Sometimes a random comment stays with you forever. When I was in high school, a guidance counselor said something with me that has stuck in my mind for more than 20 years. I think I had lost a student council election and was discussing it with this advisor. I am actually not sure what the triggering event was, but I vividly remember her words to me: There are people that you like, and there are people that you respect. You are the kind of person that people will respect, but they will never like.
Setting aside the ridiculous (and destructive) way of simplifying the world into these two camps, what effect did this counselor’s words have on me?
This interaction started a time of introspection and self-examination. I felt for a number of years that I needed to choose: did I want to be liked or respected? Which is more important? Did I have the self-confidence and awareness to eschew the lure of peer pressure and popularity? Should I solely strive to engender respect instead?
I spent a while in college trying to figure it out. I literally “tried on” different combinations of being easygoing (likable) with allowing my stronger, perhaps more abrasive side to emerge.
Somewhere along the way, I found my voice in the classroom– first as a student, and later as an instructor. I think that’s where I first felt comfortable with who I was. I gathered confidence as time went on. Looking back on it, I think I learned the art of self-expression in the classroom. I realized the importance of being able to articulate opinions in a way that is diplomatic; by doing this, one could be liked and respected.
Somehow, in my independence and natural process of maturing, I realized that the counselor was wrong. Her heuristic for analyzing the world was absolutely incorrect. Though it doesn’t necessarily happen that way, you can be liked and respected. It is not a Pareto-optimal choice you must make (where choosing one necessarily comes at the expense of the other).
I have spent much of my adult life trying to prove that woman wrong. In hindsight, her statement was probably more a reflection of her own psychological insecurities than an assessment of mine. I certainly have my own internal struggles, but I’m not about to let words from 20 years ago plague me. In the end, I think I have found a balance. I hope I have.1
- one of the things that is so fascinating about this type of comment is that I am sure this woman neither remembers me nor the comment. Educators should be aware of the effect their “offhand” comments may have [↩]