On Being Brilliant

It was a small, moral victory at the FedEx Office store. I unrolled the vinyl banner with the mental equivalent of fingers crossed. The imperfection was subtle but sickening, the logo stretched clear to the edge without the 6″ of white space I requested. My stomach turned a little as I knew I had to become what I feared most: high-maintenance.

Maybe it’s because I grew up with an older brother who didn’t let me get away with much vanity; during an afternoon basketball game with Danny and Andy, he pointed out that my armpit hair was only coming in on the one side. Or maybe it’s because my mother never seemed to need much in life to be happy; she insisted I have the master bedroom when we moved into our fourth house after the divorce. (I needed the space for my growing collection of Days of Our Lives autographs, naturally.) It could just be my Midwestern values speaking when I say I believe that a low-maintenance woman is the good kind of woman, the kind who can drive a stick shift, pee in the woods, and eat gluten.

Last week, I participated in what the Quakers call a Clearness Committee, a communal practice of discernment where one person is the focus of a sustained period of open and honest questions from a small group of people. “I don’t know what to let go of and I don’t know what to fight for,” I began.  At 28-years old, I had come far enough in my professional life to trust that my perspective was valuable (and I now had a modicum of expertise) but I couldn’t seem to figure out when it was really necessary to insert myself. Trying to forge ahead with positivity and a can-do attitude had so far brought me only lingering resentment and a little loneliness.

Over the course of two hours, I heard myself frame and name the recurring threads in my life in new ways. I voiced a sort of pathological need to be low-maintenance, relatable, and a team player. I insisted I didn’t want to be a perfectionist, but I also didn’t always want to settle for good enough when brilliance was within reach.

“What’s the difference between being brilliant and being a perfectionist?” someone asked. (I don’t remember who since I was encouraged not to make eye contact; for us pleasers it’s too tempting to seek affirming gestures – a head nod or a smize – rather than speak our own truths.) The answer came to me rather easily. “Perfectionism is tied to an individual’s self worth. Brilliance is about the pursuit of a vision that requires risk without risking an individual’s integrity if it fails.”

I reminded myself that being what I had considered “high-maintenance” could actually be a healthy professional practice for me and other women who try to play nice. Sure, I can speak up more often, develop higher standards, and be that annoying person who keeps circling back to tasks to ensure they’ve been done right. But as a friend and mentor reminded me over breakfast last week, being high-maintenance also means learning how to name our needs and reveal our vulnerability – even at work.

“So…I think I’m going to need a re-print, ” I said over the counter at FedEx, my cheeks as flushed as a 13-year old girl before a Sadie Hawkins dance. The woman rolled her eyes at me and pointed to another queue.

It was only a small, moral victory, but it felt bloody brilliant.

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