Brave Conversations with Jane McCurry

Jan 17 2018

Jane McCurry: The Struggle Behind Her Success

For our 3rd of what will be 52 Brave Conversations, we’re talking to an especially accomplished, soon-to-be-graduate of University of Wisconsin Madison. Executive Director of Wisconsin Microfinance, a Madison-based 501(c)3 nonprofit, participant in the Chancellor’s Scholarship Program, former co-president of the student business organization, Ethical and Responsible Business Network, and pole vaulter for the Wisconsin Women’s Varsity Track and Field team, her name is Jane McCurry.

Mary: Jane, we want to talk about the story behind your success –– the one that includes your struggles and doubts, because that’s what inspires us. It helps us put our own doubts and setbacks in perspective, tells us we aren’t alone and gives us inspiration and ideas on how to always keep going.

What self-doubts have you struggled with, and in those moments how do you overcome them?

Jane: I have definitely struggled with self-doubts, especially becoming the Executive Director of non-profit at 21 years old. I was talking to adults and people nearing the end of their professional lives, trying to get them to go along with some of my ideas –– and that’s really scary.

As an athlete, I’ve trained with different sports psychologists. They’ve taught me to do positive self-talk; to train my mind to tell myself that I am good enough, that I am capable. So when I go into a meeting, and I’m kind of scared to be talking to five different adults, and feeling like I’m only a college kid, beforehand I’ll tell myself: You can do this, you know what’s going on here, and you got this.

Mary: You don’t let the moment hold you back, but acknowledge ahead of time that it’s going to happen.

Jane: Exactly. Letting myself have that fear also helps. So, I give myself five minutes to be a little bit scared, and feel those feelings, and then say, nope, I can do this. I change that mindset, and it’s almost like faking it until I make it. I have to convince myself that I deserve to be in the room sometimes.

Mary: There’s research that shows that women much more so than men, want to check every desired qualification before pursuing job opportunities. I have had men tell me they don’t even read the desired or required qualifications before applying for jobs. As a college senior in the midst of applying for jobs, does this reflect any of your own personal experience?

Jane: YES. I get emails every day with the LinkedIn summary of jobs that were posted that day. For the ones that spark my attention, I read the descriptions, and I read the whole thing. Every qualification. About two months ago, I finally thought to myself, hmm. I don’t have the qualifications for ANY of these jobs! All the jobs say they want three to five years of experience. And I’ve had a few internships, but I don’t have that! But I’m starting to realize that I need to get over that feeling and just apply to jobs where I think the company would be a good fit, or where I think I could do the job even if I don’t meet every single box.

Mary: Does knowing about this research give you more confidence? 

Jane: Yeah it does! It’s really good to know that other people feel that struggle, and to know that as women we need to step up and apply for those jobs anyway.

Mary: Often we can’t choose what happens to us, what people say or think of us, or the circumstances that we face, but we can always choose our attitude. Please tell us about when being able to choose your attitude was most important to you.

Jane: My freshman season of track, I really struggled, and a lot of it had to do with that self-doubt. I didn’t have the confidence that I deserved to be there on the track, and that was really hard. Especially in an event like pole vault. You’re running full speed and trying to launch yourself into the air. You have to be 100% confident, or it’s not going to happen.

So, I had a meet where I wasn’t very good about my self talk. I didn’t feel confident at all, and I didn’t jump. I used all of my attempts, and I never even got off the ground. It was horrible. I felt horrible about myself. I felt like my coach was so disappointed in me. It was just one of those times where I felt like I didn’t really deserve to be there.

But you know what I realized? We were in San Diego, so I thought, “Well, I’m here. It’s beautiful out. I don’t have to stay at the track anymore.” So, I put on my backpack, and I walked to the beach! And I went swimming in my uniform.

So it’s one of those things that I look back on, and I think, “You know what? I’m going to decide to turn my attitude around. I’m going to make the most of being here. This is a great experience, and I’m so lucky to be on the track team and be in a beautiful city. So I’m going swimming.”

Mary: When that next meet came up, how did you adjust your attitude? Did that last experience creep in, and if so, how did you deal with that?

