Whether I’ve over-enthusiastically latched on to the first person I met in grade school, or rigorously tried to follow in the footsteps of the writers I love, I’m guilty of having ridden a coattail or two in my life. Coattail riding is helpful, especially when you’re new to something, but too much riding can prevent you from finding your own way, in life and in your career. At some point, you’ve got to spread your own wings, or as some would say, cut the umbilical cord.

Below are 5 signs to help you identify coattail riding in your life. If you see yourself exhibiting any of these signs, then I encourage you to take steps to shedding the training wheels…like right now.

1) You mimic your friend/colleague’s every move. When I first became a full-time writer, I made friends with a published author, and I tried to find out everything I could about how she got to where she was in her career. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of information gathering. In fact if you’re an aspiring anything, I highly encourage that you talk to successful people in your field, to find out more about their journey. However, such information gathering can morph into coattail riding if you strive to do everything in the same way that you’re friend did. It’s fine to borrow wisdom and principles from others, but avoid using someone else’s journey as a blueprint for yours.

For instance, one principle that I learned from my writer friend is that it’s important to attend writing conferences. And while I may attend some of the same conference that she goes to, I also attend others that interest me. Now my friend and I have doubled the information between us. I can tell her about my conferences, and she can tell me about hers.

2) You drop your successful friend’s name into conversations and emails whenever you can. I am guilty as charged here. As an undergrad, I studied under a relatively famous poet, whom will go unnamed. I used this professor’s name every time that I could, hoping to dazzle my way to literary popularity. But I’ve come to realize that at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how well your famous friends or teachers write. You will be judged by how well you write. Plus, you might scare off your other friends if you keep name dropping. Either, they’ll feel intimidated by your prestige, or they’ll think you’re arrogant. A few of your buddies might be awestruck by the names you drop, but if you keep at it, you might be left with an entourage, rather than a solid group of friends.

3) You feed into your friend’s love of flattery. Chances are that the friend whose footsteps you’re following, or whose name you keep dropping, will be flattered by your attention. You may be tempted to feed this person’s love of flattery. Don’t do it. You’ll become his/her entourage then, and you and this friend will never develop a balanced relationship.

4) Your successful friend sees you as a charity case. On the other hand, the person you admire might see you as needy. You tirelessly leach information, and your friend doesn’t find this flattering at all. In fact, it’s bordering on pathetic. She hates to see you in this way and continues to meet with you out of pity. Again, your relationship is imbalanced.

5) You feel like you have nothing valuable to offer to others. At this point, your coattail riding is so bad that you see yourself as a charity case. You grow bitter about your lowly position at the bottom of the ladder, and you doubt that you have anything valuable to offer to others. Reality: You may be lower on the totem pole than others, but your experiences are unique–different from anyone else’s. In that sense, you have an infinitude of information to offer. Even if you can’t express yourself as eloquently as your successful friend does, or if you have nothing to offer her career-wise, your experiences are valuable in some other way.

For example, your life might provide interesting writing material for your friend, or your quirky obsession with gourmet tea might add depth and richness to your conversations.

Remember, relationships are rarely all business. Someone has to keep things interesting, and that someone can be you. Just let go of those coattails and take flight in your own special way.

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