Career in a box.

 

I once started in a new job, and by Day 2, I knew I’d made a colossal mistake.

Sitting in a leadership team meeting, I cracked a silly joke. The room went silent, and everyone stared at me like I’d grown another head. I thought, “Ohhhhh, this will not end well.” Four months of frustration later, I am done.

I will never work somewhere that I can’t bring my whole self, stupid jokes and all. As I job hunt, I’ve made a litmus test: my new favorite laptop sticker, which is silly, and I LOVE it. It’s from a dog rescue that funds vet bills for people who can’t pay them. If I ever find myself in a situation where I’d be tempted to peel this off before an in-person meeting… the deal’s off.

***

We often feel our emotions are blended to bits from our jobs. We sprint, run, jog, then walk; we heave, collapse, and lurch ourselves barely over the finish line to realize a new quarter, a new project, a goal, a new deadline to meet, or a problem to solve. Sometimes, it’s all we can do to stagger to our feet again. The voices in our heads start to creep in: “Just settle. Just do it that old, boring, outdated way, and nobody would question it.”

We send messages to others that we think, say, and do what they expect us to think, say, and do regardless of what our intuition is urging us to BE.

In these moments, when we feel like we’re just eking by, or else we really need a win or a confidence boost, it’s so tempting to do something dangerous: conform. A career in a box.

So, let me ask you: have you ever stood there, needing a win, maybe a bit more confidence, and perhaps a goddamn break from it all … and so you showed up as someone other than your true self?

Yeah.

Me, too.

But I think there’s good news for us.

Great work requires your true self and your actual beliefs to come through forcefully. Don’t couch them. Your actual quirks coming out from where they’ve been hiding.

Your work. Your way.

Your career. Your choice.

Your life. Your script.

What “one” is supposed to do is rarely what you are supposed to do. People around you, even people similar to you, are not YOU. However, finding out what path works best for you is squarely on your shoulders. It’s on each of us, and we’re entirely on the hook to figure it out and pursue it. Nobody else will do it for us, and nobody else is coming.

Maybe you really want to open the CAREER IN A BOX. That’s great! Some people like knowing each step ahead of them. Fantastic! The important part is that you know that about yourself.

But while some people want a paint-by-numbers career straight from the box, I tried that, and I was miserable. I realized (thanks in no small part to lots of thrashing in the wrong jobs in my 20s and 30s and 40s) I want a blank canvas career instead. And if I don’t like how this painting starts to look, I’ll just toss it aside and grab a new canvas.

Maybe you are part of a circle of loving friends who do exactly what you do, or maybe your loved ones don’t exactly understand what you do. (That’s me, as you might suspect. A description of my friends and me sound like the setup to a bad joke. “A doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, an accountant, and a [whatever the hell Lisa is] walk into a bar…”)

Because you can’t really use a single word to sum up my work, I say “writer” most often.

Whatever the hell Lisa is.”

What I “is” is me.

(I did it, Dad. I wrote the best sentence of my life.)

What I am… is me. It’s all I can be. It’s all I’ll ever be. So I may as well stop lying to myself and get on with being it. People say “to each their own,” so we each may as well own it. If you really love the pomp and circumstance, sing the song. If you really love The Simpsons, buy the poster. But do it for yourself, not someone else, and not because you were told it’s what you’re “supposed to do.”

The expectations of others become crutches on which we lean when our confidence wavers. In moments of uncertainty or struggle, it’s tempting to stuff down our quirks and our convictions and show up to work acting like someone else.

No matter how uncertain or scared, or stressed you feel, I implore you don’t obsess over what someone like you is supposed to do. Obsess over what YOU are supposed to do. That’s a lifelong pursuit, but it’s well worth a lifetime.

Know who you are. Know why you do this work.

It’s your career.

Do it your way.

So here’s hoping everyone out there brings their awesome, authentic, whole selves to whatever it is you’re doing. Oh, and tell your dog I said hi.

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