Jane: Yeah, it was really scary! Actually, I had three meets in a row where I didn’t clear a bar. The experience I described was one of those three. Every meet after that, I was afraid to go on the track, and that’s not a good feeling. It had always been something that I was good at. It was a place where I felt confident. So again, I worked on that positive self talk, and learned how to fake it until I made it. I even worked on my body language. I would hold that superman pose before I went on the track, like what they tell you to do before interviews. So it was hard, but it was a great experience. It was so humbling, but I’m really glad I went through it.

Mary: Did the coaches give you any advice? They obviously knew what you were capable of, but were seeing that there was a mental block that you were having to deal with. Did they have any good advice?

Jane: Yeah, my coach was always super patient with me, which he didn’t have to be… He could have cut me after that. It was a bad season! But he was patient with me, and there was so much support from my athletic trainers and the sports psychology staff. I also had all my best friends on the track team, so I had a ton of support there too.

Mary: So it wasn’t just one meet.

Jane: No… it was three meets in a row. Haha.

Mary: So you had to be patient with yourself too.

Jane: Yeah, and it changed my attitude about athletics, which really spilled over into the rest of my life –– where I put the most pressure on myself. I learned that my coach doesn’t care as much as I care. I learned that it’s all self-pressure… no one cares as much as I do! And I’m here to have fun. I’m here to do something that’s enjoyable, so I need to make it enjoyable.

Mary: How did your performance change when you were able to embody that?

Jane: So much! When I came into the last season, I didn’t have a height goal or any other specific goals that I wanted to accomplish on the track. Instead, I said that every day at practice I wanted to have fun and I wanted to sweat. That’s it. And I had the best season of my life! Because I was having fun, and I wasn’t worried about how high I was jumping.

Mary: That’s amazing.

Jane: Yeah. 

Mary: That’s inspiring to me. I’m going to have to remember that! So, not only are you a woman, but you’re also quite young –– and an Executive Director of a nonprofit. Have you faced difficulties in getting people to respect you?

Jane: I’m really lucky in that everyone who engages with WI Microfinance really just wants to help out the community and make the world a better place. I haven’t felt like people weren’t respecting me. Although I have felt like I wasn’t always giving myself a full chance to be in the room and to take the lead.

Many times in meetings I’m with the founder and the President of the Board, and I often rely on him to lead the conversation. That’s one thing that I’m working on. I really want to take control and lead the conversation myself, and drive the meetings where I want them to go.

Mary: That’s an interesting discovery of self-awareness, to be able to understand that you’re holding yourself back.

Jane: Yeah, I know that everyone in the room respects me, even though I’m young, but it’s easy to rely on other people who are older and more experienced. I’m really trying to give myself the chance to lead the conversation, and respect myself enough that other people will rely on me.

Mary: Have you had other instances in which there were people who doubted whether you were capable or weren’t giving you the respect you think you deserved?

Jane: In one of my internships, I worked in the IT department. Being a female, non-IT major working in the IT department with mostly men, there definitely were those occasions where someone would have a weird comment. I’d always take a minute and think about it, and decide if I want to say something back.

There was one experience where we were rearranging server racks, and they let the interns tag along as a learning experience. Again, I’m not really an IT person, so I’m not going to have to do this in the future, but we had to use a screwdriver to take some of the pins out and rearrange the racks.

Someone said something to me, like, “Oh, you’re a girl, you can’t use a screwdriver.” I thought that was SO strange. So I said, “No I can.” Then I grabbed it, and I just did it. I wanted to prove that, yeah, I’m 19, but that doesn’t mean you can say stuff like that to me.

Mary: I like that attitude. When was a moment, where you felt an ah-ha moment? Whether it was in track, or it was as an Executive Director at a young age –– a time when you felt like things were coming together?

Jane: My junior year of college, I took a class with Tom Eggert. It was a business and sustainability class, and I also joined the Ethical and Responsible Business Network student organization. I met amazing people, and I sort of felt like wow, this is my Tribe, the people that I’m meant to be around full-time. So that was an amazing ah-ha moment for me, where I found business and sustainability, and these organizations like WI Microfinance that really catered to what I cared about outside of athletics and academics.

