I remember the first time I saved up enough money for a new leather jacket. It was brown, not black. It was bomber-style with a bronze zipper and hidden zip pockets. I usually dress conservatively. So for me, this was a pretty bad-ass purchase, but reflected a cool, creative side of myself.
When I started my first corporate job, I remember getting dressed up one spring day for the office, and without thinking, reached to grab my leather jacket and then stopped.
I looked down at my button-up blouse, navy blue pants and high heels. It was a pretty sharp outfit and thought it matched the professional image we tried to convey to our clients. The jacket didn’t quite match my outfit, but more important, at that moment, it didn’t fit the corporate image. I opted for a blue blazer instead.
In that moment, I edited myself to fit what someone else expected of me. I masked my creative and rule-breaking entrepreneurial side in favor of showing my pragmatic, logical side. And I did it hundreds more times over the span of my career.
Underneath that leather jacket, I was all of me. The young woman who wanted to show up every day doing my very best and learning everything I could from my colleagues and leaders, with career aspirations to have a positive impact and be recognized for my contributions. Lots of people want those things and more. What difference does it make whether I’m wearing a suit or a leather jacket? (I know the vegans in the crowd would say it makes a big difference, but I mean in a more existential sense.)
The longer I worked, the more I started to conform to the corporate culture to be a ‘good worker’ or the ‘company-allied leader’ during the week at the office. I edited myself and my dreams to fit within the company’s goals for me. I would walk out of the office every Friday a little less me, singing “I don’t wanna work. I wanna Bang the Drum All Day”. I’d let loose on the weekend and then come back Monday morning and do it all again. The jacket became a metaphor for how I separated those identities.
I noticed, over time, I wasn’t the only one operating this way. When I asked people about their interests outside of work, I continued to be amazed at some of the contrasts from work to home that they kept very separate and almost hidden. A colleague who was very good at her sales job, quit after feeling stifled and dissatisfied for two years to become a professional pastry chef. One of my clients was a product marketing manager, and in her spare time, a competitive body builder. It’s like they took off their home jacket, and when they walked into the office, they put on their work jacket. The only way you could find out what they were really like, was to gain their trust and then they would start to let you in.
There’s a vault of suppressed expression walking around our offices that would be incredibly interesting and creative, if only companies could tap into it. According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace, only 15 percent of employees are engaged at work. I know there are many contributing factors, but the effect is there are a bunch of zombies walking around the office chasing their next meal, but not effective or fully utilized. I’m not here to say what companies should do to support employees (at least, not today).
My point today is all about our individual ownership, or at minimum taking the first step, to be ourselves and do our best to bring all the beautiful aspects of our personalities to our roles.
The first step for me, was owning my part of the disconnect. I had to admit there was a chance that I was putting more rules and “should’s” around myself than really existed. The next step was to test it. I had to show up as me, with all my quirky jokes, my passion, my serious, driven side and my need to question the world around me and see what would happen.
It was scary and I worried they wouldn’t accept me. The real, whole me. I had to wear the leather jacket.
I was scared that my ideas and changes, (ahem… Improvements, of course!) would be met with resistance. They were. I tried again. My ideas were complimented and they appreciated me sharing, but again declined as ‘not for this time and company’, even though I was listening to what my clients asked for. I tried again. I got stonewalled again, because ‘it’s not how we do things around here’. It was a great lesson. In the end, I had to leave that company, because the prospect of going back to editing myself to be less innovative and fit into someone else’s box of the tried-and-true was a choice I couldn’t accept. It taught me what environment I need to do my best, most inspired work. I would encourage everyone to go through that same process for themselves.
Now, I work in an environment where my contributions are respected, I have a positive impact on the lives of the individuals and teams I work with. Because of that, I thrive too. And yes, I wear the leather jacket whenever I want to.
Carrie Tuttle is the lead coach, speaker and founder of Team Mojo, a firm that works to ignite energy and meaning into work for sales and marketing professionals.