Swim with the Fishes: Quoting Your Way to the Top


I am now one of those “mid-career” professionals who from time to time is asked to impart her words of wisdom upon younger women who are in a completely different facial cream demographic than me. And I have, quite diligently, gone through the obvious: Watch fewer reality shows than you absolutely need to; you can have it all until you can’t; make sure that you know whose job it is to take the car in for oil changes; dress up and down; pretend to work from home after you have your first baby for as long as possible; and study carefully the complex, internecine dynamics of work chicken.*

But I confess, during these sessions of pleasant monologuing I may have held back. It was not intentional; I just didn’t know.

The central skill young professional women need is simple: movie lines. Know them and deploy them well. Sure, MBAs have some utility. Sure, those public speaking classes where they scrutinize you and constantly rewind the taped scenes, leaving you stronger yet traumatized, are just fine. But focus now on this: When was the last time that you attended an interminable conference and no one used a line from The Godfather? Think about it. When was the last time that a work-related dinner or happy hour did not involve a group of your colleagues reciting some line from The Terminator, The Princess Bride, or shouting, “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” And when was the last time that these lines were used by a woman? Go ahead. I challenge you to start your empirically-suspect-but-dinner-party-sufficient data collection effort. I did. And although in conducting my own research I had to turn quickly to male family members and friends, the point was irrefutable: Men use movie lines all of the time. They make up some 75 percent of most male-to-male exchanges. Without movie lines: silent car rides. With them, well, you might get, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

So three simple rules for young women climbing their way up to the glass ceiling:

Rule 1: Stop reading and start watching Monty Python, Caddyshack, Dirty Harry, and The Big Lebowski. Argue about your list. (Not among your women friends! To my college-aged daughter, no, it cannot be “that’s one lucky bug.” That does not count. Sorry.) So pick two real movies. Take copious notes. And start memorizing.

Rule 2: Practice, practice, practice. You would not do your PowerPoint presentation without at least one run through, right? So don’t just start your next panel talk with a quote or two, cold. Get the hang of it. Go. Now. Walk into the office next door, look your colleague directly in the eye and express yourself: “Talk to me, Goose!

On the next corporate golf trip, as the boss is about to tee off, whisper to your colleague, “But if I kill all the golfers they’re going to lock me up and throw away the key.” When you are feeling especially good, walk around confidently, muttering, “I’m kind of a big deal. People know me. I’m very important. I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany.” And for my colleagues in the national security arena, at your next contentious meeting, calmly remind everybody, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room!” In strategy meetings, warn everyone: “You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia. But only slightly less well known is this: Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!”

Rule 3: Do not take unholy risks. Go back to rules 1 and 2. Have you mastered them? Stop. Think. Have you visualized the credits? The actors’ faces? Really? The stakes are high. I know a successful professional — a dermatologist for goodness’ sake — who at a medical society dinner tried to fit in at a table of mostly men by casually letting loose that she loved Harvey Keitel in The Godfather. Stunned silence. Years of medical school practically down the drain. Bye, bye referrals. As the orthopedic surgeons around the table turned away from her in pity, it was only the semi-retired internist who fully understood what had transpired, quietly offered her a Vicodin, and whispered, “May the force be with you.”

*The practice among professionals to compete to work the longest hours. The last person to leave the office “wins.” (See the chicken game in Rebel Without a Cause.)


Dr. Nadia Schadlow writes on defense and foreign policy issues, and she needs to take more of her own advice.