It brought together the whole college experience for me. Lately I’ve felt like I’m really in my groove here in Madison. I know what I’m doing here, I’m excited about all the things that I’m involved in…. but I have a lot of change coming in the next six months! So I’m hoping that I have another ah-ha moment soon, about you know, what the rest of my life is supposed to look like, because things are going to wrap up here soon! So I’m hoping for another one of those, haha. 

Mary: Some of the most successful people are perfectionists that want to do everything well. But it is a mindset that can limit growth and cause an inordinate amount of stress. Do you consider yourself a perfectionist? And how has striving to do everything well either been, or not been, a part of your life?

Jane: Striving to do everything well has definitely been a part of my life. I pride myself on being successful at what I really put my mind to and what I spend my time on, but I think sometimes that means not being a perfectionist. So if I have to cut a workout short because I have to get to work, that’s ok, because I’ll make it up the next day. Or if I feel like I’m not on my game at work, because I’m worried about my homework that I have to get done that night, I sort of let myself have that wiggle room to focus on what I really need to focus on that day. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to get through everything, if I gave everything 120% every single day.

Mary: My go-to -spot when things don’t go as planned and are looking pretty bleak is what I call my “Silver Lining Journal.” I write down all the good things that came out of what looked like a disaster. Do you have any stories you would add to a Silver Lining Journal?

Jane: Yeah, absolutely. The story I told earlier, about that horrible track season. That would definitely go in the Silver Lining Journal, because I still got to travel, and I got to swim in the ocean and hang out with my friends every day. And really, I learned what it’s like to pick yourself up.

Mary: Yeah, that’s a good one. What’s especially powerful for me was how you had to just keep going. You didn’t have that option, or I guess you could have just dropped and said you couldn’t do it –– but you somehow figured out that you just had to keep going through it.

Jane: Totally. Actually, on a related note, I’m a gymnastics teacher, and earlier  this week was the first time I’ve had my own class. So I have my own kids that I work with. And I had a really horrible class! I really love the job, but I was a new coach to them, and it was really hard.

Kids have hard time with change. We all have a hard time with change. They weren’t used to me, and they didn’t like that they had someone new. I left just feeling horrible, and like I didn’t give them what they needed. They didn’t have fun, and it’s supposed to be fun for them! I really learned, though, that not every day is going to be great, and that sometimes you have to win people over. That’s a good life lesson. So I think I’d add that story to my Silver Lining Journal too.

Mary: How are you going to approach it the next time?

Jane: I don’t know. I was sort of offended! But I mean they’re ten. So I’m going to go in next week, and I’m going to have a positive attitude. I’m going to come up with my own ways to have fun with them. That way, maybe they won’t miss their old coach so much.

Mary: Looking back to when you were a freshman in college, what would you tell your younger self?

Jane: I would tell myself to let go of guilt and worry. They are emotions that don’t help you move forward. I’d tell myself to try new things early. I talked about how I didn’t really find my tribe on campus until I was a junior, and I really wish I would have branched out and tried more things my freshman year –– and been open to those experiences. I think I’d tell myself just to relax and have more fun. You know, worrying about homework every day might help you get good grades, but those aren’t the memories that are going to last. Do new things, have fun, and don’t worry so much.

Mary: What are your dreams, and what might hold you back from pursuing them?

Jane: I dream of owning my own sustainable business. I really want to be an entrepreneur, and have a great idea that I can share with the world that will somehow make a difference. But I’m scared that I won’t have that great idea. That’s really intimidating, but I can’t let that fear hold me back. So just being confident enough to move forward, and not being afraid to fail the first couple times.

Mary: Last question: What is the one thing that you would share that might inspire women to see past doubts and take that step forward?

Jane: More and more I’m learning that there are so many communities of strong, powerful, successful women that want to back other women. There’s a stigma that women are really judgmental of each other, but I don’t really feel that. I don’t think that’s always true. I think that there are other women who are supporting you –– even if you haven’t met them yet. Don’t be afraid to go out there and kick butt!

Mary: Thank you Jane, this has been a lot of fun. I really appreciate it. Just know, Building Brave is always there to support you in your dreams.

About the Author

Alana McKeever


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