How to Grab a Seat at Your Industry’s Table (Even If You Were Never Invited)

A woman discusses her idea in a meeting with a male colleague.
Photo: Thomas Barwick/DigitalVision/Getty Images

SoSo you want to be in the room where it happens. Maybe that room is your firm’s conference suite, where you envision yourself sitting at the head of the table as the lead on a major project. Or perhaps it’s an Olympic soccer field, a stage at Lincoln Center, or that retreat in the woods that only the top movers and shakers in your organization are invited to. Maybe you want to be part of an industry that hasn’t yet accepted you into its fold: You’re an actor hoping to catch your big break, a writer looking for a book deal, a teacher eager to break into the collegiate ranks.

My theory is that the biggest thing holding most people back isn’t a lack of talent or skills. It’s the fact that you don’t really believe you deserve, or will get, a seat at the table. Let’s fix that, shall we?

Let go of your scarcity mentality

The first thing you’ll need to do is get rid of your scarcity mentality. This amounts to a massive mind shift away from Western culture’s dog-eat-dog doctrine.

In her book The Soul of Money, philanthropist Lynne Twist speaks of scarcity mindsets as a “reverie of lack” in which, regardless of one’s relative wealth or poverty, privilege or lack thereof, there is a global all-pervasive sense that there is not enough to go around. She writes that the mindset “shapes our deepest sense of ourselves, and becomes the lens through which we experience life.” Through this lens, “our expectations, our behavior, and their consequences become a self-fulfilling prophecy of inadequacy, lack, and dissatisfaction.”

But this idea that there isn’t enough simply isn’t true. Twist points out that, for the most part, resources and opportunities are controlled by humans. Some have chosen to horde those things, which is why it appears as though there is not enough.

It is painfully clear that not everyone has the same access to the table. Systemic racism, sexism, and other -isms are real, and, in many cases, they don’t just make getting a seat nearly impossible—they make getting inside the room where the table is nearly impossible as well. The guest list is rigged; we know that.

But just because access to the opportunities might be hard to come by, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Countless people who were told no have found a way past what seemed like insurmountable obstacles. The belief that there isn’t enough room for you because [insert your reasons here] gives you nothing but reasons to give up, to let the haters win, to take yourself out of the running. What happens is that you consciously or subconsciously sponsor unhelpful and, often, untrue stories about yourself. These stories are dream killers. Instead of speaking up at that meeting, you now believe the story that you aren’t seen, and so you keep quiet. Which means your great ideas aren’t being heard. Which means your boss doesn’t consider you for that promotion. See how this works?

Remember that everyone starts at the kids’ table

Sometimes we don’t get seats at the table because we need to up our game. Are you an artist who could use some instruction on your craft? Are you an entrepreneur who doesn’t know the first thing about managing a small business? Do some homework. Before I got published, I was fortunate enough to be able to take classes, go to conferences, and get an internship at a publishing house. The kids’ table is filled with interns and assistants, with paper pushers and coffee grabbers — each one of them with their eye on the grown-up table.

As Picasso once said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” Maybe the first step to getting a seat at the table is getting a chance to serve drinks to the people sitting at it. Or cooking the food. Or setting the table itself. We all have to start somewhere.

Grab the biography of any person who inspires you, and you’ll likely see the same story told in one way or another: Somehow, they turned adversity into fertilizer that helped their dreams grow. They learned from rejection, from loss, from being passed over. I always see rejection as an invitation: to get better at my craft, to come up with a more marketable story, or to find a publisher who is more on my wavelength and will love my book as much as I do.

Consider alternative seating arrangements

In some industries, despite your best efforts, factors beyond your control will keep you from the positions you want. In such cases, you may have to consider a different arrangement — same table, new seat.

If physical factors limit you from going to space, you might not be in the astronaut’s suit you dream of, but you could be in the control room on Earth. You might open up the possibility for a differently abled person to blast off into space someday. And this is where the mindset shift begins, going from “If I can’t get that one seat I want, then forget it” to “Are there tangential opportunities open to me that would be exciting and satisfying, even if they aren’t ideal?” Ask yourself what other seats you can fight for.

Now is the time to take a good, long look at where you are in your industry. How can you contribute to the conversations being had there? What are the gaps that you alone can fill? Regardless of what obstacles you’re up against, it’s time to dig deep to see how you can navigate them. And if no one is handing you an invitation, then how can you invite yourself?

Author, coach, editor, & mindfulness mentor. Newest: LITTLE UNIVERSES and CODE NAME BADASS.

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