I learned an invaluable lesson my second year at drama school that I find myself sharing with my corporate clients all the time.
I was doing a scene from Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, playing the role of Hermione. Really bad things happen to Hermione; her husband, King Leontes falsely accuses her of adultery and treason, her daughter is abandoned to the wilderness, and her young son dies. My teacher wanted more raw emotion from me in this role, for me to be more messy and distraught. He pulled me aside to ask what was holding me back and I told him that I was trying to stay authentic and believable in my despair. I mentioned that I was afraid of coming across like someone else in my class who always seemed emotionally over the top to me. I disliked watching what seemed to me like constant self-indulgent emotional response. My teacher put his head in his hands. “Corena,” he sighed. “You and this person are so opposite in every way. She lives in emotion. You live in pragmatism and logic. From the moment you each enter a room, before you have done or said anything, it is clear that you and she are entirely different people. You can’t use her as a guide for your behavior because you are too unlike each other. For you to come across as she does, you would have to go so far away from your natural self that I can’t even imagine what it would look like. Do you see? You have to start with you. It’s very dangerous to compare what you are doing to others because you are starting from such different places.”
This notion of being so different from someone else that any comparison is fool hardy seems like it should be obvious, yet this was a revelation for me. And apparently, a lot of us haven’t grasped this particular notion because it comes up in my coaching all the time.
Clients working on speaking up more in meetings will say something like, “Well but I don’t want to come across as pushy,” or, “I think it’s really annoying how everyone is always talking over each other and I don’t want to be like that.” Inevitably, they have examples of their least favorite people they wish not to be like.
I say to them what my Shakespeare teacher said to me. “Jane. You are so far from anything that remotely resembles pushy or rude that you could probably say just about anything at any time and not be perceived as rude. If you look at the spectrum of pushy, you are at the far end of the passive/not pushy side. This means there is A LOT you can do, a lot of ground you can cover before you are anywhere close to pushy territory.”
Someone working on being more vulnerable or bringing more of their authentic self to work is afraid of becoming the in-your-face, over-sharer colleague that drives them nuts. “I don’t want to be like that guy. Better to keep things professional.” Nope, I say. You are too far at the other end of the personal sharing spectrum to worry. Your natural sensitivity and awareness of how people are responding to you will prevent you from crossing inappropriate boundaries; you are simply never going to be “that guy.”
Someone working on more effectively navigating the politics of their organization is afraid they will end up like the shrewd operator nobody trusts. Nope. Your baseline integrity will never allow you to be that person. There is so much you can do that will serve you in a “political” sense without compromising your sense of self, or putting you in a league with the people you see doing it distastefully.
It’s important to know what you admire and aspire to and what you don’t. Many of us look for models and mentors as we craft our professional identities. But, be careful of the ways in which you try not to be like someone. We often overcompensate when trying to avoid being perceived in certain ways. We need to know ourselves and where we are starting from. Someone who never speaks up does themselves great harm when their focus is on not being the jerk by always interrupting people. Someone working to navigate their organization more strategically will struggle if they’re primarily focused on not being the “shmuck down the hall.” With awareness of where we are and where others are on these spectrums, we can identify the vast middle ground on which we can adjust our behaviors to grow into the most effective versions of ourselves.