Ellen Scholl, 30, USA (Germany)

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Q: What is your story of strength?

Strength for me is really multi-dimensional, so on the one hand I have a hard time thinking of myself as a strong person. I believe all women, and maybe all people, have a tendency to compare and contrast, and in that contrast, strength is relative.

I have not grown up with a large set of challenges confronting me, I haven’t been persecuted, all of the members of my family are relatively speaking happy and healthy, college was always something considered part of my future. Thus, compared to people who have really had to overcome obstacles, my version of strength pales in comparison.

The strength I do have is the ability to quickly adapt to new situations, to take in what is around me, and to understand the best of what people have to offer, and essentially to try to achieve other people’s version of strength. In this sense, I know enough to know that while I have done things in my life that are strong–I have demonstrated resilience, I have succeeded at tasks–I easily recognize when other people demonstrate excellent or admirable characteristics and learn from them.

Thus, my strength is in having the self-awareness to know when I need to listen to the stories of others rather than hold myself up as a good example. You can draw strength just from recognizing there is no one definition.

 

Q: Can you tell me about someone from your life who has inspired you with her strength?

I am going to say the cliché answer: my mom.  But, it’s true, my mom. In a lot of different ways–she raised three kids while working as a nurse, including night shifts. Meanwhile I can barely handle a normal 9-6 workday with a plant to come home and water, so the fact that she juggled all of these things shows she has a lot more physical strength than I do.

She was also divorced later in life, and it was a fairly unpleasant experience, but now in her 50s she is enjoying herself. She is excelling professionally, pushing herself to do a masters program, traveling, becoming active in her community and all these kinds of things. It is inspiring to see someone go through something that was the opposite of a positive experience and come out on the backside with open arms saying, “and now this is what I am going to do, I will accept all challenges and adventures.”

Thus, she shows both the “more traditional” version of strength—managed kids plus household plus job plus all things that go along with that—and strength inherent in emerging from a difficult experience with a positive view of the world and taking on new adventures.

 

Q: Can you tell me about a time in your life when you feel like you have failed or disappointed yourself?

It is really important to talk about failure. As women, we tend not to want to let that part out into the world, we feel like you have to be perfect all the time, which is silly because no one is actually perfect all the time. By collectively withholding that part of our lives we are perpetuating a stereotype that we all can–and in fact do–achieve perfection, and that is just not true.

In terms of failure, or more disappointment, the last year in Germany was really difficult at times, both professionally and struggling with the language. I really do not like showing weakness, I have a hard time with vulnerability, I don’t like being incorrect, and I don’t like embarrassing myself all that much. However, as an older “normal” professional going into a workplace speaking a language I studied for all of three months, all of that happened. I assumed my progress would be quicker than it actually was, which is of course silly because progress is always going to be slow. It was really hard for me to go into a professional work environment and then talk at the level of a 12 year old. I also did not think I would be stuck at the level of a 12 year old for as long as I was—and perhaps still am, although I may have graduated to an 18 by now. That has been really difficult and it has been interesting for me to see how changed the way I interact socially and to try and overcome that.

I am not a terribly shy person, although I am not the most outgoing person you will ever meet either, but the inability to articulate myself clearly, something I usually pride myself on in English, in German led me to interact quite differently in social situations in ways I would not have predicted. It also made me a little less assertive in the workplace, which is also something I have struggled with, having started my career in energy policy, generally male dominated, which felt like a regression in some ways.  But it also was really humbling, as it shows there are always new things to learn, and that no matter how smart and resilient and adaptable you think you are, you are still going to struggle to learn some of these things.

It was also a learning process to assess my own strengths— for example I can learn a new subject quite quickly, but jumping into a new language and making a lot of mistakes is not something I am so good at. It is still a daily struggle, but at the end of the day it helped teach me a lot about myself, even if it was a disappointment that progress was slower and impacted my social interactions in ways I did not foresee.

For example, one of my places of employment thought it would be funny not to tell me until the end of my time there that when I sent emails which I thought politely said “please find X document attached/in attachment please find”, I used the word for attachment that referred to the binding on skis, not the word that refers to a document attached to an email. No one told me that, for months, because they thought it was funny (which it was, if also a tiny bit embarrassing).  

 

Q: What can women do better to support each other?

I think there are two big things—also a lot of little things— but two big ones.

The first is to be comfortable, all of us, with revealing our weakness. Not to dwell or harp on them but to admit that there are a lot of different balls you are being asked to juggle and keep in the air at one time, and inevitably, at some point, one of them is going to fall. To be okay with admitting when you have taken on too much or when you are not perfect. A general recognition for all women that you do not have to be perfect all the time would be quite healthy.

The second is not kicking the ladder down behind you when you have gotten to the top. This is changing quite a bit, but no one got to where they are without help, without a mentor, without an opportunity a boss gave them, without a kind word from a professor, without encouragement from someone, maybe your mom. Recognizing that other people helped you and thus paying it forward by trying to help other people would be immensely valuable. I think most women do this, but generally speaking the cutthroat work environment can discourage this. While the situation is certainly changing, we should all do our part to completely turn this around.

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