I find this saying equal parts comforting and humbling, much like its sister-mantra, “This too shall pass.”
The latter I repeat to myself in the depths of despair and/or winter. But where it brings great comfort to the broken of heart or the frozen of toes, it’s equally true that sunny beach weeks and the fluttery stomachs of new love must also come to an end. As such, there’s a wonderful neutrality to the phrase that’s shared by my current mantra: “Most people are neither for you nor against you.”
“Most people are neither for you nor against you” is a phrase that a friend once read in a speech by John Gardner and casually repeated to me. It’s just really stuck with me. To me, it means that, all other things remaining constant, no one is going to exert their own precious energy to either bring you up or tear you down.
There are exceptions to this, of course. In my life, the people who will stop at nothing to build me up are my mom, my best friend from college, and my favorite cousin. On the other hand, there will always be the few, the nasty, the insecure who believe that success is a zero sum game, and who will undermine you to bolster themselves. But for the most part, you move through life both unimpeded and unassisted.
I don’t know about you, but it’s easy for me to personalize every struggle, in both my personal and my professional lives. I have a hard time understanding that the good third date that didn’t turn into a fourth could be about anything other than the fact that I ordered something “uncool,” talked too much, or had something stuck in my teeth. Maybe I’m self-centered (although, if I’m being generous with myself, probably I’m just human)—but it takes an active practice of empathy for me to dig myself out of my spiral of shame and self-doubt to realize that the gentleman on the other side of the table has “stuff” going on in his own life that have nothing whatsoever to do with me and my chicken fingers. A new job? Fresh divorce papers? His own crippling self-doubt? It’s impossible to know.
But what I do know is, I can’t be defined by other people’s experience of me.
Recently I made a big decision. I’m coming off of a two-year judicial clerkship and, come September, have to start working as a “real” lawyer. My plan had been to stay in my hometown, where I’m currently living, and return to a private law firm where I had worked the summer before my clerkship started. I’d be doing familiar work with familiar folks. But I decided to forego that (wonderful, comfortable, high-paying) opportunity to make a big, bold move.
Instead, I’m taking a pay cut and moving away from my friends and my family, away from my “market,” away from the girl who cuts my hair and handpaints my highlights (she is an angel and a genius), to a city and a job that I’m unspeakably thrilled about… but that I just can’t be sure about.
This is probably the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me. This is certainly the most exciting thing I’ve ever made happen. I’m moving to a proper city (one with public transportation and a SoulCycle and a Sweetgreen!!) to do work that lights a fire in my belly.
But despite all that, I had a big anxiety that prevented me from completely embracing how good this is. I was worried about how other people in my life would take the news. My favorite cousin and my best friend from college were over the moon, because this is a really good move for me (plus, they have my back no matter what). My friends who live in the big city were, of course, thrilled because we’ll get to hang out all the time. My mom immediately hopped on Airbnb and started looking for listings for her and my dad’s sure-to-be-frequent visits.
Despite those outpourings of support, a couple of folks’ reactions made me pause. My dad asked if I was going to accept this job and, therefore, break his heart (but that’s another story for another time, bless him). My dearest friend in my town burst into tears when I told her. My buddy from law school asked if it was really such a smart move to change markets and practice fields. I knew in my heart that I was making the right choice… but these reactions introduced a shadow of doubt where there had been none before. These people love me and want the best for me, I thought. Do they see a pitfall here that I’m missing?
I also dreaded telling my law firm that I would be making the move. The folks at my firm had been nothing but lovely and supportive. I admire the lawyers there who are more experienced than me, and I genuinely like hanging out with the people who would have been my peers.
So I put off telling the firm for weeks after I accepted the other job. “I just accepted this awesome job – but don’t tell anyone, I don’t want word to get around yet,” I told my friends and mentors. “I’m just waiting for something in writing!” I’d feebly rationalize to myself. Well, a couple months later, I finally got that offer letter for the other position. The time had come. I had to tell the firm.
