a story about how she casually joked in an informal dinner with a reporter friend that she would “leave Earth” if John McCain and Sarah Palin were elected to the White House.  It was interpreted seriously and blown out of proportion by the media, but Tina didn’t leave it out of her autobiography – she owned it.  Maybe she shouldn’t have said it out loud, maybe she shouldn’t have trusted her friend, but really: she did her thing, regardless of what anyone else thought.  It made me think instantly about times when I “humble bragged” on Facebook and some acquaintances rolled their eyes, or times when I tweeted something that was perceived as too emotional for my professional persona.  Maybe these behaviors were interpreted in a negative way, but that’s me: sometimes too proud, and sometimes too vulnerable for my own good.  I am owning it.

“This is what I tell young women who ask me for career advice. People are going to try to trick you. To make you feel that you are in competition with one another. “You’re up for a promotion. If they go for a woman, it’ll be between you and Barbara.” Don’t be fooled. You’re not in competition with other women. You’re in competition with everyone.”

I found Bossypants extremely valuable for the way that Tina addressed serious social issues through storytelling.  Rather than sharing statistics about gender equality, she used her life experiences to address the challenges that women face on a daily basis when it comes to being in a competitive career with men.  I particularly loved her perspective on body image and how women are constantly told to use what limited minutes they have in the day to look/act/be perfect.  In the spirit of dealing head on with societal pressures, I’m going to ‘fess up and admit that I actually Photoshopped my own Linked In profile picture (embarrassing, but true).  Thanks to Tina, now I’m questioning why I felt the need to do that in the first place.

“You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide, overthinking it. You have to go down the chute.”

This quote is perfect: visual, meaningful, and also pretty relevant to anyone who spent summers at a water park.  It brings me back to my one word resolution: do.  I can’t be waiting my turn on the slide any longer.  This goes for my personal life (DIY projects, blogging, health/fitness goals) and professional life (finding the next step in my career, developing supervisory skills, spearheading programs).  I’m going to go down the chute.  Something embarrassing could happen on the way down, I could get a few elbow burns, and the chute might take me down some dark and scary tunnels.  But if Tina can go down the slide, so can I.

That’s what Tina Fey taught me.