And Why It Always Pays Off
Imagine a world where every single person is the same. We all dress the same. Not similar, but the exact same outfits. We all hold the same values; we all vote for the same political party. Our houses are one style and we all drive one type of vehicle. The food for breakfast, lunch and dinner is one shared menu. You get the picture.
This sounds like an incredibly peaceful world. After all, there’s nothing to fight about when the values are the same and the resources are split evenly. But, it would also be incredibly boring. There would be no stories to tell or wisdom to gain if we all had the same experiences.
Thankfully this isn’t the case for us. We have the ability to choose our appearance, our careers, and our goals. The opportunities to leave our unique fingerprint on this world are endless.
But even still, that fantasy of sameness
traps us. Consider all of the molds we’ve held up as the gold standard. We’re all too familiar with the high school to college to career success pathway. But how did that work out? Many are saddled with debt and a degree that didn’t produce enough ROI.
Let’s take it to the dress code. The pandemic taught us that we can work just as well without those stiff suits and blazers we were told make us professionals.
And not long ago a woman in the C-Suite was unthinkable, with less than 1% of CEOs being women in Fortune 500 companies until 2002.
We all believe these molds are the way to be, until we’re shown otherwise. Molds are made for manufacturing, not for people. We cannot stuff two different humans into the same mold, expect them each to fill in the gaps the exact same, and exit ready to execute at top performance levels. That is because they are individuals, who’s unique experiences have informed their singular viewpoint on the world.
But those same molds are still so seductive to us. Believe me when I say that if there was one guaranteed mold to get me to the top of my career, you can bet I’d expend all my energy trying to fit perfectly into it. There’d be no space left for who I am and no leftover energy to explore new ideas.
We have been falsely led to believe squeezing into a mold, leaving behind the parts of us that are distinctively ‘us’, will be our hack to reach the top of the mountain faster. But we’re missing one key detail in that story:
From far away they may look the same, but no two mountains are exact replicas. Therefore the paths to the top cannot be either. There may be similar obstacles and both will require tremendous effort, but the switchbacks and climb just won’t be.
Focusing our energy and effort to conform to one mold or trekking up somebody’s else mountain will only leave us exhausted, unsatisfied, and farther away from who we really, truly, and freely are. There is only one person you can be in this life – and that’s you.
It may seem like the more risky path to take that first step up your own mountain, but in reality you’ll be saving the time it would take to climb back down someone else’s mountain only after discovering that it wasn’t the summit you had hoped for. After all, it was never yours to begin with.
Stepping out into the world as you, with all your quirks, opinions, and values, will always be the better bet to place. Even when you’re rejected and don’t fit in with a certain group, you’ll have learned more about yourself, about them, and that space faster than if you had entered in as some fake version of yourself designed only to be liked by others, but never truly known.
When I first started going to networking events, all I wanted to do was fit in. I felt so uncomfortable walking into a room full of “business professionals.” I thought the smart blazer, fresh manicure, and perfectly styled hair would give me that sense of belonging, but all it did was make me feel even less like myself. I left each one feeling drained and letting out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. How could I really belong if I’d abandoned myself long before stepping into those rooms?
I realized I had two choices in front of me: stop attending the events or start showing up as myself. The second was my preferred option, but I wasn’t convinced it was possible. I needed to test it, beginning in little ways. The nails were the first to go. Not one person made mention of it. Next was the blazer. It must have weighed a hundred pounds for how much freer I was without it.
Then I revealed a truth about myself I had been desperately hoping to keep hidden.
In an attempt at polite conversation, a kind woman seated next to me asked the question I dreaded most. “So what’s your alma mater?” Unbeknownst to her, she had just given me the most difficult challenge yet in my attempt to show up as fully myself.
You see, I was a straight A student my entire life. A path to college was clear and I was ready. Until I got there. I wasn’t prepared for such a rapid adjustment and I had no clue what I wanted to do. Imagining all the debt I’d accumulate was the icing on the cake and I dropped out. There is no traditional alma mater for me and so I was faced with a dilemma:
Do I tell this kind woman a small white lie in order to protect a false image of myself? After all, I technically did go to WMU, but only for one semester. I have no degree with my name on it.
Or do I step a little bit more into myself and own my story?
I took a breath and chose the latter, “I actually didn’t go to college.”
To my surprise, she didn’t look at me in horror and promptly move far away from me. In fact she did the opposite, smiling and asking more questions about my journey. That one small risk to be more myself led to a deeper, richer conversation than I’d had all year. We went far beyond the surface level business chit chat to her sharing about her children and her hopes for them. I left that conversation feeling lighter and more committed to being myself.
The more barriers I cast aside with each new interaction, the more I was able to actually connect with the person across from me. People shared their passions with me, their fears, and how the day was actually going. We’ve developed relationships that go far beyond two suits talking at each other. There’s genuine care for each other as human beings. That is the basis of a real community making progress together.
The challenge to continually be and show up as myself remains as I learn and grow. Each day and experience presents me with the dilemma: do I conform to the mold or do I chart my own path? Each time it gets a bit easier to choose to be me because I know that more freedom awaits on the other side. Freedom that’s not just for me, but for everyone else too. And that is a risk I’m willing to take every single time.