A few years ago, a very, very wise friend and former colleague said three important little words to me: “Perception is everything.”
I’d got a big promotion at work and wasn’t planning to move offices from my current one, but she said that people would forever associate me with my former job if I stayed where I was. At the time I didn’t buy into the idea – I thought people would simply ‘know’ what my new role was and treat me accordingly. I stayed where I was, and lo and behold, I spent around six months saying, “yes but I don’t do that job any more” to everyone from the receptionist to the senior management. The person who was doing my former job suffered from the same treatment. Frustration all round.
I learned that once you get typecast into a role, you are to some extent there forever in people’s minds and you will spend a good deal of time having to re-educate them. And in some cases, you never will. I’d moved from being the director of a children’s non-fiction list to the Publishing Director of a list that included fiction, picture books and non fiction. Even though I represented the company on numerous occasions speaking about their fiction titles (mainly The Hunger Games, Captain Underpants or The Brilliant World of Tom Gates), people would associate me with non fiction. When I appeared at The Bookseller Children’s Conference about three years ago to talk about middle-grade illustrated fiction, The Bookseller journalist used my one mention of the non-fiction series Horrible Histories in her report for the magazine. Although that is a great brand to be associated with, I nearly screamed with frustration.
When I left that role two years ago, it was partly to cut the ties of that typecasting. Even though I was managing a hugely varied children’s list, people were forever associating me with Horrible Histories so I needed to go. I got the chance to move into publishing for adults – an opportunity afforded to nearly no one in the industry – so I grabbed it. What better way to change people’s perception than to move into a totally different sector?
I spent two years in that role and recently came to the conclusion that I needed to be back in the world of children’s books. I’ve just attended Bologna Children’s Book Fair in order to re-establish connections there and it felt like a homecoming. It is a wonderful world to belong to and it is the right one for me. Though it’s a rare thing now, there were a few people still assuming that I was looking for a role in non fiction. Thankfully I was only too ready to update them on my ‘actual’ experience.
I’ve found that, in life and work, my role is to point out the reality of a situation, to counter any misconceptions. In many ways, it’s the substance of this blog: if I feel that people are labouring under an illusion about something, I have to tell the truth about it. They are often surprised by my truths, and I enjoy the process of enlightenment. That sounds intensely arrogant, but I believe in getting to the truth of a situation and acknowledging it. (I’m happy to have my truths contested by other truths, if I’m seen to be labouring under any illusions).
I’ve found that people are very adept at creating an idea about someone and purveying it to others, largely to deflect the same idea about themselves. I first noticed this with my ex-husband’s best friend who used to love telling the rest of his friends that my ex was a hypochondriac. Oh how they used to ‘banter’ about it until I realised that the actual hypochondriac was the best friend. He didn’t like it when I pointed it out – I spoiled his ‘fun’.
It’s happened to me in recent years: friends who enjoy a drink or two label me as someone who enjoys a drink or two. It takes me a few minutes to cry, “hang on a minute!” before the die is cast. We’re both standing there holding huge glasses of wine and suddenly I’m the drinker. Likewise, I was once told that I was ‘sloppy’ in my work by the biggest purveyor of professional sloppiness I’ve ever encountered. The sheer, naked brazenness of that comment took my breath away. The last thing I will ever be in this world is sloppy and they knew it. (Thankfully everyone around them knew it too.)
I’m getting much better at spotting the signs of this ‘transference’ and am much quicker to counteract it these days. Perception IS everything and I want people to perceive the real me, not the one they’ve just decided to create in their heads to make themselves feel better.