For some reason I got to thinking today about a situation from back in my grad school days, one which I may have written about before. For my master’s thesis and recital I had a teacher assigned to me for us to work one-on-one. She had extremely strong opinions about how my writing should be done; she was a writer herself, and she thought her process was the only way to go. So she informed me early on that I would have a certain number of pages due each week—five, I think. I protested. “I need time to research and think about what I want to say.” That was fine, she assured me. I might end up throwing those pages away, but I needed to do them anyway. Well, what a pain. I did what she asked, but in the end I wasted a lot of time, because I was being forced to follow her process instead of my own.
But at the same time this teacher had another student, a guy named James. (Not my husband.) I remember him as one of those very nice, polite people whom you didn’t mess with, someone very much his own person with a great deal of self-respect. He flatly refused to follow our teacher’s strictures. I had a conversation with him at some point near the end of my own thesis when I asked him how he felt about her ideas, and he said, “I just wouldn’t do it.” I looked at him slack-jawed. “What do you mean, you wouldn’t do it?” “I just told her I wouldn’t do it. I don’t work that way. What’s she going to do about it?”
A couple of observations here. The main one is that his recital was excellent. I still remember it quite clearly, and this was over 40 years ago. (It was about a Samurai warrior who converted to Christianity and gave up his sword.) So the outcome fully justified his stance. I suppose our teacher could have lowered his grade, but since the end result was so good I don’t think she would have done that. As I recall, the grades we got for our theses and recitals were given by the grad speech faculty as a whole, anyway, so there was no way that James was going to suffer any kin of penalty. Secondly, our teacher did not appreciate his refusal to do things her way. She told me that working with him had been the worst experience she’d ever had with a grad student. So he didn’t win her over to his side in any way.
But look at what he gained from his confident insistence on following his own guidelines. He didn’t waste time writing pages he knew he wouldn’t use, as I did. He worked extremely hard, but he did it on his terms. He could step back, assess the situation calmly, and decide how he was going to handle the conflict. And he did no complaining or gossiping behind the teacher’s back. I would never have known what was going on if I hadn’t asked him about it, and then he simply answered my question. (Actually, one could make a good case for saying that it was the teacher who badmouthed him behind his back when she said what she did to me.) He seemed remarkably free of second-guessing himself.
So my real question is this: How can I be more like that? Or, even more to the point, should I aspire to be more like that? After all, if you’re constantly doubting yourself, letting others control you, then you don’t move forward very well. It’s fair to say that James had a better recital than I did. Part of that difference was talent, no question, but part may have been that James focused on what was important and I focused on pleasing the teacher. There are times when you have to obey rules you don’t agree with, of course, but you always have the freedom to decide whether or not you’re obligated to do that in any given situation. I just assumed that I had to do what I was told. I never asked, “What can she possibly do to me if I say no?”
James is probably a Questioner in the Gretchen Rubin Four Tendencies framework. I’m an Obliger, so my first instinct is to please others. We’re wired differently, something I can’t change. But can I somehow develop more of that calm confidence that he had? This question ties in with my assertiveness post from earlier this year.
How about you? Are you able to stand your ground calmly and refuse to do something you find to be unnecessary?