Are you hiding behind the curtain of a powerful mentor?

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Looking through red curtains

When you are just starting out in business, it makes sense to search out those that are more experienced, successful and connected than you, right?  I have said as much when talking about finding a mentor to guide your entrepreneurial efforts.  You may even find yourself working with these bright stars, helping to grow their businesses and public profiles.  One of the best ways to learn about a new business is to work with someone who already has a great track record.

But if you don’t watch it, something might happen to you that happened to me:  you become stuck behind the curtain.

Let me explain.

For years, I enjoyed my role as a consultant, where I worked with a lot of successful business owners and executives.  I helped them grow their businesses and become better leaders, coached them through difficult decisions, and sometimes delivered training representing their companies.  And I dealt with a whole bunch of crap that they didn’t want to deal with, as it was part and parcel of “making things happen behind the curtain.”

Watching their companies get stronger and revenues increase was always very exciting, and I prided myself on my knack for intuitively knowing how to help them address interpersonal issues while growing their business in a healthy way.

But after a number of years, I realized that all of my effort was being used to further their business goals. I don’t know why that came as a surprise, since that is what they were paying me for. I started to see myself as that character from the terribly crude
and sophomoric but strangely entertaining movie American Pie who
started every other sentence with “and in band camp …”  My “band
camp” was parroting the philosophy or theory from my circle of expert
mentors and clients.

I hungered to create my own body of work, to speak in my own voice and to make my own views known in a more public setting.  But preparing to do it scared the crap out of me for the following reasons:

  • I wondered if I had anything useful to say.  After so many years of spouting others’ ideas, I wasn’t quite sure what my own were, or if anyone would care about them.
  • I feared criticism.  If someone didn’t like the materials, presentation or approach of my clients in my “behind the curtain” days, I didn’t take it personally – they got the big bucks and fame, so they could take the heat.  But if I were the one front and center, I worried that I would be called out as intellectually inferior, fake or “not good enough” (symptoms of “impostor syndrome” which affects a lot of people, apparently women in particular).
  • I wondered if I had “it.” Acting in a supporting role for so long made me wonder if I even wanted to step out in a more public way with my work and my views.  What if I couldn’t take the heat?
  • I felt unprepared.  Although I had been coaching people for a long time, had launched my own successful ventures and had studied and worked in the world of business for many years, I didn’t have specific experience helping people leave corporate jobs to start their own business.  I wondered if I should spend a lot of time studying or reading before hanging out my shingle.
  • I feared the fate of politicians, where all of the dirt about how I stole someone’s boyfriend in high school, paid my credit card late or “inhaled” in my youth would be dug up and splashed across an imaginary newspaper headline.
  • I wondered if I would regret leaving the “easy big bucks” behind.  After so many years in an established consulting practice, I didn’t have to work hard at all to make very good money.  My network was deep and reputation good, so I didn’t have to prove my competence to anyone.

The funny thing is, most of the highly successful, famous and charismatic people I had worked with were not perfect moral specimens, nor were they totally secure in their subject matter expertise.  Most made things up along the way.  Some had more skeletons in their closet than a Halloween supply store in October.

So despite my own emotional baggage, I did step out from behind the curtain, thank God, in great part due to  my son Josh, who was just 3 months old when I launched this blog.  I was holding him right before a client call that I was dreading, to talk about a deathly boring corporate project that I cared nothing about.  As I tensed, I could feel him tense along with me.  I got a chill through my body as I realized that I was transmitting feelings about work to him directly, and through osmosis.  If I was unhappy about work, he would see that, and, from what I know about kids, that is what would shape his own experience with work.  My love for him and desire for him to live a free and happy life was the final boot in my reticent behind.

The irony of it all is that as soon as I got started, I realized that most of my fears were unfounded.  Not because I was brilliant or bulletproof, but because no one really cared!  There was no governing academic body checking the facts on my posts, mostly because my only readers were my best friend, sister and father.  Most importantly, I found that finally being able to speak my truth was so much more important than being perfect.

Brenda Ueland, who wrote my favorite writing book of all time in 1938, If You Want to Write:  A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit describes it perfectly in the chapter where she sums up her advice to her female writing students:

“In fact, that is why the lives of most women are so vaguely unsatisfactory.  They are always doing secondary and menial things (that do not require all their gifts and ability) for others and never anything for themselves.  Society and husbands praise them for it (when they get too miserable or have nervous breakdowns) though always a little perplexedly and half-heartedly and just to be consoling.  The poor wives are reminded that that is just why women are so splendid – because they are so unselfish and self-sacrificing and that is the wonderful thing about them!

But inwardly women know something is wrong.  They sense that if you are always doing something for others, like a servant or a nurse, and never anything for yourself, you cannot do others any good.  You make them physically more comfortable.  But you cannot affect them spiritually in any way at all.  For to teach, encourage, cheer up, console, amuse, stimulate or advise a husband or children or friends, you have to be something yourself.  And how to be something yourself?  Only by working hard and with gumption at something you love and care for and think is important.

(…)

And that is what I would say to to worn and hectored mothers in the class who longed to write and could not find a minute for it:

‘If you would shut your door against the children for an hour a day and say:  ‘Mother is working on her five-act tragedy in blank verse!’ you would be surprised how they would respect you.  They would probably all become playwrights.”

I now notice the “behind the curtain” syndrome with some of my coaching clients and encourage them to develop their own bold, audacious, quirky, imperfect and inherently flawed public selves.  Because all of us deserve to have our place in the sun, even if we are standing on a milk crate in a public square, passionately sharing our views with an audience of one.

If you are stuck behind the curtain, come on out.  We can’t wait to hear what you have to say.

