And there’s doctors and lawyers, And business executives, And they’re all made out of ticky tacky, And they all look just the same.
– From the song Little Boxes by Malvina Reynolds, made famous by Pete Seeger
Which part of you do you take to work?
After I returned to California from backpacking through India and finishing my novel, I got a job doing transportation sales for Mayflower. A couple of months into my new role, I showed up at the address in an affluent La Jolla neighborhood where I was expected to do an estimate and a sales presentation. As it turns out, I closed the sale and got a literary agent.
More on that in a bit. First, I’m wondering…
Is it your left elbow that meets with clients? Your hands that draft reports? Perhaps it’s your mouth that hangs out in the break room, getting coffee and snacks—or, if you work at Google, a bit of kombucha on tap?
There are definitely parts that don’t belong, right? Feet are too stinky, noses too gooey and hairy, and for goodness’ sake, keep the breasts, butt, and genitals out of the picture!
What about creativity? Your love of hiking? Your side gig as an alt rock DJ? The skeins of handspun alpaca yarn you work while watching Doctor Who reruns? Your ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation? What role do they play in the office or in your job search?
As ridiculous as it sounds to cut off parts of your body before you begin your morning commute, we have come to think it’s normal to keep the more subtle parts of ourselves separate. In fact, a Reuters survey found that 75% of people are hiding a major part of themselves at work.
But if you’re still hiding, you’re missing the boat.
Today, the trend is moving away from individuals packaging themselves into “professionals.” (These are air quotes, by the way, intended to represent the idea of the professional versus the actual thing: someone whole and authentic, who brings all of their talents and personality to the task at hand.)
The most forward-looking companies these days are humanizing business. They’re telling the stories of their customers, their team, and their brand. 21st Century businesses are hiring and promoting dynamic people who are courageous enough to bring their whole selves to the table.
I’ve been telling this to my clients for years. I won’t write a resume without a two-hour intake that allows us to meander in and out of “professional” territory. It’s taken courage on the part of my clients to embrace this approach, but it’s always paid off when they have.
There was the construction manager who earned the tagline “The MacGyver of Construction” because he used his creativity to save money, improve quality, and meet stringent building codes, all with a bit of the proverbial “chewing gum.”
Or there was the finance communications specialist who had been made strong by navigating a violent marriage and a divorce that involved cross-border theft and the holding hostage of her beloved pets. She was a person who could help investors see that challenging, high-risk situations could be transformed into opportunity. Oh, and she’d also awakened her Kundalini energy along the way, which she turned into a way to shrewdly vet appropriate business partners and opportunities—something she was known for.
One of my favorites was a stay-at-home mom of 14 years whose rise to the elite ranks of amateur dance skaters proved her dedication, capacity to learn, and youthful exuberance. Her ability to capture corporate sponsors for her sport also emphasized her ties to local business.
I’m sharing these stories to inspire you to bring your whole self to your work and your job search. Each of the clients I’ve mentioned has been able to land the job of their dreams against all odds. Each one has also been able to gently push the boundaries of their comfort zones.
Not ready to reveal your ice dancing avocation just yet? That’s all right. Just consider it, and try to emphasize the assets it represents.
I also have a more personal reason for sharing this approach. While I’ve been encouraging my clients to bring their whole selves to the table, I’ve been on that journey myself. My post about changing my name, for example, has brought me more clients than any of my more tactical writings.
The more I practice being holistic in my business and in my clients’ communications, the more I see that it really works. This shouldn’t be a surprise to me. After all, there’s the way I met my literary agent.
Here’s the rest of the story that began this post.
A dreadlocked black man, about my father’s age and wearing a nice track suit, met me at the door and introduced himself as Quincy. Upon entering, I felt like Alice in Wonderland. The walls of his house were adorned with the most colorful, soulful artwork. I drank it in and remarked on it with a sense of wonder. Quincy informed me that his wife Margaret was an art dealer who specialized in folk art.
On the second and third floors—it was quite a vertical house, being built on a hillside and all—I noticed massive amounts of books. And delicious books they were, of poetry and art and literature. These people lived in a library. I was making note of the furniture and the number of books, preparing the estimate to the beat of the rap music coming from their teenage son’s bedroom. As I came upon yet another pregnant bookshelf, bending in the middle with the weight of creation, I noticed several copies of the same book. It was an autobiography of Miles Davis, as told to Quincy Troupe.
“Is this you?” I asked. “Are you Quincy Troupe?” In answer, he smiled and flashed me a sheepish eye sparkle. In an instant, the pieces fell into place for me. Yes, I’d heard this professor and California poet laureate reciting his poetry on the local public radio station. I remembered one in particular about Michael Jordan, flying through the air. I quoted his work back to him:
“’Michael Jordan hangs like an icon, suspended in space, his eyes two radar screens screwed like nails into the mask of his face.’ That’s you, right? You wrote that?”
“That’s right,” he said, flashing me another boyish smile.
“I’m a writer too,” I said, hardly able to believe the words had come out of my mouth. Who was I to call myself a writer in front of this poet laureate, this man who was supposed to be my customer? I was there to help him move his family’s beautiful artwork and extensive library 3,000 miles from La Jolla to their Harlem brownstone. But there it was, in the air. I had brought my whole self to this work and offered it up.
Quincy didn’t leave me much time to question my decision. He immediately showed interest. “What do you write?” he asked. I told him about my novel, Buddha in the Pap Pap Chair. He said I should send a few chapters to his wife, and that she was a literary agent as well as an art dealer. Margaret, with her warm smile, her own head of dreads, and her ever-present pot of fresh mint tea, proved to be just as warm, interesting, and interested as Quincy, and I soon found myself with an agent.
While my book never “made it,” The Dreadlocked Couple, as I affectionately thought of them, had taught me a precious lesson. They’d proven once again that opportunities open up when you bring your whole self to the table. By allowing myself to be captivated by the Troupes’ beautiful home, by paying attention to the things I love—in this case art, books and people—and by being vulnerable enough to describe myself as a writer, I was given this opportunity.
Is there a small way you can open yourself up like this at work or in your job search today?