The impact of being yourself

Darren McCormac
May 6 · 6 min read

When I joined Barnardo’s last summer, I had a culture shock. I’d been a civil servant for over 16 years, and had definitely been institutionalised; I didn’t talk about work outside the office, I didn’t talk much about myself at work. In the departments I worked in, the culture was command and control, and it was difficult for me to build deep relationships with colleagues.

Where I work now is very different. Our director, the fab Jason Caplin, and our Head of Capability & Engagement, the amazing Sarah Carter, encourage bringing your whole self to work. We talk about what we’re doing at home with our families, we talk about what’s going on in ourselves. Bad mental health day? That’s fine, work from home. Tired? Clock off, you’re not good when your brain is tired. Buzzed from a great meeting? Amazing, tell us about it at Show The Thing!

This was… different. Empowering.

It’s not for everyone, and certainly there are degrees of openness among my colleagues, and that’s fine. It’s an inclusive policy. But I liked it; I could be myself. Not compartmentalise bits of my personality or life. I mean, below is my photo for the Who’s Who on the Induction Trello board…!

Photo: Me on the Tube. Yes, I’m wearing leather. No, it’s not like the Blue Oyster bar in Police Academy, but mostly because I can’t dance.

The photo was actually put on the board before I joined, taken from my Twitter profile. I was initially surprised, but I have never felt the desire to change it. Why would I? This is who I am. Interestingly, my colleagues have barely even mentioned it, so either they don’t read the Who’s Who or they just don’t care. I prefer to think it’s the latter.

But… it’s one less thing to think about. Not having to hide part of who I am has made me more effective at work. I’m currently working with a team new to agile and being me, warts and all, has — in my view — made it easier for the team to adjust because I’m just another human and not some agile buzzword machine.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten more comfortable in my own skin. With that, I’ve become more emotional, and less afraid to show it. To this day, I still can’t watch Pixar’s Inside Out without crying at THAT scene, and I was such a mess after watching The Imitation Game — about Alan Turing* — that I’ve not been able to watch it since. I’m at an age where I just cannot care any more about what “people” think of me, because it’s exhausting.

As the saying goes, those who matter don’t mind; those who mind don’t matter.

Perhaps this has come with maturity. But the alternative is unpalatable. I grew up in an era of “boys don’t cry” and where a man who shows emotion is seen as weak. Bollocks to that, frankly. Suppressing your emotions is unhealthy.

We men are told to suppress our emotions, that masculinity means being tough, showing no weakness. But men are significantly more likely to be alcohol-dependent or to die from drug use. Suicide is the single largest cause of death for men under 35, and 76% of all suicides are by men. And men are significantly less likely to seek help.** I’ve been there. I’ve had mental health issues emanating from work-related stress. But talking about it helped, so so much.

I’ve kept talking. And I won’t stop.

I know I’m lucky, though. I have a good network of some close friends who I can confide in, and they in me. We’ve helped each other through some very difficult times and I will be forever thankful for that. But this, unfortunately, is not common. Along with the “boys don’t cry” bullshit, we have the “men can’t be intimate friends, eww that’s gay” bullshit and it is killing us. Being yourself means allowing people in as friends and confidants. That will make you happier and more able to be yourself. Please, do it.

Photo collage: This is who I am. Leatherman, agilist, powerlifter, friend. Be who you are, be the real you, and see the difference it makes.

I’m actually encouraged to talk about my work now. This is different to when I was in the Civil Service, where thou shalt not talk. But I don’t just talk about my work; I talk about how it makes me feel. And this is important, because our work has a huge impact on who we are. It shapes who we are and how we feel. Think about the highs you get with doing a great job, and the lows you experience when something goes awry. Being able to share that, and how it makes me feel, is wonderful.

This is all part of who I am. Over the last few years I have stopped hiding parts of who I am, because I want people to get to know me, the real me, not just a part of me. This has been most apparent on Twitter. Once it was an outlet for aspects of who I am, but since last year I’ve allowed my professional interests to come through as well. I’ve started following a lot of really good folk in the UK digital arena, particularly people in the public sector, and it’s enjoyable. That they see the whole me hasn’t even entered my mind.

A few days ago, Jonathan Kerr name-checked me (and some others) in his weeknotes for role-modelling certain behaviours, though I didn’t appreciate at the time that it was me. Then he told me this.

To say that I was taken aback is an understatement. I’ve met Jonathan once, at UKGovCamp, and that was brief as he was leading a session on Wardley mapping. Since then our interactions have been limited to tweets and the odd comment on a blog post. But somehow, being me — the whole me, the real me, the me that talks about work and how that makes me feel, the me that calls out toxic masc4masc bullshit — has made enough of an impact that he’s acknowledged it in his writing. That wouldn’t have happened if I still compartmentalised things.

I still can’t quite understand this, as it’s something I’ve not done consciously. I don’t see myself as a role model, and never have. But thank you, Jonathan, for the compliment. I don’t plan on changing.

Being yourself has a massive impact, on yourself and on others. Use that for good. As the wonderful Maya Angelou once said,

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said; people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

*You must know who Alan Turing is. The emotional impact came from realising that what happened to him could just as easily have happened to me.


Darren McCormac

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Musings, mostly around agile delivery