Leaving the Bitch Behind

By Lisa Poulson

On January 2, 1995, I flew from New York City to California with two suitcases and went straight from the airport to Sun Microsystems in a rented metallic-teal Pontiac Firebird. It was the dawn of the first internet boom, I was about to turn 32, and I was starting a new job in PR for one of the hottest technology companies in the world.

Sun, a candy store of ideas in Palo Alto, was founded in February 1992 at Stanford University by students Scott McNealy, Andy Bechtolsheim, and Vinod Khosla. Scott, a huge hockey fan, was the CEO. If you couldn’t land or take a punch, metaphorically speaking, you would never survive in the culture Scott created. 

After I got to Sun’s offices on that bright January morning and settled in, I was asked to join Sarah, whom I’d met about 15 minutes earlier, on a call with a staffer named Ted. Sarah dialed Ted on the speaker phone and asked him about his plans for an upcoming event. Ted spoke for about three minutes and then asked Sarah what she thought.

“That’s the stupidest fucking idea I’ve ever heard!” said Sarah, before she detailed to Ted why he was full of shit.

OK,’ I said to myself, this isn’t My Little Pony, this is mixed martial arts. Noted.

Welcome to Silicon Valley!

Sun was the rollicking gladiatorial arena that made me a badass bitch. I was fighting for Java—the powerful software programming language we launched shortly after I arrived. Today, more than ten million people use Java. But when it was brand new, we had to compete like assassins to ensure that Java wouldn’t be murdered in its cradle. The competition wasn’t just outside the company. It was internal, too. Sun wasn’t a stab-you-in-the-back environment. Everyone stabbed each other in the face. Body armor, weapons, and the guts to slash someone’s jugular without hesitation were job requirements. I accepted them without hesitation. Ferocity, as it turned out, was part of my DNA.

That ferocity—product of a strict Mormon girlhood, years battling sexism as a PR professional in New York City, and a recent, unspeakable grief—would end up breaking me. But I didn’t know that then.

What I did know is that I’d found a place and a reason to release my rage, in a company famous in Silicon Valley for its brutal culture. I was a volcano, and I erupted. Cortisol had total control of my keyboard. “What the fuck are you thinking?” was a much more effective email reply than “How about we discuss the strategy here?”

I relished letting that bottled fire out of me, especially because I had a reason to do it. Building and protecting Java’s reputation was the only thing that mattered. It’s not great technologies that thrive, it’s the technologies that tell great stories. Java needed all the ferocity I had to give. Bitch was my brand because bitch got shit done.

No one knew that underneath my rage was a desperate fear of failing. The obedient, responsible Mormon girl inside me would have done anything not to fail in this huge and growing job. The rebellious Mormon girl inside me would set anyone on fire to ensure that I did not. Once I started, it was pretty hard to stop.

The nadir of my bitch years at Sun Microsystems came at a press conference. I’d had a contretemps with a Wall Street Journal reporter brewing for a week. To punish him for writing a story we didn’t like, and to ensure that we successfully got our story out into the world, we gave all of our big news to his rival at the New York Times.

At the end of our press conference the reporter came up to the JavaSoft president and me in a fury, demanding an immediate interview. I told the reporter several times (volume rising each time) that we would talk to him after my president gave a speech, which was starting in ten minutes. But the reporter kept demanding to get his questions answered right now.

It was my job to control this situation, control this reporter, protect my president’s time. This is what PR people have to do. Sometimes it gets ugly.

I put my body physically between my president and this angry reporter. I slashed my arms and hands forward in the air, inches from his body, and yelled right into his face, “YOU’RE NOT ON DEADLINE.”  Slash again. “HE WILL TALK TO YOU AFTER HIS SPEECH.” In that second, the reporter lost control, put the flats of his hands on my shoulders and shoved me into the wall.

The next few seconds I lost to shock. When I got my senses back, my eyes fixed on the reporter, who was staring at me, slack-jawed. He recovered, mumbled something, and bolted. My president asked if I was OK. “Yes, yes, I am. Go give your speech.”

I stood there for a second, reeling, but quickly got myself together and did what needed doing for the rest of the day. That evening, when everyone went out to celebrate, I went up to my hotel room alone. For hours I sobbed and paced the floor, wondering how my life had come to this.

