Guest Post by Lexi B
There is a mold that many young professionals feel they need to mimic in order to be successful in their profession. While this mold can be different for each person, we all have imagined what a leader should look and act like.
I was no different at 22 years old when I start my first real job. It was six weeks after my college graduation and I imagined finding a successful woman with a great fashion sense and a plethora of glorified degrees on her wall to be my next mentor. She walked gracefully, spoke with class, and created an illusion of the perfect life. As my mind concocted this mystery woman, I made it my mission to find the corporate world version of Beyoncé who would take me under her guidance. I never found her. The more I searched the more frustrated and alone I felt in my work environment. To make matters worse, I realized that I was nothing like my mold.
I was defensive and determined to win every small battle instead of focusing on winning the war. I was a quick learner with a quick fuse. I could actually go from 0-60 in a matter of minutes, especially if I knew I was right. When I would hit about 20, I would gracefully walk to my car and call my mom as she would calm me down from the temperamental ledge that I was about to jump off of. It also didn’t help that I was the youngest person on my team; therefore, connecting with other co-workers was nearly impossible. At lunch they would discuss ballet classes and little league car pool schedules. Leotards and baseball cleats had nothing to do with my bridesmaid preparations and dinner party planning. Due to this awkward disposition with age, race, and gender I started to lash out. It was never the goal to be this angry and emotional team member who didn’t recognize her reflection in the mirror. I just transformed into this depressed monster who didn’t know how to appropriately express my pain.
As my behavior and emotions became a negative spiral of misunderstandings, doubt, and lack of confidence in myself, someone came to rescue me. This person, a woman of color who sat down the hall from my office, noticed my potential and my constant fighting with my emotions. She took me as her mentee and became my weekly therapist about work and personal issues. More importantly, she helped to build my confidence and my drive. She was my Sasha Fierce. She had a great wardrobe and a “tell it like it is attitude”. She was quick to applaud me and even quicker to symbolically grab my collar and sit me down.
I learned a huge lesson during my healing phase with her. I was too busy trying to fit a mold I could not obtain because that was not the authentic me. I performed behaviors that I assumed people wanted to see instead of giving them my true personality.
After identifying this issue, I transformed completely. I went to all male project meetings and discussed my passion for shoe purchasing and hair doing instead of waiting for the UFC fight analysis to end. I listened intently to mothers discuss their toddler‘s potty training problems and gave them my interpretation of my new puppy’s resistance to eating at night. I just allowed myself to be proud of me, despite the fact that I was the only twenty-something single, black female thinker at the table. Just like everyone else expected me to patiently understand their lifestyle, I encouraged them to understand mine.
I realized that most people do not have malicious intent when they same something offensive. They just don’t know any better. I used humor, awkwardness, and an “in your face” approach to have teachable moments with my colleagues. No, putting your hands in my curly hair is not appropriate. But asking me about my hair is completely OK. Better yet, I prefer you to. I would rather talk about my hair products than this PowerPoint presentation anyway.
Staying true to yourself is one of the hardest things you will experience in the work environment, especially as a minority and/or female. It has been almost programmed in us to leave the authenticity at the door and code switch to the black suit work circumstances in which we lead. But if you don’t like the person that you become between 9-5pm, why would you assume that others will enjoy this person?
Learn from my mistake (a mistake that could have cost me my job) and make sure to tailor your personality to the job and not the other way around. Throw away your imaginary molds and just be your best self. As cliché as it sounds, learn to be a better, stronger, smarter you instead of working so hard to be someone else.
So ladies, wear your heels or chucks, zip up your suit or your jeans, pop your curls, straighten your locks, or have your weave laid. Just do you and always work on outdoing yourself every day. Everything else will come into place. When you are comfortable with your awesomeness and what you bring to your professional community everyone else will not only adjust but applaud it.
Alexandria Noel Butler, affectionately known as Lexi B, is St. Louis, Missouri raised and San Francisco Bay Area remixed. After graduating from Stanford University in 2011, she began working in the Silicon Valley. While working, Lexi B developed a passion for the young professional experience and created the Grown Up Truth to discuss the twentysomething experience. To receive daily updates about Lexi’s adventures, follow her on twitter and Instagram.