Shortly after the 2016 election, I fell into a well of self-pity. A woman I respected and admired fell just short of a seemingly impossible dream. Being close enough to touch it, to grab that ring for women everywhere, made the pain of failure worse, more specific. It was a precise but familiar ache.
As the product of a public school education, I grew up believing that if you work hard enough, you will get the success you deserve. The hardest workers are owed the most success. Once you achieve the level of success you are owed, then (and only then) are you in a position to help and inspire others. I did not learn about micro-aggressions, or economic disparity, or inherent biases, or any of the numerous other factors that get in the way of that imperfect equation working out. So, you can imagine my surprise when I was not elected Senior Class President, after working so hard. I was shocked, but I shouldn’t have been.
I lost to a popular male student who ran track, made the teachers laugh, and never had to try very hard. I tried way too hard for everything, and was the type to instill panic in my classmates when I raised my hand in class for fear that I would ask for extra homework. To be honest, I was also kind of a narc. An overachieving hand-raiser undeterred by failure? I should have known then that I would do well in advertising. After my defeat, I pressed on, firm in my belief that all those hard work tokens would earn me something even greater later on. Maybe life was fair, and I would get what I felt I deserved, it just wasn’t then.
Cut to January 2017. The scene: a white woman (me!) still self-indulgently stewing in her own juices. Somehow, I’d still failed to achieve the grail of Being Happy or Feeling Satisfied all the time like I felt I deserved, and now I had the convenient excuse of some macro discontent to tap into. The election, mixed with a particularly dark and uninspiring winter, gave me lots to complain about. And I kept complaining on into the spring and summer. I got really good at feeling sorry for myself. I only snapped out of it when my mentor told me, “Don’t be dumb. Defeat is for pussies. Help another woman achieve something.” I love her.
But what could I do? I wondered. I was so wrapped up in trying to get myself ahead, to an intangible level of “success,” always just out of reach. I hadn’t bothered to fully acknowledge what I’d already gained or how I could bring someone with me. Any success or achievement I’ve enjoyed has been partly because of hard work, but is mostly due to people reaching down to lift me up, advocating for me in key moments, and giving me a platform. I’ve gotten on pitches because someone else fought to have me there. My ideas are given weight because someone else amplifies them. It’s hard to know where you stand when your head is so far up your own ass.
The first step in the head-in-ass removal procedure (still ongoing) was to know my context. Another popular term for this is acknowledging your privilege. Some privileges I was born with (white, cisgender, hetero, able-bodied, not allergic to dogs, the list goes on and on). Some privileges I have gained over time (being taken seriously in my career, being thought of to write this piece, co-workers who know me well enough to laugh at my jokes, the ability to do winged eyeliner right the first time, etc). A quick inventory revealed that while I am not In Charge of the World (as I had once assumed would someday be possible for one lucky, hard-working person), I have access that I can leverage to help others.
In advertising, we have a great power that we must acknowledge, and a great responsibility to leverage it for good. It’s never too early in your career to push for a female director, or to decide to cast models with different body types and actors of color. Diverse viewpoints and representation only make the work better.
Once I acknowledge the creative power I already have access to, and where my voice will be heard, I can figure out how to use that to amplify the voice of others. There is not a limited amount of success in this world for which we all must compete. But for some of us, it’s easier to find and climb the ladder. Knowing that, and that there will always be someone better than you, and someone worse off, I encourage you to take stock. Allow yourself to wonder who had to work twice as hard to get half as far. Then reach down to lift up. It’s what I’m trying to do, because only thinking about myself is getting dull.
Carla Sparks is a writer at Possible. She tweets @carlamsparks