We don’t often dwell on this – and may never discuss it with others – but when it comes to responding to the challenges we face around our careers, many of us have voices in our heads. We have a murmuring stream of thoughts inside of our minds that constantly comment on our aspirations and achievements.
Sometimes, the voices are warm and encouraging – urging us to find more strength or to give an initiative another go: ‘You’re nearly there, stick with it’ ‘Don’t let them get to you; rest and you’ll be ready for a new fight tomorrow.’ Yet sometimes, the voices are harsher and more condemnatory; their tone is defeatist and punitive, panic-ridden and humiliating. They don’t represent anything like our best insights or most mature capacities. These aren’t the voices of our better nature. ‘Stupid fool, imagining you knew a way to beat the odds.’ ‘You’ve always run away from the real truth about yourself…’ Speaking to ourselves in these stern ways may feel natural, but another person in a similar situation might have in their head a very different kind of inner monologue – and they might reach their goals a great deal more effectively as a result. Being successful is, after all, to a critical degree a matter of confidence, a faith that there is no reason why success would not be ours. It’s humbling to recognise just how many great achievements have been the result not of superior talent or technical know-how, but merely that strange buoyancy of the soul we call confidence. And this sense of confidence is ultimately nothing more than an internalised version of the confidence that other people once had in us.
An inner voice always used to be an outer voice that we have absorbed and made our own. Without us quite noticing, we have internalised the voices of the very many of the people who have dealt with us since infancy. We may have assimilated the loving, forgiving tone of a grandmother, the unruffled perspective of a father, the humorous stoicism of a mother. But along the way, we may also have absorbed the tone of a harassed or angry parent; the menacing threats of an elder sibling keen to put us down; the words of a schoolyard bully or a teacher who seemed impossible to please. And we have absorbed such unhelpful voices because at certain key moments in the past they sounded extremely compelling and unavoidable. The messages were so much a part of our world, they simply got lodged in our own way of thinking.
Part of mastering a career we can love involves coming to terms with our inner voices. We need to tease out what voices characteristically operate in our minds, what they are telling us and where they are likely to have come from. We need to audit the voices, and edit some of the less helpful ones out. For this, it helps to remind ourselves that we have a choice about the voices we entertain. We should strive to ensure that the way in which we speak to ourselves becomes more conscious, less the result of accident and that we have henceforth planned for the tone we use in response to the challenges we’re confronted with.
Improving the way we speak to ourselves means encountering and imagining equally convincing and confident, but also helpful and constructive alternative inner voices. These might be the voices of a friend, a therapist, or a certain kind of author. We need to hear such voices often enough and around tricky enough issues that they come to feel like natural responses – so that, eventually, they come to feel like things we are saying to ourselves; they become our own thoughts.
The best sort of inner voice speaks to us in a gentle, kind and unhurried way. It should feel as if a sympathetic arm were being put around our shoulder by someone who had lived long and seen a great many difficult things, but wasn’t embittered or panicked by them. This speaker would be someone who took their time, worked their way through the setbacks and eventually either succeeded or could accept failure without self-hatred. In certain states of humiliation around work, in many of us, there is a feeling that our difficulties rightly debar us from love. We need to incorporate a voice that separates out achievement from sympathy: that reminds us that we may be worthy of affection even when we fail and that being winner is only one part, and not necessarily the most important part, of one’s identity.
This is – traditionally – the voice of the mother, but it might also be the voice of a lover, a poet we like or a nine-year-old child chatting to his or her mum or dad about a stress at the office. It is the voice of a person who loves you for being you, outside of achievement. Many of us grew up around nervous people: people who lost their tempers the moment the parking ticket couldn’t be found and who were knocked off course by relatively minor administrative hurdles (like the electricity bill). These people had no faith in themselves and therefore – without necessarily wanting to do us harm – couldn’t have much faith in our own abilities. Every time we faced an exam, they got more alarmed than we did. They always asked multiple times if we had enough to wear when we went outside. They worried about our friends and our teachers. They were sure the holiday was going to turn into a disaster. Now these voices have become our own and cloud our capacity to take an accurate measure of what we are capable of. We have internalised voices of irrational fear and fragility. At certain moments, we need an alternative voice that can pause our runaway fears and remind us of the strengths we have latent within us, which the currents of panic have hidden from us. Our heads are large, cavernous spaces; they contain the voices of all the people we have ever known. We should learn to mute the unhelpful ones and focus on the voices we really need to guide us through the difficulties of our careers.