Don’t look for the story in your job description

Every Thursday I had to climb 120 steps to reach the lecture theatre where 150 first-year students were waiting for me to teach them about public international law.

I was seven months pregnant, and all what I really wanted to do, apart from eating chocolate and sleeping, was to show them that they could change the world, that international law is something actionable that people like us can use.

I failed.

They didn’t believe me, no matter how hard I tried.

The only attention I got from them was an email from the student representative complaining that Dr Alvarez used Spanish in written assignments, to which I was forced to reply with great disappointment that if the students were referring to expressions such as status nascendi the language is Latin, not Spanish.

If the only thing my students remembered from the whole semester was that Latin and Spanish are different languages, I was surely wasting my time and theirs.

I know that I failed because I had the most terrible student evaluations of my whole career. I was really angry and upset. I thought about all the time I’d spent preparing classes, choosing videos, selecting materials and reading the students’ essays and I thought “This is unfair!”

I looked at my male colleagues in their immaculate suits with their confident poise and objective, professional, detached manner. They were getting stellar evaluations and I couldn’t understand why. 

What had changed in me to make me a poorly rated lecturer?

Surely nobody trusts a pregnant woman, I told myself. Everyone knows we’re a hormonal mess.

Was it because I let some tears fall while watching the video about the genocide in Rwanda?

Maybe because sometimes the baby moved, and I had to stop to catch my breath?

It took me two years to understand what had happened. 

I’d stopped believing the story I was telling the students a long time ago. I didn’t believe that international law could change the world, or that it was a useful tool for people with a vision.

International law wasn’t the arena for me any more.

I was asking the students to believe in something I didn’t believe in myself.

Since that day I’ve promised myself that I will only choose stories, customers, and projects that I can believe in. It’s not only a matter of professional honesty: it’s my commitment to making an impact with my work.

The story is not in your job description. I had to teach students international law, but I chose to tell the story of believing in international law as a tool for change, a story that was no longer true for me. I chose the wrong story.

Your job description is just a frame – you can choose which story goes under the title.

If you’re someone with a vision like me, choose the story that goes with the frame carefully. Choose a story that is true for you and talks about what you want to see happening in the world.

People always notice the frame, but what they really care about is the picture.