Recently, I spoke to an executive coach who says she works with executives for years before many can finally accept who they are – and let themselves be themselves.
I tried to find a really good quote for this – and there were so many on being yourself, yet none fit what I’d like to discuss. This one by Political Animals comes close: “It’s like you put on this expensive tailored suit and everybody tells you how great you look in it, but it doesn’t fit quite right unless you stand perfectly still.”
Frankly, I struggle with this concept. Not that I struggle to be me, but that being me is acceptable to those around me. As an attorney, a certain amount of presence is expected. And of course, I am a woman working in a male-created field – and one that largely remains male-dominated.
The picture below (from the Association of Corporate Counsel annual meeting, Health Law Committee wins small committee of the year) is a visual of what I struggle with.
Do I not fit in … or … do I stand out? Which one of these is least like the others?
I truly struggle with this. I have worked with and do work with amazing professionals – professionals that while I may try to emulate some traits that I admire, I don’t feel that we mesh. Don’t get me wrong, I also have worked with and do work with professionals that mesh very well. scarily well.
When I am comfortable, I have no trouble expressing my opinions on a matter. Have I mentioned that I am ADD? So I am hyper, my logic takes a different path, and I speak with passion, sometimes eloquently, sometimes not so much. I usually wind up apologizing for being me.
Why do I feel I need to apologize? Is this a me thing? Is it a woman thing? Is it an awkward geek thing? Is it a manifestation of my disabilities (which are systemic and do impact affect, emotional lability, and expressiveness)?
Typically, when I feel that I have said something in a meeting that I should explain more or apologize for, I draw on advice that I received in the State Bar of Arizona’s Bar Leadership Institute: Man Up. To be fair, they did not say it that way. But I learned a lot about differences between the genders. In general, women tend to worry about what they may have said – and agonize, apologize, follow up, bring it up again, etc. (anyone relating to this?). Men don’t. By bringing it up repeatedly, following up to apologize, women actually make it an issue that others then do remember – whereas generally, they likely never noticed it. Please keep in mind that these are generalities and may not apply to every situation.
On the other hand, a female professional I once worked with – on a restroom break during a meeting where we were the only two females in a group of about 20 people – this woman made the comment that the two of us had bigger balls than anyone in the room. Pardon my crassness.
Am I too feminine at some times – yet too assertive at others?
Do men even worry about these things – not the being too feminine part, but how to strike the right note professionally?
Is the real problem one I mentioned earlier? The legal field was built by men. All the expectations on behavior, dress, attitude, work-life balance, etc. were all defined by men. Women, to enter the field, adopted those expectations – wearing black, navy, gray, and brown – working long hours – and in some part, distancing themselves from the idea of femininity (which is not to say these colors are not feminine, just look at the picture above, the other two women are gorgeous and feminine and wearing traditional legal colors). A female professional I know – in the generation before me – wears a tuxedo to black tie events rather than a dress. I think it’s cool. But I wonder if that desire was formed because she developed professionally in a field that is decidedly unfeminine.
Me. Well, I wear purple cowboy boots to work. And ones with peacock feathers. I love pink. and lace. and frills. I laugh too loud and talk with my hands. And my work accepts it. I am hyper, scattered, ADD, some OCD, and frankly, way too freaking perky for anyone’s good. And yet I worry. I worry if I am accepted and RESPECTED for who I am. I am highly intelligent but not scholarly. I am well-educated but not an academic. I am ambitious but won’t sacrifice my family. I am emotional but not vindictive. I am outspoken but not mean. I am honest to a fault but I do love playing with words. I cannot abide stupidity (unless it is truly a case of low IQ and the inability to learn) or people who do not deserve respect (no exceptions on that one). I am passionate and creative. I am not demure or understated.
So can you be yourself at work? I say yes in most cases. It won’t come without some cost. If you are a psychotic killer, I’d say no. Please don’t be yourself. But in general, the average person should know who they are and not be willing to sacrifice him or herself for the job. You might worry if you strike the wrong note, but hiding your personality where you spend a large part of your waking hours does not serve you well in the long run. In the end, unless there are significant drivers to the contrary, I recommend finding somewhere you can be you. You will be a better professional and perhaps feel like a better person.
There may be some compromises, but they should not compromise your foundation as a person. For example, just because you love 80s rock does not mean wearing Metallica t-shirts and ripped jeans to court is acceptable for an attorney. But if your personality truly demands that freedom and it impacts who you are as a person, choose a career avenue that suits you better (pardon the pun).