Growing up, I was an extremely sensitive child. My feelings were hurt very easily, but I wasn’t a crier or a tattler (though my brother would tend to disagree). Self-confidence wasn’t something I had either. So in an effort to make people like me, I worked hard, particularly in those early years, in school. Now while the teachers appreciated this hard work and rewarded me for it, it wasn’t exactly popular with a particular group of my classmates. And this group of classmates would make life pretty miserable when the teachers, the adults, were not around.
During my grade-school years, back in the 1970’s, bullies were defined largely as those who physically hit other kids or who stole lunch money. And it was clearly known who these individuals were and their actions often got them sent home from school. What wasn’t recognized was the harassment bullies – these were the individuals who harassed others in a passive-aggressive non-physical manner and always out of sight of adults. These were the individuals who while we were waiting for the teacher to get back to the classroom, would mess with my work and threaten me with physical harm if I said anything, or who would chant awful things at me as we walked from building to building without adult supervision. These were the individuals that would call my home, sometimes several times in an evening, and either hang up or say something nasty and then hang up – anonymous as these were the days before caller ID. And these were the individuals who had a sense of who was sensitive and quiet and went after the sensitive personalities like dogs on a hunt. I wasn’t the only sensitive one they attacked, but it sure felt like it.
Now as I got into high school, the bullying wasn’t so in my face. The early years of keeping my head low and studying hard and practicing music and sports in the same manner began to pay off. The bullies were still there, but I didn’t pay much attention as I kept busy. And for a bully, harassing someone who doesn’t pay attention isn’t much fun. So they move on. But, I was still sensitive and strived for perfection in all areas I could. I wanted people to like me for doing things well as I strived to gain some confidence. This would be something I’d carry on into college and into the workforce – I was the ultimate carrier of the banner: “Work hard. Play hard.” And as I moved into my twenties, I gained some confidence and the bullies, and they are in college and the work environment too, took a back seat.
And then I went to business school.
Now business school is a different world. Imagine putting together 300+ largely Type-A people who have in the past, been pretty darn successful in their undergraduate studies and in their early careers. These individuals have always achieved high marks, some of them quite easily, and most of these individuals are pushy and opinionated and book- and some even street-smart (as in Wall Street). You put these individuals into a class and they now must compete against each other for grades and jobs. It’s really quite an interesting experiment and is repeated year after year in business, and law, and medical, and many other professional schools.
So I went to the Fuqua School of Business, at Duke University. I entered business school thinking it was going to be a two-year conference where we would exchange ideas and think big thoughts. In reality, it was two years of grinding work, no sleep, no money, and for me, stress about getting a job to pay off the enormous debt I was accumulating to pay for tuition and living expenses. Business school is not something I would really want to repeat in my lifetime, but it was critical in overcoming my sensitivity and achieving a bit of self-confidence. (I should also say that I met some of my most cherished friends and acquaintances there!)
In business school, 30%-50% of one’s grade is based on “class participation.” In short, that means that you speak up or you fail. Now I’d done my fair share of “speaking up,” but it was generally after all others had spoken and/or I was invited to add my perspective. Being the first or second person to get my opinion or analysis on the floor was not my thing, but failing wasn’t either. The first term was hard, but I survived. The second term wasn’t as hard, and I survived too. And then I realized that I was surviving and even thriving in some cases in the midst of a pool of some really aggressive personalities. And while I could never out-shout them and still don’t, I could quietly keep up by offering opinions based on facts and data and experience. And what is amazing, facts and data are a lot like having an adult in the room – it quiets the bullies quickly. Moreover, bullies don’t like bullying individuals who bring facts and data. It’s just not as much fun for them.
On occasion, in the workplace, I challenge my colleagues. I hope that I do it respectfully, but my fear of being wrong or being bullied back for challenging is largely gone. If I have data or information or experience that conflict with their opinions or plans, I feel a fiduciary, if not personal, duty to press them for how they arrived at their decision. Oftentimes, I can’t disagree with their approach, and even if I don’t agree with the approach, I feel the need to support it anyway – more fiduciary duty there. And I don’t take disagreements personally. I don’t believe that a difference of opinion makes one of us wrong or right or one of us less intelligent than the other.
And that is what business school did for me. It gave me confidence to push my opinions, but even more confidence to support opinions different than mine as our team grades or company survival depends on it. Business school stripped me of my over-sensitivity – it made me numb to it, thank goodness.
And while I still cry easily at movies, or when I see my young children accomplish something, or when I hear the Star-Spangled Banner or Amazing Grace, I don’t cry or fret about bullies in the work place, in politics, on the road, or in our own community. I respectfully face up to the bullies with data, facts, and questions, whether they are testing my bully-tolerance or that of others.
I still haven’t fully figured out how to help my children with bullies, since elementary bullies aren’t impressed with data or facts. And Nicholas has received the sensitivity gene handed down from his grandmothers, so he is ripe for harassment and has already received some as the bullies test each Kindergartner for their bully-tolerance level. We talk about it periodically and in addition to advising him to make teachers aware when it happens or if he feels unsafe, we talk much about how to react, which is really quite simply, not to react. We even practice – I tease him, and we talk about how he should respond and how he should not.
It’s working for now and we’ll see how it goes. And I suppose that in the worst case scenario, if I simply cannot help him overcome his sensitivity in these early years, there is always business school.