It was a Saturday morning and my first official networking event as a real ladyboss. I finally had my business cards, and I could actually look people in the eye and not stumble over “I’m a coach.”
I walked into a sunny room in an old brick building of DTLA, and took a deep breath. It took me one look around to realize: “Uh-oh. These are not my people.”
To begin with, everyone was an extremely professional 20-something in tailored suits and dresses. Not just business casual-full on suits. I was sporting my best messy bun in a floral print dress I had recently liberated from the thrift store. Their name tags bore things like, “Jessica, Chief ROI Officer” and “Mindy, Director of Deliverables.” I was in trouble.
“Okay!” the leader called out. “Time for our first getting-to-know-you-challenge! Turn to the person next to you and share what motivates you at work!”
Mindy: (turning her perfect smile on me) So, what motivates you, Amy?
Me: Well, for me, I’m kind of obsessed with understanding things…people, events, how things came to be, how things connect. I’m totally thirsty for knowledge, but not just surface stuff, the underneath, the iceberg stuff, too, yeah, so I’d say the quest for meaning and understanding motivates me, but then again, I am a Ravenclaw, so…(laughing nervously)
Mindy: (Still smiling, but also blinking a lot)
Me: (smiling wider)
Mindy: What’s a Ravenclaw? (slightly cocks her head to the side in a polite demonstration of this-girl’s-a-psycho)
Me: (faltering) It’s a house in Harry Potter…they’re the one’s obsessed with knowledge and growth and understanding things, so…
Mindy: (like the kiss of death) How sweet.
Yikes. Mercifully, we were soon called to take our seats, and I could sit in my embarrassment alone while pretending to pay attention to the program. I was completely mortified, and my inner critic let loose a stream of insults on why I was so awkward, weird, unpolished, and ridiculous for thinking I could possibly fit in with these women who had it all figured out. I had taken a chance on being real, and it blew up in my face.
As I sat there, face burning, I realized: Mindy wasn’t going to hire me anyway. And that was okay. In fact, Mindy is the exact opposite of the person I want to work with. The clients I’m most excited about working with are precisely the ones who crack awkward jokes about Harry Potter and don’t have everything perfectly together. My perfect clients aren’t perfect. They’re real, and that’s better.
I had been so focused on getting these random strangers to like me that I hadn’t paused to consider whether I liked them.
As soon I heard crickets with my Ravenclaw reference, I was ready to trade my authenticity for what I assumed they wanted to hear, and that's not the way to win at work. Like most people, the first year of my business was a hot mess. When we change jobs, start businesses, or launch creative projects, the inner monologue jumps straight to “how I am I going to convince people to like me/hire me/buy my stuff?” It’s completely natural to default to “how the heck do I make this work?" especially when something is new, but seeking approval without grounding your mission in what's real is going to send the job hunt/client search/creative project veering off course fast.
Yes, there is a time and place for taking a job or project you don’t love in order to pay the bills, but if you want to create with impact, something more is required of you throughout the process: authenticity.
Why is authenticity so important...even in your day job?
Not to get too dramatic, but we are entering a new era of human consciousness. Humanity has grown tremendously over the last hundred years or so, and we’re experiencing some growing pains. We’re entering a time that requires creative leadership, feminine leadership, and mission-centered work. It may be the big, sexy work that people recognize like building schools in Africa, or it may be the quieter work of taking off your good girl shoes in favor of what’s really important to you.
When you make authentic choices in your career, you act as a shining beacon for the other weirdos to find you.
You attract your people and give them permission to be their weird, creative, world-changing selves, too. It’s vulnerable, but your example of authenticity might be the thing that gives someone else the courage to be in their truth, too.
How does this work at work?
Nothing tanks my authenticity intentions like the absence of money. It’s easy to say “be yourself,” but what if you need to be someone else in order to keep your job or business?
Easy: get out of that job or business. Maybe you can’t throw up your hands and quit tomorrow, but you can start looking for a job or building a business that does align more closely with your authentic self. The easiest way to do this on the job hunt or client hunt is to shift your focus from “I hope they like me” to “I hope we like each other” or “I hope we're a good mutual fit.”
