For the past couple of months I have been participating in a program, Community Connect, that has challenged me to consider my values, move beyond my comfort zone, and determine my purpose. Since the program concludes this week, I was asked to commit to a purpose statement, which I have been preparing (read: avoiding) for at least six weeks. After I was reminded that it doesn’t have to be perfect, I settled on this:
Exemplify leadership with integrity, bravery, and authenticity, taking bold risks and striving for excellence.
Authenticity is something I have learned to appreciate—it wasn’t always so. I have focused so much (too much) of my energy trying to adopt a role and “fit in” wherever I go. I appeared as an intellectual in the professional world, but restrained with family; a parent at my daughter’s school, but a regular college student at my own school; financially secure in some situations, but not too secure among old friends who still struggle. I am ashamed to admit that I spent hours crying about my inability to fit. I didn’t fit in a world of struggle that was once so familiar, and I didn’t fit in a world of relative ease. I didn’t fit with the older parents of my daughter’s classmates, and I didn’t fit with sophomore students planning their study abroad semesters in Spain.
The emotional challenges of social mobility are difficult to overcome, and there is a lot of evidence that recognizes that. Only 11% of low-income, first-generation college students graduate within 6 years; more than 25% drop out after the first year. Those of us who “make it” carry an emotional weight into the workforce too. While we were struggling to connect with our peers, we were also supposed to have learned how to “network” (and to actually understand the value of it). We should have come to terms with the fact that merit does not always earn someone a job the way it earns a grade—sometimes it matters more who you know. If we didn’t learn those lessons early on, we began our job searches without a single professional connection.
Fortunately, my first job did not require a connection, it required a risk. I started as an intern, and earned a full-time position. But several months into it, I was again crying that I didn’t fit (I’m a pretty tough person in general, I promise). I was intimidated by the CEO’s, elected officials, and industry leaders that I regularly encountered. I got the impression, too, that my colleagues’ experiences were farrrrrr removed from mine (which was partly true, but not entirely). At the same time that I was entering this world of relative wealth and knowledge, my dad was having heart surgery and moving into a one-bedroom apartment that I selected for him while he was in the hospital. My brother had died just 6 months earlier of cancer that went undiscovered for months—no health insurance. And I was discovering that there were parts of that world that I couldn’t fix, couldn’t live in, didn’t fit in anymore.
A couple of things happened to get me out of this rut. First, I met a woman with an undying commitment to bettering her community, and she volunteered herself as my professional mentor. She introduced me to community leaders and people who could help me. She counseled me on some basic skills—skills that helped me fit, like how to reach out to someone for coffee to establish a relationship, when to send a thank you note, and what language to use to present myself as assertive, but collaborative.
Secondly, I asked for help. I called on my personal mentors, too, a pair that were also “first-generation professionals” from dysfunctional families (they remind me that all families are dysfunctional in their own way). During one particularly emotional conversation, I was told that I would always feel like I did not fit. Surprisingly, I was relieved. My mentors are incredibly successful people. They travel, they’re well-connected, and they’re involved in their community. They spend time with young and old, rich and poor, and they are the same people everywhere they go. I can be, too.
Authenticity is a journey for me—it’s ongoing. Sometimes I feel awkward and uncomfortable to reveal that I am not heading “home” for the holidays or to be told I don’t look old enough to be a mother (thank you?), and, honestly, it’s pretty awkward when my peers’ parents schedule their appointments for them or, worse, do their laundry. But awkwardness is temporary. It’s okay.
Perhaps the greatest gift of authenticity is the freedom to genuinely connect with others. I have had opportunities to inspire other young women with my own story, and most importantly, I’ve met some astounding individuals whose leadership and strength began as a resilient response to a difficult circumstance. These stories are more common that we realize. I have connected with prominent leaders who have overcome poverty, the deaths of family members, domestic abuse, and more. But is it any surprise, really, that the people who have overcome those obstacles went on to become prominent leaders? I don’t think so. Leaders do not fit in, they rise above.