In one of my first jobs, decades ago, when I was in my early twenties, I witnessed a flaming row between my then-boss and a writer he was in the midst of firing.
Not one to mince words, he basically told her she was a lousy writer.
His way, or the highway
My theory, with the benefit of hindsight and several decades of working experience under my belt since then, is that he was so used to doing things his own way, and had problems adjusting to working with someone with a different style. Plus, he didn’t have an abundance of people management or communication skills. After years of journalistic experience, he had started his own publication in a specialized niche, was himself the editor, and wrote most of the stories himself. He had a couple of stringers who were paid per article. But this was the first time he had hired another writer on the payroll.
This writer whom he had hired several months earlier, was a woman with extensive writing experience. And she was no pushover.
I watched and listened, fascinated, as she put up a spirited fight. She basically told him, “I’m good, and I know it. I’ve also had others validate it. It’s not for you to say I’m lousy.”
His retort in essence was, “You can’t call yourself good. You need others to say that.”
This was Singapore in the early 1980s. In a time when we didn’t often get told we were awesome and wonderful. And we certainly did not go around praising ourselves. I even remember in our school days, we spouted rhyming phrases to our schoolmates to tease, and… to teach? One of them went like this: “Self-praise is international disgrace.”
It is also pertinent to note that she is an Asian woman, and he a Briton.
So this confident woman who refused to let someone else put her down, to belittle her efforts, to dictate her worth, was a revelation to the young me. She walked out with her head held high.
You don’t get to determine my value
This exchange left a deep impression on me. I liked it. The development of my self-esteem did not begin on that day, it started way back, when I had to get used to being told I’m too tall, too dark, too stupid….. and I pushed back in my own way. It was somehow liberating to witness that exchange, to see someone unapologetically saying out loud: “You don’t get to determine my value.”
I internalized the lesson. And have since then really enjoyed being comfy in my own skin.