by Jennifer Sey
I have a new job. Same company, new role. And while there is not a lot to lose - the brand I'll be marketing is ailing (No where to go but up!) - there is a great deal to gain. I am the global marketing lead for Dockers, a brand that is suffering the pains of the country's economic woes in addition to generally not being on top of its game. I have been led to believe that I was handpicked to contribute to the task of turn around. To contribute to the business' refurbishment would be of significant benefit to the company and its employees, not to mention a boost to my career.
In my last job at LS&Co., I was no one's first choice. I was turned down after the first round of interviews and had to plead to be let back into the process. After four months of being poked, prodded and tested I was offered the role with what felt like some reluctance (but that could've been my own self-doubt after being denied initially). I didn't resent the skepticism. I'd rather come in with low expectations and exceed them. I'm a fighter. I like to disrupt others' notions – and my own – of what I'm capable of.
Valid or not, I've seen myself as an underdog my whole life. As a gymnast in the 1980's, I was no one's first pick for '86 Champ. I was relatively un-athletic compared to the Mary Lou Retton's of the world (if you saw me now you'd have no trouble believing this), I'd been severely injured on a very public stage and I was more heart than technique, some might've said. And did. But that didn't stop me from clawing my way to the first place spot, staying focused in the heat of competition when others faltered. Once I got there it was hard to maintain the mojo. I was accustomed to underdog status, fighting to prove to people that I was good enough. Once I was on top, it didn't seem there was any need to go on fighting. I lost my devotion to the sport, then promptly lost my ability. Then I retired, defeated and back to feeling like an underdog.
I'm not sure where this pervasive orientation comes from. I know to most it wouldn't appear that I am an unlikely victor. Despite expected travails, I've been successful professionally while managing to jump start a writing career mid-life. Who's the underdog there? It doesn't change the fact that that is how I've always seen myself and it's an orientation that is hard to shake whether or not it holds true anymore. Perhaps it's because I'm a Jew and that is generally how my people – at least my family members – view themselves. The Seys and Feldbaums have always liked to talk in some amount of jest about being “The Chosen” but when it comes to modern day life, they've preferred to see themselves as put upon. As martyrs waging war against those who cannot or won't accept our greatness, our Chosen status.
While I was not raised with any religion whatsoever, this martyr notion seeped into everything it meant to be a Jew - culturally. You've heard people say that before? “I'm not religious, but culturally I'm a Jew.” What does this mean, the goyim (non-Jews) might ask? In my family, it means mayonnaise and white bread with cold cuts are sacrilege, smoked fish for breakfast on Sunday is a must have; no ceramic figurines adorning the home (Echt, goyisher!) and no naming children things like Brittany or Courtney; it means using Yiddish words and phrases in everyday conversation (Kina hora, meeskait! meaning roughly: God bless that little ugly child!); and it means bitching about the unspoken laws at suburban country clubs forbidding the Cohens from lining up to play golf with the Smiths and Andersons. That last bit is where the martyr thing comes in.
As I've always seen it, there is an inherent tension in being a Jew, at least one raised in Haddonfield, New Jersey, a WASP haven, replete with old school gentile golfers in whale pants, happy to tee off with link-minded fashionistas / church goers. At least back in the 1980's. Things may have changed in this little berg, in fact I'm most certain they have.
Still, as I've experienced it within the tight confines of my little Jewish family, there is an internalized and tacit belief that we as a people are simply better – are smarter and have better taste. Ham on white with mayo, Tania? Why don't you try the corned beef on rye? This superiority complex may have been a defense mechanism for my parents, a response to years of mistreatment, the mass genocide not too many decades ago. Regardless of the psychology, this sandwich preference often corresponded to: No ivy league, then? for the poor child who was invited to join my family for lunch at the deli on a Saturday afternoon after gymnastics practice (a decidedly un-Jewish activity). How poor sandwich taste could link to compromised academic achievement is a mystery but my parents were able to draw a correlation.
This sense of entitlement was matched in equal parts with a bitter resentment in being discriminated against. Many would argue that Jews are not only NOT better (I see their point) but they aren't victims of bigotry either, at least not here and now in the US. They are doctors, lawyers and titans of industry. My dad is a doctor. But I don't doubt for a moment that he felt the sting of segregation at the University of Pennsylvania back in the 1950's, amidst the prep school privileged gents who were the latest in a long line of family members to attend the prestigious institution. Given the inarguable history of persecution of the Jewish people, the underdog outlook is deeply embedded in how my family sees the world. And they passed it on to me, though I associated it less with being Jewish, and more with just being human.
And so, I have come to see myself as the disadvantaged dark horse. Perhaps it is just my own personal pysche – Jewishness aside. Perhaps it is just being a woman in the corporate environment where the biggest titles are still predominantly held by men. Or a combo. No matter the why. It has always been my self-perception. But in my new job, I am the long shot no more. I am the fixer. The cleaner. And I don't know what to make of this. When expectations are high, can I come through? It is an uncomfortable feeling – knowing all eyes are upon you with the assumption that you will tidy things up, not the presumption that you might make a mess.
It will be a personal challenge. To do what I am capable of, without it being about making people like me. Can a lifelong approval seeker who has gained approval stay motivated?
As I embark upon this new phase of professional development, I will have to tackle this transformation because it is the job at hand not because I want the leaders in the company to kvell (beam with pride) over how fantastic I am. They already think I can do it. Now I just have to. I'm shvitzing (sweating) at the prospect. But I think I'll just have to be a mensch (look it up) and get it done.