“If you are the TEN in the room, you need to find another room.”
Often quoted, I’m not quite sure who said this originally. I do know that when I heard it the first time, my ego was crushed. Because, let’s tell the truth… who doesn’t like to be the “ten” in the room? Who doesn’t want to be the most educated, the most knowledgeable, the most connected, the most liked or loved person in our circle of influence? In fact, I would suspect that many of us, when we find ourselves in that situation as the top dog, we do everything in our power to make sure that we remain the top dog. It’s only natural, right?
But here is this person—whoever it is—saying that if we find ourselves to be the most whatever in our crew, in our group, in our field that we should actively position ourselves at the “bottom” elsewhere.
Puts a new spin on “the last shall be first and the first shall be last,” huh?
Well I finally get it. The latest developments in my life have shown me why this works.
I’ve recently had the opportunity to share the same space with other Black female writers, most of whom are published in places I’d love to be, doing things career-wise that I’d love to be doing and are the very ones I can’t wait to wake up each morning and open my Feedly to read what profound words they have to share. They are beasts with words and just, well, fly as all get out.
And there I am. Breathing that rare air.
For a while now, I’ve been the mentor. I am the teacher, giving out advice and sharing my experiences. In my world, when it comes to certain subjects, I’m used to being the “sage on the stage.” And if I’m honest, I love it. Not only do I think it is absolutely something I must do (that whole “to whom much is given, much is required” thing at work) but hey, I’m human… it makes me feel good. I feel needed. I feel important. But now, I find myself in an awesome position to be still, be watchful and be the one who is learning from sisters who are doing it and doing it well.
Is the transition to this status comfortable? No. But it is a discomfort I embrace entirely.
Check it: You can’t grow if you are always on top. You MUST always be willing to position yourself to learn new things. Whether it’s in your field, as a parent, or in your relationships in general, you MUST remain a student in every aspect of your life. When we stop seeking to be better, when we refuse to stretch ourselves, when we allow ego and pride to convince us that we must fight to maintain our current position, we leave ourselves open to stagnation. We’ll find ourselves stuck as the ten in our little room with nowhere to grow, nothing else to contribute to the world, all the while there are bigger and better rooms to explore. All because we want to be stroked and told how smart, beautiful, and great we are.
Eh, I’ll pass.
Sure, we can self-educate. Lord knows I’m a proponent of reading as a way to expand our horizons. But there’s something about relationship. There’s something about the guidance we can receive from someone who’s been where we are and seen what we’re going to see, that we just can’t get from a book or screen. We can’t replicate that. The only way to have that experience is to humble ourselves and find a new room. A room where we will, inevitably, not be the ten.
This lesson is one that Oprah learned going from being the top talk show host in the world for 25 years and then struggling as a network executive building OWN. It’s the lesson that many recording artists learn when they experience the sophomore album blues after being at the top of the charts. It is also a lesson I plan to share with my little one who, despite just being nearly three, is experiencing her own version of this now.
You see, my K is brilliant.
Hush! I know all mamas say that. LOL!
But she really is. So much so that I almost had to take my halo off and “do something” when one of her teachers told my husband that she “knows too much” and that they have to “hold her back” sometimes because the other students are not as far along developmentally.
“Say what now?”
The thing is, my baby girl is the ten in her class. There is nothing left in the curriculum for her to learn. Because she can’t grow anymore in the room she’s in, it’s time for her to go to the next room (or possibly, the next school). If she stays (which she won’t), her growth will be stunted. Sure, she’ll rock out with the kids in her class. She’ll be respected and looked highly upon, I guess. And I know she won’t find a transition comfortable or fun at first. But for the trajectory that God and Mommy have her on… she has to move.
And so do you and I.
Innovation doesn’t happen always at the top. Yeah, there are outliers. There are outliers in everything. But for the most part, no one breaks new ground by just trying to maintain their place at what we perceive to be the top. Why? Because while we’re spot-holding, the world (industry, etc) is passing us by. We break new ground by trying something new. By doing something different.
It doesn’t matter if you are a two-and-half year old preparing for pre-school or a nearly 40-year-old writer trying to break through to another level and establish her brand, your best chance at personal and professional growth is found in being in the often uncomfortable, but highly fruitful position of student. By being willing to be at the “bottom” if only for a season.
Tracey Michae'l is a writer and educator based out of the Philadelphia area. She is a wife to William and a mother to a beautiful two-year old little girl. You can find her on the web at www.traceymlewis.com.