In the final class assembly of second grade, I received a prize for “Most Conscientious.” This was devastating, not only because the other girls received awards for things I had actively coveted—like “Best Dancer” and “Friendliest”—but also because I had no idea what conscientious even meant.
When I asked my teacher, she replied, “’Most Conscientious’ means you’re the student most likely to look up the definition of a word you don’t know, which I know you will do.”
Well played, Mrs. Schaumann.
Flash forward roughly 35 years, and here I am, as “Most Conscientious” as ever.
Decades of hard work, diligence and punctiliousness (yes, of course I’ve looked up “conscientious” in both a dictionary and a thesaurus) have led to what I’m proud to call success: I’m a bestselling author and professional speaker, a wife and mom, and a proud contributor to media outlets like this one.
But over the years, I’ve had periodic flashbacks to that second-grade moment and the feeling that being recognized for conscientiousness was—is—a disappointment. Or, dare I say, a punishment. Like when I’m nominated to chair a committee because “we know you’ll keep everyone on task.” Or when I’m asked to prepare and deliver a last-minute speech because “you’d never let anyone down.”
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I appreciate people’s faith in me, but I can’t help but notice that all of these “honors” require me to do more than everyone else. And is it just me, or do hardworking men get more respect, while hardworking women just get more work?
Perhaps you can relate. If you’ve ever been called conscientious, reliable or demanding (or their evil twins: micromanaging, nitpicking and meticulous), here are some lessons I’d love to pass along:
Stand proud in your goody two shoes: Let’s all agree to stop feeling bad when people roll their eyes at our minute-by-minute meeting agendas or the alphabetized and color-coded instructions we leave for a colleague while we’re away on vacation. As long as our diligence is not actively causing anyone harm, let’s just overlook those sidelong glances. Everyone has a different working style, and ours is just a bit more, well, organized.
However, with that said…
Dial back the perfectionism about 10%: I once worked with an executive coach to help combat a period of overwhelming stress and serious workaholism. Her first assignment for me? Stop answering emails after 8 p.m. I almost fired her on the spot. “Are you joking?” I replied. “My clients count on me to be responsive. I will destroy my reputation!” But she convinced me to try eliminating the late-night emailing, and guess what happened? Not one person said anything about it to me. When your conscientiousness isn’t serving you or anyone else, it’s a good idea to let a little bit go.
Embrace the (other) “b” word: You might be familiar with a certain “b” word that often gets tagged on “demanding” women in the workplace. I’d like to suggest another one instead: Boundaries. Nothing—and I mean nothing—has advanced my career satisfaction and success as much as learning to say a polite but firm no. Being reliable and hardworking doesn’t mean doing every single thing you are asked.
What I didn’t know in second grade that I know now is that the key to happiness for the “Most Conscientious” among us is to be as meticulous with your time and energy as you are with the work you do for others. That’s when the real prizes begin.
Lindsey Pollak is a millennial workplace expert and author of Becoming the Boss: New Rules for the Next Generation of Leaders.