Ask a Badass

Ask a Badass is an advice column answered by history’s hidden badasses, writing as they see their whole lives and our modern world.

Caterina Sforza answers Bounded in a Nutshell

Caterina Sforza

Dear Badass,

How do I stop selling myself short? When I was growing up, I felt like other kids didn’t like me because I was smart. I thought I learned to be more social and that’s why I had more friends in college and when I started working.

Now, though, I wonder if it’s because I learned to play dumb, even with myself. I feel like I shrunk myself into this mold and I can’t break out of it. I find myself assuming I can’t do things or learn things. There are a couple guys I work with – who aren’t even that bright – that just charge into projects they’re not really qualified for and everything seems to work out.

Why don’t I do that? Why do I assume that everything I haven’t done before will be out of my reach?

Thank you,

Bounded in a Nutshell

Dear Bounded in a Nutshell,

Stop thinking and start doing. Now. Whatever Rubicon it is you are trying to force yourself to cross, go do it. Without a moment’s more thought. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Good. Now, as to how you got here. The world you live in only works if some people make themselves smaller. All sorts of messaging and pressures are passed along in media and movies and songs and in “everybody knows”. Your mistake was to listen to any of it unquestioning. All you know for certain is your own experience. Everything else you hear, you must evaluate before taking to heart. Yes, even this.

In some ways, the world I lived in was easier. We didn’t pretend to be equal. We told our children that God ordained a place for everyone. As a woman, my place was to be mild and meek. As a bastard, my place was to be grateful for what I could get. For all my stepmother’s education, it wasn’t until I married that I truly questioned that idea.

My husband was a nice man, wealthy enough and noble enough for any bastard to be grateful. And he was an idiot. Without me, we never would’ve gotten Forli. If he’d listened to me, we would’ve gotten so much more. And he couldn’t even hold the lordship of Forli. He left himself open to the most inconveniently timed assassination.

His assassins held me captive while they attempted to secure the Forli fortress that was resisting them. They, like everyone else who had dismissed and underestimated me, expected me to be a silent prisoner. I used their mistaken belief against them. I got them to send me as ambassador, then sent my defiance once my hold was secure.

I encourage you to try the same approach. You do not have to change the mind of the entire world, nor limit your dealings only to those who realize that women are their equals. You do not need to narrow your ambitions or prospects based on what others think of you. You do, however, need to fight vigilantly against all attempts to narrow your vision of yourself.

You need to build an impregnable fortress in your mind. Guard there your knowledge of who you are, of the value and worth that is intrinsic to you and given to you be no one else. Pace the ramparts daily. Mend every chink, every slight defect. The world will try constantly to besiege you, to make you surrender into becoming something lesser. Keep your own image of your strength intact.

Once you have that feel free to take full advantage of anyone who underestimates you. Their limited vision is not yours to fix or manage. I wore the name “Tiger of Forli” with pride. So too should you take any sign of those around you feeling threatened and wear it as a badge of pride.

The world will not reward you for being small. Your only option is to make your reach as vast as your ambition.

Caterina Sforza

About Caterina Sforza

Born in Milan in 1463 to the Duke of Milan and his mistress, Lucrezia Landriani. Died of pneumonia on 28 May, 1509 in Florence. Though born an illegitimate daughter in a society that valued neither, Caterina went on to wield significant political and military power in the Italian Renaissance through sheer force of will. She ruled Imola and Forli, which she had gotten possession of by navigating the treacherous and militaristic papal politics. Her life swung her from triumphant ruler to prisoner more than once; near the end of her life she said, “If I could write everything that happened, I would shock the world.”

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