At work today, I bumped into the woman from the 3rd floor that everyone avoids and my 5 minute bio break turned into 30 minutes of my life that I’ll never get back again.  This woman is not particularly offensive in her manner or appearance.  In fact, she’s very nice – too nice – almost obnoxiously glad to see you.  Do you see where I’m going with this? 

I call these people “try-too-hards”.  These are the people (frequently women, I must admit) who want to be everyone’s best friend.  But their outward friendliness belies the fact that they are terribly insecure, needy and clingy.  If the US government ever sought my input on how to make the terrorists talk, I’d suggest locking them in a room with Phyllis from IT Services for an afternoon…  

In addition to being a try-too-hard of the “hijacker” variety, Phyllis suffers from a condition I like to call “stream of consciousness chattering”.  She must talk to everyone she sees about absolutely everything, so her topics end up being mundane and disparate things like her nephew’s cat’s tumor, the role of cow manure in global warming, and the Lean Cuisine panini she ate for dinner last night.   She goes into great detail about her subject matter and just as you’re starting to figure out what she’s chattering about, she does an abrupt topic-shift.  It’s like someone is holding a remote control that keeps flipping through the channels in this woman’s brain.  And forget participating in the conversation, hijacker Phyllis isn’t interested in talking with anyone. 

Another try-too-hard variety I’ve encountered is the “yes person” or the “nodder”.  These are the folks who agree with everything they’ve ever been told because they are so, incredibly desperate for acceptance.   These people nod in agreement with you as you talk, offering an enthusiastic “Yes, yes…”.  Initially they seem easy to be around.  I mean who doesn’t want an agreeable audience, right?  But then you realize that all you have is an audience member and not someone who can actively participate in the conversation.  You can tell this person anything and they’ll agree with you.  Tell them that you’ve heard that the sky is falling next Wednesday and they’ll nod in agreement saying, “Yes – I know.  I read that on the CNN scroll this morning…”  Ironically, the yes people are so desperate for acceptance that they take a pass on an identity of their own, choosing to co-opt the ideas and beliefs of whomever they’re around in any given moment.  This makes them look wishy-washy at best or worse, downright disingenuous, thus further isolating them from the rest of the pack.

The try-too-hards come in about million varieties from the garden variety “slut” – the women who’ll give it up for almost any guy they meet because they’re so desperate for a relationship, to the “spotlight stealer” - the people who absolutely MUST be the center of attention all the time, to the “show stoppers” – the people who, no matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done they’ve done it better, bigger, harder, faster, and longer. 

So, it’s obvious that the try-too-hards amongst us have some serious self-esteem issues.   As a parent, I wonder how I can raise people that are pleasant, polite, respectful and have some grit and backbone, too.  I don’t want my kids to turn into the Phyllis’ of the world.  Dick and I have talked about this a lot and we’ve decided on a few things:

  1. We’re going to tell our kids that they’re not always a winner.  Maybe that seems like a harsh dose of reality for little ones but we think the notion of “we’re all winners here” is just grossly inaccurate.  People win & people lose and only the birthday person gets gifts on their birthday.  Life’s not always fair and just and not everyone is going to like you or accept you. 
  2. We’re going to praise them for their persistence and fortitude and not just for their smarts.  Everyone is naturally gifted in one way or another, but applying yourself to something you really suck at takes a lot of guts.  Nurturing your weaknesses may never turn them into strengths, but the very act of doing so is an exercise in humility.  Our hope is that praising them for their persistence will better equip them to deal with the positive role of failure in learning.  Because dealing with adversity is important, but equipping kids to deal positively with the possibility of failure in the face of adversity is even more so. 
  3. We’re going to teach them the art of being a good conversationalist.  The hijackers are just as awful to talk with as the nodders, but for very different reasons. A good conversationalist knows that listening is as much a part of the dance as talking.   Not only does good listening show respect for other people’s opinions, but it allows you to assert your own opinions strategically.

The world needs fewer try-too-hards, in my opinion.  We don’t need more hijackers, yes people, or spotlight stealers.  We’ve got a lot of crap to do and it’s all going to fall into the laps of our children.  We’re all going to need to do our part to raise people who can cope positively, who understand that compromise involves more backbone than winning, and that it’s more important to listen than it is to talk. 

Ok, I’m climbing down off my soapbox now…

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