Deep down, I knew. Born with a fiercely independent temperament, I was the eldest of six children in a Mormon family, part of a culture where girls were expected to become obedient wives and dutiful mothers. But I felt like a bag of bees inside. Contradictions swarmed within me: emotions like delicate eggs and crystalline jewels, thoughts like razor-sharp knives and mud-caked horse hooves. I could never make myself into the right kind of Mormon female.

When I was 16, our bishop lectured me on how young women were supposed to behave. I vibrated with a fruitless rage that continued to boil away in me for years.

At Brigham Young University, I used all of my energy to push away the pressure to be what I couldn’t be—a sunny, pliable, husband-hunting co-ed. When I left school, that energy pushed me all the way to New York City, where I carved out a place in public relations. I was a hard worker with a powerful sense of responsibility. We Mormons are a productive people. My religion both defeated my ambition and prepared me to succeed once I found it.

When I landed at Sun in 1995, that furious energy had long resided within me, but it was accelerated by tragedy 16 months before I came to Palo Alto. In August 1993, the man I loved more than anyone in the world was killed in a helicopter crash two weeks after we got engaged. In a moment, he was gone, and he took my soul with him. 

I had arrived in California just as I was crashing into grief’s angry phase. I was angry at the world, angry at lesser men who were alive while my magnificent man was dead, angry about the humiliations I had endured as a young professional woman, angry about a lifetime of pressure to be an obedient Mormon girl.

My soul and hope were in ruins. In their place I wanted a world I could control. I wanted tangible things like money, respect, power and autonomy.

I got those things. I also got called “the meanest PR person west of the Pecos” by one journalist. And worse. I contracted mononucleosis. I became an insomniac, and developed IBS. Bitter battles with colleagues tore down my self-regard and bullying cost me my reputation. When I told our chief marketing officer I’d like to apply to be VP of communications of the whole company, he was clear. “No one will work for you,” he said. “I can’t consider you for this job.”

Unconscious of the pattern I had internalized as a child, I had become the person no one would work for. The pattern always went the same way:

  1. Dad/authority figure/client wants something. His expectations and the stakes are high.
  2. I must do or cause to be done this huge thing by force of will, ingenuity, stamina and resilience. There are no instructions. There is always a deadline. Failure is never an option.
  3. I succeed, but there is significant collateral damage. In my desperate drive, I break things.
  4. My heroic success is poisoned by the shame of collateral failure. The means sabotage the end.
  5. Cowed, I disregard what I achieved and vow to do better next time.

I kept repeating the pattern. I never thought to just walk away.

Miraculously, I succeeded. And I created so much collateral damage along the way. Wrung out and shattered at the end of every major achievement, I couldn’t even rest in the simple contentment of a job well done. I was too busy hating myself for how I’d done it. But I kept doing it.        

In 1999, I left Sun for a start-up, hoping to leave the worst of my bitch self behind. For a while I succeeded—it was a relief to leave Sun’s blood-soaked arena. I worked at two start-ups, freelanced for a few years, and eventually, in 2004, Burson-Marsteller reached out. They were the multinational PR agency that hired me when I was 25, when I was in awe of the world emerging around me. I barely dared to hope that someday I’d become like the agency’s creative director—the only woman on the senior leadership team. The accomplished woman I saw at the elevator in chic pumps, a crisp white blouse, black pants, and a brightly patterned shawl adding drama to her outfit. The successful, confident woman with her head held high.

The agency wanted me, now a seasoned 41-year-old PR veteran, for their San Francisco office. Soon I was the “global technology practice chair” with a seat on the executive leadership team. I reported to our CEO, just like the glamorous creative director in New York.

A triumph, right? Not so much.

My life was spreadsheets and conference calls, solving intractable problems while handling difficult personalities and carrying the weight of 200 employees’ jobs on my back. I ran our largest global account and was responsible for our technology industry strategy around the world. I felt like flinty-eyed Israeli military leader Moshe Dayan, restless and prickly whenever I was not at war. The stakes, once again, were high.

The bitch was back.

I started to expect to be disliked. I became the person who lost patience with everyone—from United Airlines gate agents to salespeople at department stores. In meetings, as soon as I figured out the point anyone tried to make, I’d cut them off. Wasting time, for any reason, felt like being set on fire.

