Is the Top Always the Best Place to Be?

Leaning in, leaning out and inner power.

Posted May 07, 2014

A recent article in The Atlantic stated that women have less confidence than men and that is why they have more trouble reaching the top. But is reaching the top really tops for all souls concerned, men, women, children, or dogs?  

My client Janie was thrilled because her adorable puppy placed out of his companion training class and was accelerated to the next level, but that was just him, his inborn ability. She had nothing to do with it. If it happens, it happens. In my high school a couple of people scored nearly perfect SATs without studying. One went on to be a Renaissance musician after dropping out of a no-one gets-in college but that is another matter.

I read in my college alum magazine that women on campus were opting out of leadership positions. One client shared that boarding school classmates were “all becoming yoga instructors.“ Another, whose children go to a competitive Manhattan elementary school said, “Every other mother has a business degree from Harvard or a law degree from Yale and stays home.” More and more I hear about kids who slave to get into college and drop out because something is not working.

One really has to wonder what is going on. Should we automatically assume that eschewing competition is a huge problem that requires intervention? Do we really need to pathologize the wish to hold back? Could holding back actually be a healthy alternative in some cases? Does everyone have to be a leader, have a following, find their inner genius or be among the top 10 whatever? Pressure to strive has reached stunning proportions. I used to try to push my daughter. When she was five she said, “But Mom, I want to be a slow-folk.”

Maybe some women, people, children do not belong at the top because they do not want to be there, with all it entails. Perhaps it isn’t pleasing or even interesting. Maybe they have better things to do. Maybe leaning out can offer more than leaning in and is paradoxically a form of power. Inner power. For example, a couple of 50-something clients have told me that their day-dreamy side was the source of their success, both personally and professionally. And they like to be in control of their time.

Then there is the matter of process verses outcome. A race to the top thrills, fascinates, instills beat-all glee, pride and peak human experience, especially if a person has true talent and can be a “contender.” It feeds a healthy can-do fantasy. But then what? Getting there is not the same as being there. Instead of a greater sense of mastery, one may feel less. If the climate involves uncertainty, competitiveness, and ho hum higher ups to whom one reports, maybe it isn’t empowering. Or enjoyable.

Successful people combine pleasure with work. You have to love the game. And the reason you may not love the game is that you just might find it distasteful, boring, or without sunlight if the hours are long. To get to the top of the firm you may have to come in early or stay late. This might affect your habits or home life.

It’s complicated because being human involves inner conflict.

The pursuit of gold medals, blue ribbons, and five stars may cease to thrill, psychologically speaking. Time with friends and family, cooking meals, taking walks, watching movies, planting gardens, washing cars, or writing prose may spark more energy, even if no one applauds.

Small things compete with big things if they are meaningful. Meaning enhances purpose, identity and organizaton of the mind and day. Happy moments come from inner meaning.

For sure, the top rung may fill you with well-deserved pride. But maybe you will lean out after proving to yourself or others you can get there. Not out of fear, but out of confidence, free will and self-esteem. Autonomy (self- determination, inner power) makes people happy.

If the lower rung, no rung or your own rung solidifies your sense of purpose, pleasure in living or relationship, go for it.