I remember the day my friend said it.
We had just walked out of our office to get coffee, taking in our daily ritual of unloading about our daily frustrations— incompetent colleagues, contradictory requests from bosses, a general malaise with the drudgery of office work.
On this day, my complaint was simple. I needed to schedule a meeting convening several high-level government officials and academics, but they weren’t responding to my repeated messages asking for their availability.
My friend stopped, looked me in the eye, and without even a flinch said it.
“Well, that’s not surprising. They’re not responding because you’re a nobody.”
It hurt to hear it, not because I hadn’t heard it before, but because I thought that being a “nobody” was in my past. A term that might apply before I had earned two graduate degrees from prestigious programs, before spending two years as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health, before racking up several peer-reviewed manuscripts, news mentions, and accolades. Before landing a prestigious policy fellowship at the office of my choice in Washington D.C. because my expertise was “needed.”
Although I had never made this connection before, it became clear what I had thought—that I had finally become a somebody.
But my friend put that assumption to bed with her simple pronouncement. She didn’t separate herself from me. She was—as I was—still a nobody.
There is a name for this line of thinking: the somebody-nobody syndrome. And it’s so ingrained in our culture that many of us don’t even know it’s there.
It’s that imaginary threshold separating the ordinary from those more worthy. And that threshold isn’t measured by acts of kindness, compassion or good will. Rather it’s measured in job titles, awards, square footage of office space, paycheck, and the number of people who stand below you on that steep cliff of the corporate hierarchy.
And if we can’t push past that threshold?
It means we don’t have the skill, intelligence, or creativity needed to succeed. We don’t have what it takes to pull ourselves out of that cesspool of mediocrity.
And in that moment, when my friend uttered the word “nobody,” my heart sank. Because it meant that I was still nameless and unimportant, still not quite worthy enough yet.
But I didn’t dwell on it for long. I just continued plodding away, trying to climb higher on that creaky stepladder of success.
I didn’t quite notice how much I had ingested this toxic divide of the somebody-nobody syndrome until later. A stranger had acted gruffly toward me at a work function, pushing past me to move towards a speaker. But then he paused, retraced his steps, looked at me again, and asked,
“Wait, are you somebody?”
Before I even had time to digest this unbelievable question, an answer escaped from my lips.
“Oh no, I’m nobody.”
As I waved my hands instinctively at my insignificance, he sighed with relief and moved on. But I didn’t. Because it was then that I realized the profound implications of that exchange.
Like so many others, I had continued to define my worth in connection to degrees and awards, my standing in the workplace, the length of achievements I could list on a 8.5 x 11-inch piece of paper.
I defined my worth not by my effort, intentions, character or soul, but where I stood in some artificially construed pecking order.
And I cringe to think how it influenced the trajectory of my life, stole away years and caused far too much grief.
I know I’m not alone. Too many of us pass our years wasting time trying to prove that we are somebody worth listening to, somebody worth seeing.
That we are, indeed, somebody.
But one day I made a declaration to break that mindset. And here is how.
1. Redefine what it means to be “somebody.”
We are in control of how we define worth. Regardless of how others evaluate us, we can choose to recognize character, work ethic, loyalty, kindness and compassion over titles, paycheck, and possessions. We can choose to recognize the beauty and value of effort, learning, and persistence, even if the desired outcomes in life are never achieved.
2. Carry praise forward.
Social beliefs persist because we continue to buy into them. It’s easy to be enamored by someone’s resume and achievements, to make assumptions about their character from titles, possessions or appearance. We often do it without thinking. But we can break these automatic responses by recognizing and paying respect to qualities in others that matter most, such as strength, compassion, effort and love, the pursuit of noble causes, for freely giving without expecting anything in return. And it’s not enough to see it in others. We need to give this perspective a voice.
3. Realize that how others define us is a reflection of them, not us.
There will always be those who persist in ranking individuals by achievements, who feel most comfortable turning complex human beings into simple and predictable labels—worthy/unworthy, important/unimportant. Take stock in knowing that this is more a reflection of them than anything else, and ultimately it is them who will suffer from this viewpoint.
After all, each one of us is “somebody.”
We all have gifts to offer this world, and we can choose what we celebrate in ourselves and others. And, at least for me, this has unearthed a path that I couldn’t see was there otherwise and allowed me to embrace a life of greater meaning.
Author: Amanda Richardson
Image: Daniela Brown / Flickr
Editor: Sara Kärpänen