When I was in my twenties I was full of courage and confidence. The confidence was often blind and perhaps at times ignorant, because I had limited life experiences to compare things to. Fearless and unafraid of consequences, I did what I wanted.
When I finished college and moved to France, it was a short-term vision. I wanted to live in another country and learn another language, so I did it. I didn’t overthink it; I just went. Most of my actions in my twenties were like that. I rarely thought about the long-term, in part because back then three months seemed like a long time.
Armed with an art degree and absolutely no job prospects – in fact, no one I knew who graduated from college at that time had anything lined up; times were tight – so we traveled.
My friends and I had a ferocious sense of adventure. We wanted to travel and explore the world with a backpack. We weren’t thinking about careers, 401Ks, home ownership or starting families. We wanted to taste new foods, learn about new cultures and party with foreigners. Waking up in a strange city was exhilarating.
Fortunately, I landed a job that enabled me to travel for months at a time throughout my twenties. Like most things then, it wasn’t planned that way. The first time I suggested to my boss I was interested in taking a few months off to travel, she was surprisingly enthusiastic and said she’d hope I’d keep working for them when I returned. Additionally, she encouraged me to “swing by” France so I could work from the Paris office for a few weeks during my travels. And it continued like that for years.
I don’t know if it was the limited access to information we had then – no cell phones or internet – that enabled me to so easily get up and go without heading down a rabbit hole of fearful analysis, or just the fact that I was young and thought I knew everything. Probably a little of both.
Somewhere along the line that changed. I went from confident and driven, to still driven, but with a healthy dose of apprehension. The confidence factor was eroding. As I got older and my world got wider, the ability to compare myself to others expanded.
Instead of the over-confident f**k-you attitude of my youth, I began to care a lot about what other people thought of me. It was more than just wanting to make a good first impression – it went way beyond that to the point of hindering self-expression. I began to conform to others’ standards, to the social norms. The expectations I had for myself began to shift to the expectations of others.
The subtle pressure of corporate conformity
At some point I had traded in my ambition of being an artist or designer, to climbing the corporate ladder. There was something infectious about working in a corporate environment and I mean that in a good way. Surrounded by highly intelligent people, being privy to confidential business information and working on challenging problems – it is exciting – but it is was also easy to let the opinions of those around me excessively influence my choices.
So many of my colleagues seemed to be cut from similar cloth – college, business school, marriage, kids, great career with a healthy paycheck, a big house and a nice car or two. Their lives were defined and there wasn’t much deviation. And I started to want that too. Being surrounded by people who make a lot of money and can buy what they want creates envy. It helps fuel that drive up the ladder. I wanted what they had.
While in my early thirties I still tried to maintain a semblance of individuality. I drove a beat up 1961 Ford Falcon, wore vintage dresses and funky heels. I tried to keep that artistic flair that was so important to me, but it was slowly slipping away. I began trading in vintage dresses for two-piece skirt suits. I bought a nearly new car and was saving for a house. I had defined career ambitions and honed my business skills from my office with sweeping views of the San Gabriel Mountains. I loved it.
I had to laugh though, because I was a late bloomer. I was starting this in my thirties when most of my colleagues had gone straight from business school to corporate.
I think my assumption that I was behind in the growth curve from a career perspective played a big role in the development of my anxiety and self-doubt. While I am a firm believer that businesses benefit from hiring employees who are not all coming from similar backgrounds and experiences, there remains a lot of catching up to do when it comes to inclusion and convincing folks of its validity.
As a recruiter, I’ve had plenty of hiring teams insist that someone come from a top tier school, have an advanced degree and have worked at a name brand company. Just like they did. People are uncomfortable with change and uncomfortable with those who differ from themselves.
So I began to conform.
While I still had a few juicy dark secrets, my exterior was like everyone else’s. I believe people just learn to play the game, whether or not they feel they are being their genuine selves.
Don’t fake it ’til you make it…you’ll forget who you are
The “fake it ‘til you make it” aphorism rings loud and clear in corporate America. The problem with faking it is that you are not getting to the truth. And if everyone is faking it, than what the hell is real?
Don’t fake confidence, develop it. Don’t pretend you know something, ask good questions to understand and learn. And don’t judge people negatively because they aren’t just like you.
Easier said than done.
Adhering to the expectations of others increased as I moved into my forties. Self-inflicted or not, it felt real. I liked to think of it as having high integrity – I am conscientious, thoughtful and care about how my actions affect others. However, that integrity and caring so much about how I was perceived made it difficult to take risks or break away the herd. And when I would break away from the herd, say at work, and raise an opinion that was contradictory from the rest of the group I was labeled “inflexible.” Back to the herd.
But I didn’t want to be in the herd any longer. I wanted to break away and take a detour. I wanted to learn how to get my voice back and feel confident about making decisions that may not align to the rest of the group. So what if my opinion is different and my approach may not be exactly like yours? Isn’t that what most people are striving for – to be unique individuals?
You may find that breaking away from the corporate herd can make others uncomfortable. Not working raises eyebrows. You may be peppered with questions such as: “What are you going to do?” “When are you going back to work?” and “What’s your plan?” Most questions were around how and when I was getting back into the work force. Rarely did people ask me how I was enjoying my time off and how I was filling my days.
At one point about 10 months into my detour, I responded to the above “What are you going to do?” question with, “I’m doing it.”