When I was selected for the Thunderbirds in 2005, I did not fully grasp the level of interest people would have in me becoming the first woman pilot in the team’s history. To me and my teammates, it was no big deal. Think about it from our perspective: we never knew an Air Force without women fighter pilots in it. A woman becoming a Thunderbird pilot seemed like the natural progression of things.
Once the announcement was made that I would be joining the team, the media onslaught began. Our Public Affairs team (both Headquarters Air Force and the Thunderbirds) did a fine job helping me navigate the environment and did their best to “protect” me. I remain grateful for their support. The vast majority of people around the world were very supportive and excited by the selection of a woman pilot. That woman, by sheer luck, opportunity, and timing, just happened to be me.
I received thousands of handwritten letters and emails of support from across the United States and around the globe. I also received hundreds of letters and online notes of what I like to call “non-support.” The vitriol came fast and furious. My selection to the Thunderbird team was such a challenge to the balance of some people that they would attack me, my character, my skills and my professionalism.
These attacks included foul language and even threats of violence and sexual assault. I never told anyone about the worst messages. I just shredded them and pretended they never existed. It was a defense mechanism. Plus, I didn’t want to be seen as a “problem” for the team. That was in 2005, well before the frenzy of today’s expansive social media landscape. To say the negative attacks were hurtful, distracting, and shocking, remains an understatement.
I knew I had to rise above the attacks to succeed. What I couldn’t get past were the nagging questions, “Why would they do this? What did I ever do to them?” Then it hit me. The realization came with sadness, anger, anxiety, confusion and nausea.
There are people in this world actively rooting for me to fail.
I’d had naysayers before (we all get those from time to time) and I’d endured some active chauvinism (even jealousy) from others across my career to that point, but this was different. This was mean, unkind and cruel. Here’s the kicker—it came from people both outside and inside the Air Force. It’s one thing to have a stranger rooting against you, it was another thing to have folks wearing my same uniform rooting for me to fail. I don’t believe I’ll ever fully heal from that. But I did find a way to overcome it in the moments it counted.
So, how do you overcome this type of situation and move toward success?
4 Ways to Handle People Rooting for Your Failure
1) Keep your eyes on the prize
Don’t let anyone take away your dream or tell you a goal is unattainable. Block out negativity and make a plan that concentrates on what you can do to make that goal materialize. Plenty of naysayers told me that I shouldn’t have been a fighter pilot, let alone become a member of an elite demonstration team like the Thunderbirds. Had I listened to them and given up before even trying, I wouldn’t have reached my goal. Focus on your own actions and on what you can do to turn your dreams into reality.
2) Find your people
The number one question I was asked as the first woman Thunderbird pilot was, “how do the guys treat you?”. Here’s the fact: I made it through that first year on the Thunderbirds because of the specific support of the other pilots, all men of character, amazing leaders, and world-class aviators: Steve Horton, Scottie Zamzow, Kevin Robinson, Brian Farrar, Ed Casey, and Tad Clark. My success that year is something I must share with them, especially my dear friend #4 Steve Horton, for reasons only he and I will ever fully appreciate. I found my allies and I could count on them to lift me up when others were trying to take me down. They kept me focused on what mattered and helped me break through the raucous noise. Surround yourself with people that have your best interests at heart.
3) Go high
My former boss Michelle Obama famously said, “When they go low, we go high.” She recently elaborated in an interview with Steven Colbert, and I think it’s a perfect way to handle those rooting for your failure. If we give into the negativity and start spewing back insults, we are brought down to our detractor’s level. How would it have looked if I had done interviews and taken aim at those that weren’t supportive of my position? Not good. Nor would it have been productive towards my purpose.
That said, going high doesn’t mean ignoring. Obama says, “For me, going high is not losing the urgency or the passion or the rage. Especially when you are justified in it. Going high means finding the purpose in your rage. Rage without reason, without a plan, without direction, is just more rage.” So, when I say go high, I look to our former FLOTUS for inspiration. I used that anger and disappointment… that rage… I felt to push myself forward, find solutions and prove those standing against me that they were wrong. I would not drag myself down to their level.
4) Set boundaries
Boundaries are a healthy way to guide your actions. You can set boundaries for yourself and others. You can determine when you’ll check your email and when you will take a break. You can establish healthy practices in both your work and personal life. When you set boundaries for others, you need to communicate clearly what the boundary is, and what will happen if the boundary is crossed. The boundary can’t be “You better not do that.” A boundary looks more like, “If you do X, then I will do Y.” For example, “If your negative feedback about my performance is solely based on my gender, then our conversation will be over, and I will leave.” Then, you must enforce those boundaries. Let people know the consequences and have the courage to follow through. Know your worth.
It’s hard when people are actively rooting for your failure, but these four strategies can help you overcome negativity, push forward, and reach your own goals.