Róisín Ingle on . . . shambolic success


Just before Christmas I went to meet some close women friends for our annual “festive” afternoon tea. Every year it’s the same old tea- and fizz-fuelled story. At least three weeks before the “festive” occasion one of us says, not looking at anyone in particular, that we’ve to remember to order the whole afternoon tea and not just pick and choose the cheaper parts or they’ll kick us out. And still every year somebody tries to get away with just having smoked salmon without all the pastries shaped like snowmen and the macarons that look like Rudolph. And every single year one of us will swear blind they won’t write a column based on the ensuing conversation and then one of us goes and does it anyway. These rituals are important, I find.

One amazing year we got snowed in to the hotel and some of us felt it was unsafe to risk going home to cook dinner for small, hungry, shivering children. And then it turned out Vincent Browne was in the building. That was a highlight. Of my life, obviously, not just the annual afternoon teas.

But it’s the conversation I keep coming back for. This year we mostly talked about how some women, including those of us present, especially the one trying to get away with just having salmon and not choux pastry made into the Virgin Mary, tend to present themselves as shambolic rather than successful. One of the tea party has a friend who has just published a book, is raising lovely children, holds down a demanding day job outside of her writing career and – while it wouldn’t matter given all the rest – always has this impressively stylish look about her. And yet when she’s on the phone to my friend she talks about what a shambles she is making of it all. “I’m such a shambles really,” she’ll say. “If anybody knew. A total shambles”.

Another of the tea party referenced a recent Lucy Kellaway column in this newspaper’s business section, the one where she talked about some women’s tendency to put themselves down when conversing with female friends as a way to appear unthreatening. Apparently there are people out there pretending to be shambolic for effect. Some of us don’t have that luxury.

I’ve been given a bit more responsibility in work recently which is to say I got a new job. It has a proper title and I am in charge of things that are not just my own self. I was chuffed when I was told before Christmas I’d been successful at the interview. But on my first proper day in work this week it hit me like a wave over Salthill seafront that I had responsibilities and that a certain part, however small, of the buck stopped with me now. I spent the day cursing Sheryl Sandberg and wondering why this Leaning In business had to feel so terrifying. I was dizzy with the fear all day long. And needless to say a total shambles:

Exhibit A: I left my phone at home and so missed at least five Very Important phonecalls and I’m not even counting the one from the man who was coming to install the fridge.

Exhibit B: I decided to cycle to work in a near hurricane which ruined my carefully applied “I’ve got a title, you know” hairdo.

Exhibit C: I casually dropped by my boss’s office for a casual chat about my new position. Then when I got up, casually, it turned out that during the conversation my foot had become tangled in a cable and I was catapulted, not quite so casually, across his office where I lay belly down on the floor because I was too mortified to get up. (Bonus shambolic points: the door was open and there were at least three other witnesses.)

Exhibit D: I was five minutes late for a meeting because I was trying to perfect my meeting make-up. (“Too much says you’ve tried to hard, too little looks like you don’t care” says my business manual or maybe it was The Rules, who knows?). When I arrived, the meeting in full flow, I blurted “sorry for the delay” as though I was a bus driver and not a fear-infested shambles who had just thrown herself across the office of senior management.

I tell you all this by way of succour for the terminally shambolic. Verily, I say it is possible to progress in work despite this affliction. The truth is that for some of us, women and men, being a shambles is not a smokescreen so much as an unavoidable fact of life. However, my strategy is to be as brilliant as possible at the job in spite of this debilitating fact. Shambolic is the new moderately successful. Exhibit: Me.


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