We are conditioned to show up to interviews hoping to make a good impression and say the right things, but what if you stuff down your true self, say all the things you think your interviewer wants to hear, and then actually get the job?
Because you weren’t yourself in the interview, they’ll be expecting this false self to show up on the first day, and then you’ll be stuck. Can you imagine how miserable I would have been if I had actually worked with Mindy? How draining would it be to pretend to be someone else just to keep her as a client?
But what if being myself backfires?
Yup. This can happen. The cost of being real is that some people might not like you. They might think you are weird for referencing Harry Potter at a networking event, and they might think your thrift store dress is sad. You might have to sit with some uncomfortable feelings. You will survive this.
I hate being judged and rejected. Who doesn’t? If being authentic feels terrifying, don't jump in the deep end yet. Try being real in safe spaces where you know the chance of being judged or rejected is relatively low. You don’t have to control the outcome-simply throw a line out and see if you catch anything. You may hear crickets, but you may find someone who says, “OMG! I’m a Ravenclaw, too, let’s be best friends.” Polarizing yourself this way can feel risky, but it allows you find opportunities, clients, customers, bosses, and people you actually want to interact with.
Okay, I get it. Being real will help me be more fulfilled in my career and life. But how do I up my authenticity game? I’m glad you asked.
Some simple practices for flexing your authenticity muscles:
1. Start voicing preferences.
This was a tough one for me, but my life changed when I stopped automatically agreeing with things and actually checked in with what I wanted. I had a client recently tell me that when she and her fiancé are deciding where to go for dinner, he asks where she wants to go, and she automatically responds, “Oh, wherever. You pick.” And sometimes, when he picks, she doesn’t really like the cuisine he chooses. People-pleasing is a huge pattern of hers, so I asked her what would happen if she checked in with her stomach and responded with her real preference. “Probably nothing terrible,” she said. “My fiancé is pretty easygoing.” She wasn't actually afraid he’d reject her suggestion-she was just in the habit of letting other people choose.
Genuinely wanting to make someone else happy is a pattern of most caring women, myself included, but when we do it unconsciously, we give our authentic power away.
Rather than automatically agreeing or attempting to predict what someone else wants to hear, take a moment to stop and consider what is actually true and what you actually want. Voice it in a small way and see what happens.
2. Acknowledge your armor.
Hiding our authentic selves is all about avoiding the rejection of crickets when we crack weird Harry Potter jokes, so it makes perfect sense that we suit up in armor to protect our authenticity from getting judged, criticized, and hurt.
For example, I have a “cool girl” kimono that I often wear the first time I meet someone. It’s long, flowy, and colorful, and it definitely gives off an artsy, hipster vibe.
In addition to genuinely loving the kimono, I realized that I tend wear it on first meetings because I’m insecure about being a nerd, so I put on my “cool girl” armor in situations where I feel unsure of myself. I guess I think that if I project a “cool girl” image, I can control others’ opinions of me and make them like me.
This is an impossible feat, and being hung up on controlling others' perceptions of me kills any openings for connection we might have, and authentic connection is one of my core values as a person. What “armor” do you put on to influence how others see you?
3. Stand up for your realness.
There has to be at least one person at work you can really be yourself around. If something happens at work that makes you roll your eyes, try rolling your eyes in their direction and see what happens. With clients, crack a joke or make a reference instead of internally editing yourself and see if they’re into it.
You can’t build authentic connection with anyone if you’re not standing up for who you actually are.
I can remember reading a risky poem in a writers’ group I was in many years ago. It was definitely not something that most people would “get,” but I chose to share it anyway. Several of the people in the group gave me the side eye, but a girl named Amanda walked up to me afterward and said, “I really identify with what you shared in your poem. I loved it.” To this day, she is one of my closest friends, and I never would have bonded with her without testing the waters to see who my people were. It felt really vulnerable to share a piece of myself, but I’d take all the side eye in world to find my truest people and my truest path.