“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” – Oscar Wilde
I’ve always been one to question the status quo and go my own way. This modus operandi butted up against my parents ideas about work. For them, work was a means to make a living; work was not something you did because it was the expression of a vision burning deep within you. Nor was it necessarily something you loved or felt strongly about.
For instance, my father had always wanted to be a history teacher, but he ended up following in his own father’s footsteps as a sales manager in the heavy equipment industry versus following his passions. My mother was given a sewing machine as a high school graduation gift from her parents. There was a cookie cutter tradition of work and role provided to both of them.
But I couldn’t do that. I’m not one for hand-me-downs; I’m not an “if the shoe fits, wear it” kind of person. If the shoe is not comfortable, if it doesn’t look good, if I don’t need it, if it’s not me, and if it doesn’t feel good, I’m sure as hell not going to wear it. So when I thought about the intersection point where the fire in my heart meets a means to make a living, I wasn’t stoked with the prepackaged options laid out for me. I knew there had to be a better way than what my parents did. And, I surely wasn’t about to cram myself into a workforce opportunity that had no room for me.
I can remember sitting in the career counselor’s office as a freshman undergraduate. She had just asked me that most amazing self-reflective prompt: what do you want to do in life? My face lit up.“I want to create a space for people to self-actualize,” I replied. “I want to see people connect to their truest selves and do their work in the world.”
The career counselor looked at me blankly from across her desk. “That’s all well and good,” she replied. “But you can’t be a philosopher on a log.” (Note: this was clearly waaay before blogging.)
I looked at her across her desk and felt my heart sink at her pragmatic response. I felt like she was channeling my parent’s concerns for my economic well-being rather than helping me find that place where my gifts meet the world’s needs and I could do good work. And, I felt like they all were sorely limited in what was possible. Apparently, it was too out of the box. It didn’t fit anything listed on the MBTI assessment or anything mapped to the course catalog at my university. I felt like an anomaly, an outlier on the traditional scale of normalcy. Did I have to ignore the burning vision in my heart in order to make a living?
Insert Albert Einstein: “Great spirits have always encountered opposition from mediocre minds. The mediocre mind is incapable of understanding the man who refuses to bow blindly to conventional prejudices and chooses instead to express his opinions courageously and honestly.”
I couldn’t fathom fitting into business-as-usual the way some people, like my parents, could. Just thinking about it made me itch. (Actually, it made my soul cry.) It felt like a denial of my authentic self. I never lost that fire or who I was along the way, no matter what role I found myself in. Yet, I knew that work did not have to destroy us, in a soul crushing sense.
Seventeen years later, I’m doing just what I recited in my undergraduate career counselor’s office. It’s remarkable to look back and see how my path to here, while not a direct trajectory, was not sacrificing the fierce resolve in my heart for what I knew I was here to do. I was guided along the way by an inner congruency, an integrity between values and actions, and an alignment of my purpose and my work in the world.
That’s the importance of being authentic. Each authentic moment builds upon the next and weaves the tapestry that becomes your life’s work. If you’re like me, setting out on your own path meant meeting opposing opinions from others, including family and friends. It meant second guessing yourself, and maybe wanting to turn back to what was acceptable. And yet the choice to keep moving according to your own inner compass is to not remain small in order to find belonging.
I think of the lines from David Whyte’s poem, Self Portrait:
I want to know
if you are prepared to live in the world
with its harsh need
to change you. If you can look back
with firm eyes
saying this is where I stand. I want to know
if you know
how to melt into that fierce heat of living
the center of your longing.
It’s a fierce act to be you through it all. E. E. Cummings says it best: “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
I feel like I’ve been fighting to be myself for much of my life, called stubborn and selfish for knowing what I wanted without compromising, and fighting from slipping into the edge of complacency that would stop me from growing towards that dream that won’t leave me alone. I’ve also been able to recognize when something didn’t fit right and trust my discernment. I don’t know if I ever gave myself permission to do something different, rather I had a fierce commitment in me from the get go to live my life in the way that felt right to me. Like our podcast guests in this episode, investors Bryce Roberts and Chris Marks, I would not be comfortable in the metaphorical equivalent of the standard ‘blue shirt and khakis’ that cloaked an industry.
We can’t evolve beyond traditional models by pretending to be someone we’re not. There are many ways to be an entrepreneur, just as there are many ways to be an artist. The number one commandment should be: Thou Shalt Never Wear Someone Else’s Suit. A corollary to that may be to think beyond ‘the unicorn costume’ when it comes to your company.
In your own work, what are your values? What are your priorities? Why are you really doing what you do?
“Re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body,” wrote Walt Whitman.
The existential pain of being so disconnected from who you really are takes it’s toll. When you attempt to wear a different suit, one that fits, you can be much more yourself. That alignment has a sense of freedom to it.
I just read these words from my favorite astrologer-author Rob Breszny earlier today, and I thought about this post: “When I say, “Be yourself,” I mean the rebel creator who’s longing to make the whole universe your home and sanctuary.” He’s not talking about wearing anyone else’s outfits. He’s talking about creating the conditions for you to be yourself and to create what feels right to you. The more you embrace yourself, the more it will reflect in your work. And in so doing, you may find a wholly different kind of belonging.
The greatest explorers had no maps. There is an inner compass that orients us as we blaze new ground. That compass is yours and yours alone. It’s programmed to lead you to what you want most. Akin to intuition, it’s connected to the unsquelchable voice in your heart that knows what you are here on this planet to do.