For many it begins the moment Mom or Dad first releases our hands, eyes shining as we step into the strange and often unfamiliar surroundings of pre-school. Walking reluctantly away, this trickle of self-doubt may swell into a flood of uncertainty. Will I get along with others? Will I be met with kindness and warmth? Will I be accepted?
Will I fit in?
Some of us may have paused, eyebrows raised in concern and hesitation, looking back over our shoulders toward an equally reluctant parent, seeking that final little push that says:
Go on. It’s going to be okay.
And for most of us, it is just that – okay. Between victories and failures, years pass and we may still hear that quiet voice whispering its questions from a place we try not to visit. On some conscious level we wish we didn’t care so much about acceptance, about fitting in. Our hope is that individuality is rewarded and others see us for who we really are, not some cookie cutter projection of a certain sex, shape or complexion. And to stand out in some unique or distinguishing way we rebel against the so-called norm because it feels good – hell, it feels great! – and it works, albeit for a little while. But the paradox is always present… we want to be treated the same yet we often yearn to be different.
Eventually we find ourselves at the doorstep of our careers, assessing and being assessed, attempting to apply what little information we can gleam to determine if this organization is the place we belong. If these are the people we want to surround ourselves with. If this is the best use of our education, our skills, our energy and our time. And if we want to earn the trust and confidence of those in power, we desperately want to fit in and meet all their spoken and unspoken expectations.
It’s only later that we might realize that fitting in may be more than we had bargained for. And then the tradeoffs and rationalizations begin.
So what choices do you have as you balance earning a living against your desire to be you – the real you – in a work environment that both rewards and expects unquestioning conformity? For many, a double life is a real and pragmatic approach, the “work you” showing up when you’re expected to show up, expressing the right emotions for each situation you face and participating in a process that you truly believe (hope?) was borne less of design and more of necessity. But outside of the office? You’re the genuine article, the one who has untapped talents, passions and possibilities, the one who wishes there was some way of earning a paycheck for what truly sustains you.
But a double life can be exhausting. Employers are creeping more and more into your personal life, tethering you to always-on devices whose Pavlovian beeps and buzzes immediately return us to the trancelike state of work. The work you. The fitting in you. The one that earns the paycheck that provides food, and childcare, and vacations and a million other ways of incentivizing conformity. And we do it because everyone does it, and to not do it is irresponsible, childish and self-destructive. So we are told.
So you suppress the real you, push it down somewhere deep and tell it to stop bothering you with its ridiculous hopes and dreams. And one day, you forget the difference between the two “you”s, that this other you even existed.
I’ve spent my entire career watching the bright light of ideation, creativity and individuality be largely snuffed out by the machinery of the organizations we tirelessly serve. Instead of handing out performance reviews rewarding you for doing exactly what you were hired to do, let’s pass out two matches – one to burn the handbook that tells us that what’s expected is to be applauded and a second to spark true and sustainable change.
Take my hand as we walk into strange and unfamiliar surroundings of rewarding and promoting individuality in the workplace. And when your organizations pause, eyebrows raised in concern and hesitation, looking back over their shoulders with reticence, seeking that final little push, we can say:
Go on. It’s going to be okay.