I just returned from attending a conference over the last few days. I know, most people hear “conference” and groan, but I am not one of those people, and for me, this was not one of those conferences. It’s one I’ve been wanting to attend for years, and it really gave me the lift—creatively, socially, professionally—that I’ve been craving for some time.
Cheryl Strayed gave one of the keynotes. I’ve read Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things. I listen to the Dear Sugar podcast. She has told aspects of her life—deeply personal, painful, intimate memories—in so many spaces. But there was something different to me about standing in front of 600 people in a room versus writing a book or an advice column in private, even though those works were read by millions of people. Same thing for speaking with just one other person into a microphone each week, even if your words get piped into my home as I catch up on the dishes. Of course, the numbers don’t support my impression, but there was something raw about the immediacy of hearing her speak in person. Sitting there, I was struck by the boldness of being so open and so flawed and so unapologetic in telling who you are.
In the Q&A session afterward, there were some questions that tied Cheryl’s talk into the conference theme, a few questions about her process, how one gets a book published and then optioned as a movie. But one woman stood up and talked about how her life shared some of the terrible abuse Cheryl Strayed has written about from her own history. In asking her question, the woman from the audience professed “I’m getting all shaky,” and I was immediately hit by just how brave she, too, was. To speak up and be vulnerable in front of your professional peers is not easy. When we talk about what we limit about ourselves online, our professional prospects are so often top-of-mind.
It’s so hard to be yourself at work, to emphasize your strengths and desire to do well while also being open to what you don’t know. (or just suck at!) Exposing any weakness leaves you vulnerable, we’re told. Sadly, I think that’s generally pretty true in our weird contemporary reality, where we so often justify the intensity and importance of our work by the number of hours over 40 we put in each week. And, honestly, a lot of people prefer that separation of work and not-work for its clarity, delineation—you have a work-self and an outside-of-work-self, and they aren’t really distinct but some components just don’t cross over. (yes, I, unlike Hillary’s graphic designers, understand how a Venn diagram works) It’s a way to manage expectations. You give up some of yourself, even willingly, as a way of aligning with “culture fit” or maybe just to make work culture, already political, already complex, a little easier to manage.
You spend a huge portion of your life at work. For me, divorcing my work-self from the person I want to be the rest of the time just doesn’t make sense. It leaves me feeling diluted, like in both cases I am not quite as good or as honest or as complete as I’d like to be.
This week, I finally found some people like me professionally, people with whom I could honestly express my interests, people working in jobs that I not only would love to have but also that I could see myself doing—really well! And so even though we had all kinds of other interests, some overlapping and not others, I felt like we could relate to each other. Less explanation of “who we are” was necessary. It was just so pleasant.
A few months ago, I quit my job and joined an early-stage startup. It wasn’t something I was actively seeking, and the decision was a difficult one. Friends with startup experience warned me that I needed to prepare myself for a different pace, that I needed to make sure I had my finances in order before taking the leap. Even as they cautioned me about how exhausting it was, how their past companies mostly weren’t successful, I sensed in them at least a little bit of longing. How much needs to get done is overwhelming—but you can also directly influence and accomplish so much.
Even with their warnings, I don’t think I fully got it, if I’m being honest with myself. The past few months have been a rollercoaster, leaving me feeling wrung out from all of the highs and lows. There’s a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty and it’s hard to go along for the ride without occasionally throwing your hands in the air and sometimes screaming, loudly. The “life” part of my work/life balance hasn’t been so hot.
Still, this is an opportunity. To shape my role. To test out skills I’ve been wanting to acquire for a while. To figure out what I don’t want to keep doing. To be honest about the fact that most startups fail and this one might, too. To practice being myself at work and outside of it and to see how it goes.
At this point, all I can really say is “Wish me luck!” As much as I’m striving for greater cohesiveness, I still don’t know how much I want to talk about work here. Like an email-free vacation (if those even still exist), there’s something freeing about having a space devoted to the “life” side of things. But it’s nice to feel like I’m not hiding anything. Like I can be brave enough to talk about what I need to here. And, hopefully, where I can buoy up those other interests, where I don’t have to worry too much about explaining who I am or what it is I care about. Nine years in (!), quite a bit of it is written right here.