HAVE THE BALLS TO BE YOURSELF AT WORK.
Are you happy at work? If not, read on!
Sky- high building. Lights. Lots of light. Suits. Lots of suits. This place looks clean. Almost too clean. Steralised. Dead. Person who shook my hand was my line manager. I see my desk. Looks like any other desks. There is a number on the desk. This desk, like any other desks, might be mine today, might be mine the day after and might not. Ah, sure, it is a hot- desk policy.
Feel a bit more familiar. I like getting familiar with the environment. Toilet seems nice. That’s good.
I sit around a senior bunch, 3 job grades higher than me who are around their 40s. Coming to work and getting a “hello, good morning” seems to be such a hard thing. Most are on calls all the time. They look serious. Ah, sure, they are senior leaders. Important meetings. Decisions to make. Strolling down rows of desks I have the biggest dilemma in my mind every morning: should I say hi? should I disturb? who am I? do I dare?
I learnt from my banking internship days to conform, behave, and be professional. The image I wanted to create is to talk only when necessary, make sure I do know exactly what I am talking about, and be concise. I learnt to copy the rest, be the rest. I chose to be safe.
How did I feel? I felt everything but not myself. My close friends see me as an extrovert, while my colleagues see the opposite. I always looked forward to coming home. Home was the time I could finally be myself, lifting off the heavy burden of this corporate mask I put on every day. I thought I was keeping my energy. The impact was reverse. I was losing my energy. Something is wrong.
From all this stability, predictability and society norms, there was this person who broke the rules, who was different. He caught my attention.
Let’s call him Billy.
Billy was this big drop of bright colour on a grey painting, like an African found in Alaska, like a thunderstorm struck in dessert. What made him so different?
He hums and sings every day he comes to the office. He makes noise. He laughs, taps, claps, puts his legs on the desks and wears branded shirts. His striking flamingo poses make him look ridiculous at times. He makes his presence felt.
One fine Friday afternoon, like any other Fridays after 5pm when there is not a soul around, apart from Billy and me, I asked:
“Billy, why you are so different?”
“An, I was like you in my 20s. I took my life too serious. Almost too serious and I forgot to enjoy my life. There was one day I said to myself: Scrap it. I do not want to do this anymore. I am not happy. I want to be me. The only person I need to care what he/she thinks about me is me. No one else but me.
It is not your boss, your bosses’ boss. It is you. You should not care what others think of you. Care what you think of you first.
Ask yourself, who are you? You know it. It’s simple. You are your beliefs, values, opinions, visions, skills, culture, dreams and hopes.”
I seemed to have touched a topic that Billy deeply cares about. He shared how he measures his level of happiness:
“I come home every day, look into the mirror, and ask myself: hey Billy, have you been yourself today? If the answer is yes, I will be very happy. If it is a no, I would scratch my head and think of what made me not myself today. I will be very miserable.
Every time you go into the meeting, ask yourself, have you said everything you wanted to say? Have you stood by your beliefs, feelings and thoughts? The last thing you want is to leave the meeting with the feeling of regret of not speaking up.”
What stuck out to me the most was his view on what it means to be professional:
“Professional is associated with boring. Why? It does not have to be! You got one life. And you got one shot! You spend most of your time at work with your colleagues than friends, loved ones, parents goddamn it! If you choose to be a boring “professional”, you will live your whole life in misery. You can be you, and believe me, people value it.”
Day 150 to today
Billy is the main reason for who I am today. He is the person who changed my life. Slowly and gradually I started to bring my whole self to work. It took me 1 year.
This is how Billy changed my life:
- I learnt a lot more about myself. I discovered my hidden strengths and undiscovered weaknesses. The moment you stop differentiating you from you at work and you at home, you truly showcase the best and the worst of you in its purest forms. Everything seems to make sense, not forced, not stifled, not rehearsed.
