I’ll never forget my first business card.
I’d just started my first "real" job out of college and was asked to complete a purchase order for business cards and the company database. Despite the fact that no-one ever called me Margaret, I listed it as my first name. I somehow thought that Margaret sounded more… important… more professional… more Thatcher-like.
It took about two weeks before I was correcting every person I encountered. “Oh no, just call me Margie,” I’d insist, “Margaret is my real name, but it’s not really ‘me."
I laugh now of course. But that was me at 22 - eager to impress and yet to realize that the people who impress most are those who try least.
It’s a lesson I’ve had to learn various times since. That it’s not only "OK" to be myself, but that I’m actually sabotaging my own success when I try to be anyone else.
Of course we’ve all seen the slogans.
“Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”
Yet why is it that so many of us struggle to simply be ourselves; to lower our masks - to prove, protect and impress – and to own our, complete with all that we are and all we’re not?
At the very heart of it lies fear; fear of not being "enough" as we are and finding ourselves left out of the pack. A relic of our cave dwelling days when being shunned from the tribe was a death sentence, we all carry around with us a deep fear of being unwanted, unvalued, unimportant, or unloved. It all goes back to our cave-dwelling days.
It is because our desire to belong, to be liked, to be admired and to avoid losing face is hardwired into our psychological DNA. It's why expressing ourselves authentically and becoming all of who we truly are – complete with our fears, failings and foibles - is the work of a lifetime.
Of course I’d be lying if I told you I never gave a care about what people thought of me. I do. In fact, I have a long way to go to be free of the urge to compulsively check how many people have liked my posts on Facebook or retweeted my tweets. (And I'm very grateful you're reading this now!) However I’ve also learnt from wrestling with fear countless times (I’m getting better at winning!) that simply acknowledging our hesitance to let down our guard and reveal ourselves is, in itself, a brave step toward emancipation.
We all yearn for connection. Yet the irony is that we forge the strongest bonds when we let go trying to impress those we seek to connect with. It's the times we have the courage to confide our disappointments, hurts, heartaches and miss-steps (alas, we all make them) that we open the door to deepening trust and cementing bonds. We may only want to share our happy snaps on Facebook and those bits of our lives that make us look good and like we've got it all together. Yet in our increasingly shallow sound-byte world, we connect far more deeply through our vulnerabilities than though our victories.
In a world that pressures for conformity, finding the courage to be fully ourselves – owning every aspect of our past, personality and imperfections - is one of the most difficult, frightening and liberating things we can ever do. Fear of losing our ‘public identity’ can imprison us. Yet our willingness step away from who we think we are supposed to be and to lay our pride and vulnerability on the line for the sake more important things is essential to our success in leadership and life. I'm not talking about wearing your insecurities on your sleeve or bearing your soul to the world. I'm just talking about not letting your fear of losing face sit at the drivers seat of your life. Too often it does.
So let me ask you a question:
If you decided to let go the need to prove your worth or protect your image, how would it liberate you to make a change or take a chance toward what you want most for yourself - in your relationships, career, leadership, and life?
John F. Kennedy once said, “Conformity is that jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.” This isn’t about being a non-conformist for the sake of it or to prove what a wild renegade you are! That is no more brave than obedient compliance. It’s about owning the difference your difference makes rather than spending your life trying to morph yourself into whatever flavor of "same" and "special" you think will gain the most glory, build the biggest brand or minimize the chance of criticism. After all, when all you do is try to conform, all you offer is conformity, depriving the world of the full quota of potential, passion, personality and perspective that you have to bring.
After winning the Grammy ‘trifecta’ in 2015 (with best new song, record and artist) Sam Smith confided, “It was only when I started to be myself that the music started to flow and people started to listen.” It’s no small irony that Smith’s fear of not being liked was his biggest roadblock to becoming the star he is today.
The same is true for each of us.
Sure, we’re not all destined for music stardom, but each of us has something unique and magnificent to do in our one-and-only precious life and we can never do it while fear pilots our decisions, driving us to comply to the image of the person we think we are should to be. Sure, your personal brand is important, but if it’s incongruent with the one-of-a-kind person that you are, it’s likely you’ll never become all you have it within you to be. I mean, how can you blaze your own brightest path if you’re not bringing your bravest self along for the ride?
Yes, it takes a brave person to risk disapproval, step away from the pack, to embrace your imperfection and to own your individuality. Ah yes, that would take someone with a very big heart. But let’s be clear: it takes no bigger heart than the one that beats inside you.
The truth is that in selfie-obsessed culture that celebrates superficiality, people are hungry for those who refuse to surrender to conformity and political correctness. Whatever you think of President Trump, his ascension to the White House shows just how hungry millions of American voters were for someone who didn't vanilla down what he thought so as not to cause offence. Accordingly, it is those who have the courage to embrace their difference, to speak their truth and show up fully who make the biggest impact on those around them and grow their influence as leaders. They may not always have the following of the Kardashians or gain the power of Trump, but they have the respect of those who matter.
So how you put all of this in to practice? Daily. Hourly. One small brave decision at a time: to lower your mask, embrace your difference and, quite simply, to be yourself.
As you bring more of yourself to your work and those you encounter along the way, you’ll deepen the relationships you care about most and build news ones that open doors of opportunity that would have remained closed otherwise. Most important of all, you’ll embolden others to do the same - lower the walls they’ve built to protect and the masks they’ve worn to impress, and to bring more of themselves to how to work, live, love and lead.
Of all the wisdom ever written on the importance of being oneself, I think the best comes from the Cat in the Hat, courtesy of the beloved Dr Seuss.
“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”
Image Credit: Shutterstock
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