Andy: My whole life I’ve believed a lie: I need to be great at something — the very best — and anything less isn’t okay. I believed this about the school spelling bee, so was ashamed when I missed environment and didn’t make the fourth-grade semi-finals. I thought this about gymnastics. In seventh grade I asked a friend, “Why are you doing gymnastics if you know you’re not going to make the Olympics?” I thought this about college, about my career, about my ambitions large and small. Why are we learning to bake bread if it’s not artisan, why are we brewing coffee if it’s not, why running, why writing, why trying anything? This meant that I did a lot of not sharing what I was up to until I’d gotten the accomplishment. I was always showing off my trophies, but never divulging my attempts. It’s a lonely way to live.
When I became a manager, I knew I was bad at it. But everyone already knew I was doing it. I tried to do it alone, but too many questions with legal implications, too many weird things, kept popping up: What if someone literally copies someone else’s work and says it’s theirs when the version history clearly shows it’s not? What if someone is waking up in the middle of the night to pick up assignments so there’s nothing for anyone else to grab in the morning? The handbooks I’d been handed said nothing. There were no YouTube tutorials. There was no digging deeper into the well of my own strength to bust out a few more reps. These were real questions I had no answer to.
And I felt stupid asking for help.
But then I built the secret club I didn’t know I’d needed: people who laughed with me about what I was facing, who helped me search all the available resources, who laughed with me again when we realized there was no rule about this weird and wacky version of the problem, who helped me come up with some options and get them in front of people who could approve them and take on some of the weight as well, who asked me for help too — and I started to feel so much better.
Being a manager is a hard thing, and it’s worth doing well. But I no longer think it (or anything else) has to be done perfectly at first, like you’re some kind of prodigy with unreasonably long arms who’s just “built for it.” It’s okay to have other people see you learn. In fact, it’s required. Because it absolutely cannot, should not, be done alone.
Emma: I think it’s very uncommon to know what to do — then to do it well — all by yourself.
I did not always feel this way. For my entire early career, I thought if I wasn’t alone with my brain, somehow just inceptioning whatever I was trying to do into reality, it meant I wasn’t qualified. I felt that way as a writer (if I brainstormed ad copy with someone, I was stealing it) and I felt that way much, much harder when I started managing. Wasn’t I just supposed to know how to do it all?
When I read Ann Friedman’s essay about peer mentors, I was reading about myself: “In the earliest days of my career, whenever I was around older coworkers, I was worried about projecting an air of ‘I got this.’ But it’s hard to seek help in solving your problems when you’re pretending you don’t have any.”
The thing is, I always wanted to be a manager. I gunned for the opportunities, and really believed I could be great at it. But I felt stuck, unsure of how to get from “got the job” to “great at the job.” My cat is the same way about getting outside: She spends weeks plotting her escape, and I know she has a crystal-clear image of herself, like, taking down an eagle or something. In reality, she freezes two feet outside the door. Oh shit, now what? She has no clue how to get from the door to the bird.
When I discovered that even the most sure-footed people I encountered had their own tribe of collaborators, it was like being let in on a big secret. Everyone has help! It’s what makes them so sure-footed!
I craved a mentor to show me how to do things the right way, and in my early twenties, I started my search. I could picture her so clearly: Such experience, such wisdom, such bold lip color! I jumped from job to job, looking for The One. That’s how I met Andy. It was mentor at first sight. And she doesn’t even wear lipstick!
I do think that finding your tribe, those mentors, is a lot like dating. All those bosses and coworkers and potential mentors I met along the way and rejected are probably ideal matches for someone who isn’t me. But you’ve got to find the person who is in-step with you. Who wants to meet you where you are. When I met Andy and we started working together, I never felt alone in what I was doing. I craved mentorship, sure, but what I also wanted was a partnership.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, Andy, will you marry me?
I still struggle with the shame of not knowing what to do. How many times have I stopped myself, mid-frantic text, and asked Shouldn’t I know the answer to this already? But I’ve learned over the years: Send the text anyway! Because I’m so much better, and learn so much faster, when I have the right people weighing in. My confidence is turbo-boosted, my energy unflagging. I understand so profoundly why Lance Armstrong had to retire after all that doping. He knew how easy hills could be! How could anyone expect him to go back?
The really great and glorious thing is it’s not cheating to ask for help.
The really great and glorious thing is it’s not cheating to ask for help. It’s the power of combined experience and commiseration and wisdom and strength and the stupefying relief of not having to fake “I got this!” when I don’t. Asking for that is what’s made me a better manager: more confident, more critical, more prepared.
So we made The Bent, where we tell it straight, encourage each other, and share what’s worked for us. It’s what we were both so desperate for when we first started out, and what we continue to crave even now that we feel like we’re getting it.
Here’s what we’re trying to say, in some way, in every newsletter:
- This is hard. There’s a reason you feel the way you feel.
- Laugh! The horrors of management are victories too.
- Perspective is developed by learning from others. Quit trying to do it alone.
- Here’s how: Useful tools for today, and goals for the long term.