Seeing Past the Paper
The phone rang and the call was from someone I have been doing business with for many years. My mind was on something else and I was in no mood to talk business. But he was not calling about business this time. He had read my book, Woman Incognito, and he wanted to discuss something in it that resonated with something he has been thinking about a lot.
Although the book is about my experience as a transgender person who has not transitioned, what was on his mind had nothing to do with gender. It was a part where I discussed a change in my own way of evaluating people. I had grow up in an academic family that placed a very high value on intelligence and academic achievement, and seemed to assume that the two always go together. As I grew older, I learned that this is not always true. I have known a number of people who did not do well in school or college, and may not have gone to college at all, but who clearly are intelligent and can understand and do things that I don’t understand and can’t do.
It turns out that this has been Tom’s experience too, and in his case he is actually an example. Although he did make it through college, he was never a particularly good student and assumed he must not be particularly intelligent. That sort of defeatist attitude stayed with him when he went to work. He thought of it as just a job, didn’t like it, and figured that nobody likes their jobs. Until he encountered someone where he works who loves the work and demanded that Tom take it more seriously and accomplish more than he ever thought he could.
What Tom discovered is that there is often more to a person than what shows up on paper. Our society is obsessed with quantifiable credentials: grades, test scores and degrees often obscure a person’s true potential. Tom told me about several people he has known who lack prestigious credentials but finally found their true strengths and went on to do wonderful things. And having learned that for himself, he went on to use that knowledge to help others. One thing he did do in college was establish a deep connection with his fraternity and he has now mentored many younger fraternity brothers still in college, pushing them to do better and showing them that they can.
We have both become convinced that almost everyone has more potential than he, she or most other people realize. Often the problem is that they just don’t fit into society’s expectations and biases. Their potential may be missed because of stereotypes based on their race, gender, class or probably a dozen other things. Often all they need is for someone else to recognize the potential that they themselves had not know they had, and help them to believe and do something with it.
Probably the toughest thing in life is to be yourself. Everyone else thinks they know what you are and what you should do, and it is not easy to follow your own path when it is not the path everyone wants you to follow. But only if you follow it will you get where you belong.
But it is not just the individual who benefits from being himself, herself, or whatever self. Society as a whole loses a out when it tries to force people onto the wrong path.
The things people can finally achieve when they dare to be themselves benefit all of us. The musician whose parents wanted her to be a doctor, the engineer whose high-school teacher said he was not smart enough to learn calculus, and the statesman who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks all make our society stronger because they discovered their true potential they were told they did not have. As I never tire of saying, people build all sorts of artificial boundaries to keep themselves and others from being who they really are. Transcending those boundaries is ever easy but it can be infinitely rewarding. We can all be more in our lives than we are on paper, if only we dare to see past the facts and figures to who we really are.