I don’t know exactly what I was anxious about. Of course, there are dozens of other freshly minted lawyers who could do the work just as well as I could. The firm would suffer no great loss to their business. There was no rational reason to be concerned—but in all honesty, I’m almost always anxious about disappointing someone, so that was probably it here, too.
I felt much like I imagine I would feel if I got a tattoo without telling my parents and then made plans to go to the beach with them for a week, such that I knew that they would find out eventually but that I should soften the blow so I didn’t ruin everyone’s vacation. Does that make sense? Like, I knew that time would pass and the firm would find out that I wasn’t going to work there (specifically, when I moved away and didn’t show up for work) but also felt like I should let them know as soon as possible so they could find someone else to fill my spot.
Anyway, I finally bit the bullet and broke the news to the practice group’s partner over breakfast. (He, of course, knew something was up, because why else would we be meeting for breakfast?) I was afraid he would be disappointed. I was afraid he would be mad. I was afraid that I would have burned a bridge and that there would be someone out there who—horror of horrors—didn’t like me.
But let me tell you—this partner was so gracious. He thanked me for letting him know in person. He asked about the specifics of the new job, geeked out appropriately (y’all, it really is a cool job), validated my professional choices, and expressed his hope that when I’m ready to return to this market that I’ll consider coming back to the firm. He was a total class act. I came away feeling so much lighter and finally able to be truly, 100%, all-in excited about my next opportunity.
Importantly, this interaction also confirmed that this firm would have been a great place to work. The partner was supportive of my development as a lawyer and understood that I’m making this move to seek hands-on experience in a specialized field early in my career. He was also responsive to my needs as a person, and I felt comfortable enough to tell him that I planned to return “home” in the long run and just needed to get out of town for a couple of years.
But I can see how it could have gone differently. I was talking with a friend who’s about six months into a new job that she can see isn’t quite right. She’s half-heartedly looking for another job, but is pretty nervous about leaving a position where the conventional wisdom would have her remain for at least a year before jumping. She says part of her nerves around even just looking around for another opportunity comes from the idea of walking “so soon” into the big office to give her two weeks at her current job.
Of course if the tables were turned, and after six months the firm was unhappy with her work, she’d be on the curb, wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am. Here’s where I think the mantra comes in handy: If people are neither for you nor against you, you have less of a personal stake in the outcome of their reactions. If you interpret the big cheese’s response as a reflection of him and not of your own worth, you can avoid a lot of anxiety. If you resign and the firm is nasty about it—well, you know you made the right choice to leave. They didn’t care to hear why you weren’t fulfilled in your current position or listen to your reasons for needing a change or a new challenge. But if they’re lovely about it—they (and you) have kept the door open for a long-term relationship.
Ultimately, I had to step away from other people’s reactions to feel confident in my big decision. My dear friend’s big tears and my colleague’s skepticism—those reactions don’t reflect what this move means to my career or my personal happiness. Instead, they reflect the self-interests of people who love me and want me nearby, or who doubt their own choices. The tears and the skepticism don’t mean that this is not a good move for me. And on the contrary, the firm’s gracious reaction doesn’t mean that this is a good move for me.
As I tried to work through my conflicting thoughts and feelings, I finally realized: these people, dear to me as they may be, are all external actors. They are not actually involved in my decision. They have their own interests, that of course abut mine, but they are neither for me nor against me.
I just think that we—if I may speak for women/young women/readers of Milk—take on more responsibility for other people’s reactions than we should. This reflection is not to add to the list of things we “should” or “shouldn’t” do in the workplace (I definitely cry at work, say “like” way too much, and use a whole lot of adverbs, exclamation points, “justs,” and “sorrys,” so sorry I’m just not sorry), but simply to provide a thought experiment that’s helped me navigate a really big life decision.
Here’s to you, Milk girls. I hope that when it comes down to it, more people are for you than against you. But most importantly, I hope that you are always for yourself.