- I started to make friends, before making colleagues. I realised how important is the personal relationship to me, much more than formal corporate one. I learnt to connect to people at a personal level, talking about their dreams, fears, drivers, visions, opening them up by creating this atmosphere where their story means so much more than their job title.
- I started to be brutally honest with people. Sometimes, I would throw statements at people regardless of their seniority, their stance. Statements that might potentially have cost me a job group. I realised how much I care about my genuine views being heard than a career progression. Ultimately, if I were to be sacked from the company for things I truly believe in, maybe it is a sign that the company is not for me. And that’s ok.
- I realised I might be seen by some as disturbing the flow. Some people would frown; tell me off for running around the floors barefoot, for reacting too loud, for bursting in emotions when I find myself funny or when others make me laugh. I do have respect for open environment blabla, and I do also equally value the environment in which I can be truly me. Where I can feel what I feel, express what I think, react to ups/downs and not be dead. The things that a normal human being is allowed to do. Why differentiate?
- I realised I hate being put into a box. The last thing I want is to fill constrained by seems-to-be and everyone-is-doing-it rules, the ones that are not written anywhere. These perceived rules are meant to be broken, they are there to be bypassed. I started to wear anything I want. One day I would feel fancy and dress up putting my hills on, another day I just want to look like a boy in my high wasted jeans and a boyfriend’s t-shirt. I do not care if it is Monday or Friday. For me it is just another day.
- By bringing my whole self to work, I saw the impact I had on others. I manage to shake people up, get them talk, share and express. I allowed myself to be silly and crazy. By doing that, I am telling everyone it is ok to be silly. Bonus: I also found like minded people by being me. I found those who look normal on surface until you realise they are all little crazy inside. Those people are gold.
- Perfectionists are always late. I used to be one. I always tried to find the right moment to speak, rehearsed the sentence 10 times, tried not to interrupt others, imagined what the audience might react to be 200% ready. I was always late. In fact, I never spoke. The moments when other senior leaders say exactly what I thought annoyed me. I was annoying myself. Being asian, smallest, youngest, the only woman in the room of full bunch of senior people made me feel weak. Today, I do not see myself as asian, smallest, youngest, woman in the room. I see me.
- If you ask me what is my biggest fear, you probably got it. My biggest is fear is having lived someone else’s live. The only thing I want is to live true to myself. I don’t want to be just this number at my desk. This title on my skype. This job group on my payslip. I want to be me. I want people to know me, not my job title. There is so much more in every single one of us than your title.
(Flashback) Few months before today
I asked myself: “Why do we feel we can’t be ourselves at work? Why are we so boring?”
I had this eureka moment of realisation. Here is what I think:
Ultimately, like everything, it does not go far away from family and natural instincts. Think of it. You as a kid, would most probably look up to your parents, adults around you. You are so young. Your primary skill is copy. You have no idea why people do what they do, and you just copy. Without asking. It is deeply ingrained in you. Before your mom asks you to smile, before you can hear her voice, you copy your mom’s smile. Not because you heard her. But because you saw her smile. So you smile back. Simple.
Bring that to the corporate world. Look at those on top of the chain. Who are these people? Exactly. They all look the same. Professionals. Little character. They all conform, play it safe. You as a young professional copy that behavior, sub consciously.
I spoke to Billy again after 6 months of lost touch.
I realised how lucky I was to bump into Billy. To get to know his story. I would not be here without him. Today I say: I owe myself to Billy.
After our long chat on a separate topic, I told him I am his biggest fan. I also wrote him a quick note.
Do not forget to write a simple thank you note, from time to time.
This is what I wrote:
Thank you for being you. You have no idea how many people’s lives you changed. It sounds simple. Unfortunately, it is not. Not many people have the balls to do it.
And the beautiful thing about this is it’s contagious. I have been much happier at work after bumping into you. You inspire me to inspire others.
One person at a time.
To which I say thank you
Let me turn this back to you: how much of you do you bring to work?