17 Responses to “Are you hiding behind the curtain of a powerful mentor?”

  1. […] guess this is a pretty common issue but I remember being blown away after reading a post that my business coach Pam Slim had recommended feeling like she had read my mind and written it […]

  2. […] guess this is a pretty common issue but I remember being blown away after reading a post that my business coach Pam Slim had recommended feeling like she had read my mind and written it […]

  3. […] of work rather than a you-centric career has the additional benefit of helping with your fear of coming out from behind the curtain of […]

  4. […] of work rather than a you-centric career has the additional benefit of helping with your fear of coming out from behind the curtain of anonymity.I often run into clients who get anxiety thinking about what may happen when they gain […]

  5. This is the best post/metaphor for where I am right now. I just typed “The End” on an original script and had friends over to read through it. I feel like I’ve come onto the stage. It was a hard struggle to get here. Excellent quote by Brenda Ueland. I’ll be saving this post, and most likely sharing it with others.

  6. Charlotte says:

    Fantastic post.

    I’ve seen the “behind the curtain” syndrome affect so many otherwise brilliant people. And, ironically, the people who think that they have the least to offer are often the people who can offer the most.

    Hopefully this post brought some of those people out of the closet when you first published it, and hopefully it will do more now. 🙂

    I must rush out and get the book that you mention.

  7. Havi Brooks says:

    Terrific! I love the mental picture of “stepping out from behind the curtain”, especially since once you do it you find that the whole world is right there waiting for you and cheering you on. Hurrah!

    I also agree that it’s important to stand in your own place of knowledge, material, values, etc. It’s tempting to want to parrot the brilliant people who have trained and taught us, but that’s not necessarily what our personal audience needs.

    It’s always a joy to meet people who have studied with top teachers, but when it comes to working with someone … I have no interest in hiring or collaborating with a “Tony Robbins coach” or even a “Multiple Streams coach”.

    I’d rather work with someone who puts him or herself out there as “this is me with my own thing, influenced by other good thinkers, but this is how I do it”.

    Acknowledging the gifts of the mentors is different from just spreading their work. And a real mentor is the one who will encourage you to get out there and live your truth, your vision, your big ole crazy stuff that only you can bring to the world in your unique way.

    Thanks for the beautiful post. Looking forward to “meeting” the baby on the blog!

    Havi

  8. Lisa says:

    Thanks Pam…

  9. lilalia says:

    Pam, like the other readers leaving comments, I think your words on this topic really rang true. Sometimes maybe it is about stepping out from behind the curtain. Other times though, it might be just a matter of learning that we are enough just as we are, each in their own humble way.

    Thanks for writing such a great post and sharing your experiences.

  10. Andy Pels says:

    What!?
    Not hide my flaws? Are you crazy? Are you telling me that I can’t make real progress without risking criticism, or at least public imperfection? Not fair!

    Of course, all of your posts are brilliant, but notice how the comments here say you’ve really hit home on this one. This is one of those universal topics that prompt introspection that can be uncomfortable. But it seems that those who are ready to push past the discomfort can really make a lot of progress. I think (hope) I’m one of those today since it only scares SOME of the heck out of me.
    Thanks for the wisdom.

    And as we leap, we can take a sort of half-comfort in the words of Olin Miller “You probably wouldn’t worry about what people think of you if you could know how seldom they do.”

    -Andy P

  11. Jennifer says:

    Hi Pam,

    Great post. I wanted to let you know that I quit my corporate job last summer and now I’m traveling around the country in an Airstream travel trailer with my husband. We’re interviewing people who’ve quit to pursue their entrepreneurial passions for a book and film documentary called Carve Your Own Road.

    Last week we were in Minneapolis and met two incredible women. Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson who work in the corporate headquarters for Best Buy. The created ROWE (Results Only Work Environment)

    ROWE is all about output rather input, doing away with meetings and office schedules. Unbelievable what they’ve accomplished inside a Fortune 100 company. They are spinning out on their own with a company called CultureRX to consult with other company who want to implement this program.

    http://www.culturerx.com

  12. MuchTooLonginPR says:

    Wow, Pam – this post is really hitting home, especially for those of us in public relations – the profession designed to serve others and not necessarily yourself…thanks for having the courage to reveal your own fears and concerns.

  13. Pam,

    This is a great post. As I read this post, the thought of “We are all not perfect” came to me.

    You are right…Most people don’t want to stick their neck out. Throughout their entire lives they are just content working as “someone elses leverage” losing their individual identity each and every day.

    They reason they don’t take action is because of the fear of failure…This pain…as Tony Robbins talks about…is one of the greatest human motivators that either inspires action or represses it.

    Keep the good content flowing!

  14. Elle says:

    Wow! You just get better & better Pam! We hear what we need to hear and that one is ringing in my ears very loudly. Thank you.

  15. Charles says:

    Yes…, I remember those days! That was me! Thank you for your wonderful words and insights.

    Charles

  16. Alvin says:

    Wow. This is a very inspirational post, Pam.

    I worked for a while with a training company – the lead trainer was a self-made millionaire and the rest had lots of achievements and letters behind their names.

    But I found that they were also doing the best they could at the time – they certainly didn’t have all the answers even though our participants had this idealization that they did. They were just people doing their best to help people.

    I also have the same fears you mention – the fears that when people see me for the less than stellar me I am they will ask ‘why bother listening to this guy?’

    But bit by bit I am learning to come out of my shell – and writings like yours help.

  17. Great post, Pam. “Showing up” does take courage – mostly the courage to step over those illusions we call fears. (Rick Carson’s book, Taming Your Gremlin, is great for more on that.) I love how you said once you got out there in the world with your unique voice that you found the fears were unfounded and also, that no one really cared. It is ironic — what we spend hours, days, months and maybe years worrying about just doesn’t seem to be an issue once we “Show Up.” And btw, I’m glad you did. This blog is fabulous.

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