And yet I still went to church every week. Leaving didn’t cross my mind—it was easier to stay connected to my culture, even without fully belonging, than it was to walk away into nothingness. Still, I felt like an imposter, on the fringes in Mormon culture as a single, childless professional woman. A woman I met at church said, “You are such a good person! I can see it in your eyes!”

I thought she was crazy. “Oh no, I’m an asshole,” I said, “You don’t really know me.”

My colleagues did. After spending four hours in a frustrating offsite meeting in a nondescript hotel in who knows which city, Josh, who more or less ran the agency, was exasperated with me.

“Lisa, why are you such a bitch?!”

I looked at him, paused only for a second, and told him the truth. “Listen Josh. I use 75 percent of my patience, charm, and diplomacy on my clients. I use 23 percent of it on my team. That leaves two percent for you people.”

Josh guffawed. After that we got along fine.

And like this, years went by.

One night, I had dinner with a wonderful friend from college who was in town to give a speech. Over risotto at a local Italian restaurant, we talked about the ups and downs of our respective careers. I shared her frustrations until the moment she said, “I didn’t always feel like I could speak out in my previous job. I was worried about not being liked.”

Not liked? I didn’t understand. “How could you worry about being liked and also make difficult decisions? How could you decide who gets raises and who gets fired?”

It was impossible to be masterful and be liked, wasn’t it?

As I sat there picking at the remains of my risotto, I thought about what conflating “bitch” and “powerful” had cost me. To my mind, power was essential. Bitch was a necessary byproduct. I understood the choice I had made. But was it possible that battle wasn’t the only way?

I thought about my scars from the swordplay over the years. From the moment I rejoined the agency in 2004, I’d never worried about whether other people thought I was a bitch—I knew they did. But at that moment, at that dinner, in that restaurant, I suddenly cared that I did.

Life gave me a way out. Not long after that dinner—after one particularly grueling, six-hour meeting with a client that had taken months of exhausting preparation, a meeting in which the future of the agency was on the line— I learned that our client wanted to keep the agency but didn’t want to keep me.

blue Pontiac seen from the side in a parking lot

I felt a tsunami of relief.

It was time to end my 25-year vengeful quest. Time to stop trying to overcome the disregard for fierce women in Mormon culture. To quit fighting the indignities of being female in the business world, to stop chasing the chimera of my father’s approval.

The agency didn’t fire me after I stopped running our largest client, but there was nothing at the firm that appealed to me anymore. I spent the next few months at doctor’s appointments and learned that I was in adrenal failure. I went back to Pilates, I cooked. I even read a few books. I showed up at the office once a week or so. And I waited for my CEO to decide to lay me off.

Just two weeks after my 50th birthday, he did.

It’s been seven years since I left my job. I went to coaching school, I healed, I started my own business and started writing too.

Last fall I was driving from San Francisco down to Sunnyvale to see a client, wearing neon pink sneakers and hoop earrings, feeling delighted to be on my way to help a brilliant person become a great speaker. The afternoon before I’d spent a few luxurious hours writing and then a few more reading. My time and my heart and my mind are my own now. I get to use them consciously to weave a whole and nourishing life, to make the contribution I choose to make.

As I drove past the freeway exit I used to take when seeing former clients, I flashed back to the dozens of times I’d driven down the same freeway in dark pumps, a blazer, and a miserable mood, dreading unpleasant meetings. My body flooded with gratitude as I saw the vastness of the delta between my life then and now.

Even though I peeled away my armor, my fiery core is still part of me. It gives me the courage to write, to tell vulnerable truths, to embrace the revived parts of myself.

I haven’t launched a world-changing technology or headed a global team in years, but the pure and peaceful satisfaction I feel now is sweeter than every masterful but miserable triumph that came before. When I found the strength to unbraid power, ambition, and anger everything became so clear.

I don’t need the bitch anymore. Perhaps I never did.

Lisa Poulson was once a tech industry badass, a grieving widow, and a faithful Mormon all at the same time. Now a writer in San Francisco, she writes about the complex beauty of female power. Her work has appeared on ManifestStation, Jen Pastiloff’s popular blog; has received an honorable mention for Memoir Vignette in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition; and is forthcoming in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.

Photo by William Iven