Never apologize for who you are

Photo by Lê Tân on Unsplash

You’re wasting your life if you’re not living it on your own terms. I know that sounds way harsh, Tai, but we spend so much of our lives suffocating behind a mask that sometimes you need a crowbar, in the form of real talk, to wrench it off.

For much of my career, I was the “consummate professional.” Rarely did I cry at work and when I had to fire someone for the first time, I went into the street and wept instead of showing any form of emotion in the office. My coworkers thought me quirky, funny, and relentlessly positive, and whenever they discovered that I write mostly dark, experimental fiction, I would watch their faces change form. They can’t make the connection between funny Felicia and why-does-every-character-in-your-book-die Felicia.

I was never fully myself. I never laid myself out to bear.

When I was diagnosed with depression at 40, a former well-meaning colleague told me to keep that story offline for fear of losing clients. Don’t get too political because you might alienate people.

Don’t risk making a disturbance in one place.

To which I responded, well, that’s not going to fucking happen. I can be honest about depression and write about it without showing up to a client meeting shouting, OKAY, YOU GUYS. I’M TAKING MY WELLBUTRIN RIGHT NOW. BEFORE WE GET STARTED ON THE AGENDA, CAN WE TALK ABOUT THAT ONE TIME I TRIED TO TAKE MY OWN LIFE? J/K!!!!

And while I haven’t lost opportunities because of depression, I have lost out on gigs because of my liberal leanings — when I’ve called out white privilege, white feminism, and sexism. Misogynist bigots aren’t my ideal customers and I wouldn’t subjugate my values for a fleeting buck.

Now, I’m not asking you to roll up to a client meeting with a six-piece set of your emotional baggage and an attaché case stuffed with your neuroses, I’m telling you that concocting a version of you to present to the world that’s unrecognizable will only hurt yourself.

I spend my days helping brands and creative entrepreneurs tell their story. I even shared a how-to freebie with you guys (download it now if you’ve missed it!) on crafting brand narratives and a voice for your client.

And it was only until this year where I turned the lens inward. In marketing, we talk about going after your “ideal customer.” The fancy people in the joint call it “your customer avatar.” Inherent in this exercise is the notion that you’re not for everyone and you shouldn’t be because who wants a stale donut? Who wants the sea of same, and oh, that’s another freelancer dressed up like Gary V., etc.

Finding your customer is about recognizing your tribe.

It’s determining whom you want to partner with and how you can both bring out the best in one another. It’s about presenting a brand strategy to a multi-million dollar food franchise and then having your cat meow in the background. I joked and said, SEE, EVEN MY CAT IS PUMPED ABOUT OUR PLAN. Everyone laughed and two of the execs said they were on mute because their dog was barking or the kids were shouting, and so on.

We laughed and got the work done.

This year, I did the exercise I do with my clients. I created my brand positioning, strategy, voice, tone, and all that jazz. And then I sketched out my dream client. I no longer wanted to attract the type of client that considered our work on par with curing cancer. I didn’t want to work with people who didn’t want to put in the effort and didn’t know how to achieve balance. I didn’t want to work with people who had unrealistic expectations. SO, I CAN GET A MILLION DOLLARS IN SALES IN THREE MONTHS?

Yeah, if that was the case we’d all be millionaires, myself included.

Whether you have a full-time job or you’re a business owner or entrepreneur, or maybe you’re just starting out in life — this exercise is powerful for everyone. Ask yourself these five questions (and I’ll give you my answers so you have context):

1. What do I value? I value honesty, integrity, empathy, alone time, balance, play, precision, marrying data and experience, kindness, adventure, breaking ranks, kicking aside the status quo.

2. What do others value in me? My honesty, quality of work, tenacity. I over-deliver because I want to put the very best work out there, my sense of humor and calm. How I educate my partners instead of condescending to them. How I admit when I’m in the wrong or don’t know something.

3. What are my non-negotiables? (i.e. shit I won’t put up with) Sexism, hate, bigotry, disrespectfulness, rudeness, entitlement, ego, lack of humility, working yourself to death, complacency, duplicity

4. What are some things that make me special, even if they sound weird or quirky in a business setting? I can always make someone laugh. I make jokes about my cat. I read and write dark books. I love horror movies. I grew up poor in Brooklyn (and no, not pretty Park Slope, Brooklyn). I discovered late in life that I’m part black, but I’ve lead a life of white privilege that my best work could be as an ally.

5. Who’s my ideal client? I want to work with people who work hard but know when to put down their phone. I want to work with people who are in it for the long game and treat me like a partner. My client is respectful, compassionate, courageous, and pushes me hard to deliver my best. Right now, my ideal client is a woman, POC, or communities that are unrepresented because I want to use my privilege and marketing skills to raise up the people who haven’t touched the sky.

Do this for yourself because not all paychecks are equal. There’s the paycheck that comes from blood work and another that comes from a relationship of which you’re proud. I spent a long time chasing all the dollars instead of honing in on the right ones. And trust me, when you get laser focused on who you want to serve, the work will come in because your passion will shine through and people will accept you for the weirdo that you are.

I mean, as long as you get the work done. ;)

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