The List

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I’m in the first year of the PhD at Stanford—the #1 psychology program in the country—and it’s customary for every faculty member to cycle through our first-year seminar series to tell us about their work.

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As I’m sitting in the conference room, talk after talk, I’m listening to all these brilliant professors and what they’ve accomplished. And, as I look around, I start to feel like—if I’m honest—like a bit of an imposter.

Here I am, this bicultural, Hispanic, working-class girl from San Antonio: who am I to be sitting in this room? Do I even belong here? Yet at the same time, I’m feeling the pressure. I mean, I can’t go home and tell my family I couldn’t cut it here again, they’d be so disappointed.

Back to the seminar room, Claude Steele, my advisor and a world-renowned expert on stereotype threat and educational inequality is giving his talk. He’s up there discussing decades of important work and how it transformed the way we think about racial achievement gaps in America—and what we can do about them. I can’t believe he accepted me to do my PhD with him.

Then, at the very end of his talk, he puts up his last slide and it lists all his now-famous students who have made major contributions in their own right…

as I’m reading down the list, I recognize name after name: that guy made that big discovery, she created this new intervention, and then there, at the bottom—

wait a minute, could it be? No. Way. It’s me! He’s put my name at the bottom of the list.

And in that moment, everything shifts for me.

I find myself sitting there in that seminar room thinking that if Claude believes enough in me to put me on this list, then he believes I belong. And…who knows? Maybe I do.

You know, many times in life, no matter who we are, what we all have in common is that we all have times when we doubt our abilities and our belonging.

Yet, sometimes all it takes is someone on the outside to acknowledge what THEY see in us.

And it shifts things. It allows us to see what they see.

Each and every one of us—no matter what our role is—has an opportunity to be that person that sees something in someone else and, just like my advisor Claude did with me, we can create a Culture of Growth, that helps people see that they belong, are capable and have the ability to develop, be successful, and contribute.

Because here’s the thing: Unlike me in my first year of the PhD program, Claude knew the setting well. He’d be on faculty for decades and had mentored many students prior to me. He knew what it took to succeed in the program—and by putting me on the list, he signaled to me (and everyone in that room) that he thought I had what it took to be successful. Did it mean that I sailed through without setbacks, failures, and challenges? Of course not. Not even close. But it was a cue that he intended to build a Culture of Growth around me that would support and help me learn, develop, and make a contribution. 

And when things got hard (as they often did across the years of the PhD), I would remember that cue and it would buoy me. If he believes I belong among that group…who knows? Maybe I do.

We can all do what Claude did and put others “on the list” because when we see them for who they really are and what they are capable of, chances are they’ll see themselves that way.

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I’d love to hear from you: when did someone “put you on the list?” How did they make you feel that you were capable and that you belonged?

This is one way we can start to build Microcultures of Growth—Cultures of Growth that start small, in the everyday interactions that exist between a couple of people or a small group.

I challenge you to “put someone on the list” this week—in your own way. Tell me what you did and how it went!

Until soon, my friends,

Mary

Thanks for reading Culture Catalyst with Mary C. Murphy! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.

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