What are the three words you would like people to use to describe you when you’re not in the room?
That’s the question Wall Street veteran and author Carla Harris put to an audience that I was sitting in this week. She’s part of AOL’s MAKERS series, the largest video archive of women’s stories in history. MAKERS had their annual conference jam-packed with feminist royalty Gloria Steinem, sports legend Abby Wambach, and even reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner (her first women’s conference as a woman). Speakers gave all kinds of advice on leadership, described trainings for eradicating bias, and even “made it rain” with fake dollar bills printed with women’s smiling faces. But it was Carla’s question that really stuck with me.
When I went away to college, I thought that it was a chance to start over. I was determined to shed my high school reputation for being “sweet” and instead cultivate an identity that was a little more edgy, a little less conciliatory. Within just weeks of arriving, as I balanced a tray of that gooey peach cobbler and a big glass of milk in the cafeteria, one of the girls who lived on my hall said, “Courtney, look at you with that glass of milk. You are just so wholesome, so sweet.”
My insides screamed. What?! How had I failed at my very calculated project of reinvention? What had I done (besides drink milk?!) that signaled to this new acquaintance that I was sweet?
“Sweet” is absolutely not a word I would choose for people to use to describe me when I’m not in the room. And yet, from Colorado Springs to New York City, from my big public high school to this small private college, it trailed me like an indefatigable stray cat. I was sweet, whether I liked it or not. So I’d better learn to like it.
I’ve since realized that there are parts of “sweet” that I do genuinely value. To a lot of people, “sweet” means compassionate and kind, qualities I do aspire to. To some, it means approachable, which is also something I appreciate in others. Why shouldn’t I appreciate that in myself?
And then there are parts of “sweet” that I am still trying to shed. My reluctance to disappoint people, even when it means being honest or taking care of myself, is not a quality I like in myself. All these years later, I’m still working on shedding that part of my reputation, rooted in my own behavior.
Which is all to say, how much of what others see in us are qualities we get to choose, and how much are qualities that choose us? I wouldn’t choose sweet, but I would choose fun. I can be fun — don’t get me wrong — but I’m not naturally the life of the party. I have a natural seriousness about me; there were times in my post-college 20s, roaming around New York City in the wee hours, when the rest of my friends would be on the dance floor losing their minds and I would be huddled in a corner with a vodka tonic and some heartbroken boy, talking about his deadbeat dad or the girl that just left him. How does this always happen to me? I would wonder. And then the next weekend, there I would be again, in some deep heart-to-heart while my friends got sweaty to Jay-Z. Which is exactly why I would need to choose fun; it doesn’t always choose me.
This inquiry reminds me of my daughter. Just two years old, she’s already teaching me that there’s no escaping your essence. She’s got some undeniable qualities already emerging. She is, for example, extremely discerning. She has had clothing preferences since before she could even speak. (I realized this wasn’t typical when other friends with kids the same age looked at me in disbelief when I described what it’s like to get her dressed in the morning.) Every time she eats, she not only requests what kind of food she’d like, but what kind of bowl she’d like it in and what kind of utensil she’d like to use. The other day she told me, “Momma, I love gray donkeys.” Gray donkeys? We’ve never even seen a donkey, much less had a conversation about their various colors.
I wonder if she’ll embrace this quality as she ages, or if she’ll develop a conflicted relationship to it, as I have with my sweetness or seriousness. Will she go off to college, hoping to appear easy going, only to find out that her intensity has followed her all the way across the country? Will she come to understand, as I have, that there are light and dark sides to every quality that we realize is central to our essence? Her discernment is part of what will, no doubt, break her heart; it will also, I’m guessing, help her succeed in lots of interesting ways.
Call me serious. Call me sweet. I now understand that, though I may not have chosen those descriptors, they chose me. And there’s something sacred and mysterious about that. I can’t shed them entirely. But I can, with some wisdom and humility, wear them differently.