It’s OK to just be yourself

I recently had the pleasure of speaking at the Google Digital Garage in Edinburgh to celebrate International Women’s Day.

Public speaking is something I want to do more of despite it filling me with a little bit of trepidation. I usually find my nagging voice of self-doubt being triggered.  It pops up whenever I’m doing something risky, where I need to be vulnerable and where I might not succeed.


This transports me back to my early career, newly graduated and in my first job working for a logistics company. Somebody in their infinite wisdom had spotted potential in me and had sent me on a ‘management training programme’. The first of many I’d find myself in over the years.

I found myself flying down to the East Midlands once a month to learn the principles of management. I was young, green, naïve and very shy. My heart raced when I realised I was going to have to speak up and participate.  I would have been happier to sit and listen as I’d done at Uni.

Far from this being the enlightening experience and fantastic opportunity that it was, instead I saw myself surrounded by people who, in my mind, were much better than me, had more experience & status, were older & wiser, had bigger teams (that wasn’t hard as I wasn’t managing anyone at the time), were able to contribute more and were more confident.

Not good enough

There was a lot of ‘more’ there.  It seemed to me in fact, that they were all just simply better than me, at everything.  They had far more right to be in that programme than I did. I felt like I wasn’t good enough, an imposter.  I was waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, “eh, I think we might have made a mistake, you don’t belong here.”

I was drowning, I was so out of my depth.

Isn’t fulfilment one of our greatest desires as humans?

As human’s, we have an innate need for connection and to belong. It often means we strive to conform or to ‘fit’. It’s true that our desire to fit can be much stronger than our desire to be our true authentic selves.  For most of us its hard, really hard.

According to Deloitte research 61% of employees ‘cover’ or hide certain aspects of their identity at work and it’s not something that is reserved for minority groups, the study showed that 45% of white males do the same.

EE Cummings said:

to be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else, means to fight the hardest battle which any human can fight

So why change?

To fit or conform is to wear a mask, to stifle the spirit and essence of who we really are. It is also to ignore the unique talents and strengths that we all have. It is to trample on rather than honour our values. When done over a long period of time, masking will suck the life out of us, stop us from reaching our true potential and lead us to a life of regret. Ultimately when we walk away from who we truly are we become unfulfilled.  Yet, isn’t fulfilment our greatest desire as humans?

How do we find our true authentic selves?

It starts by taking a long hard look in the mirror and becoming more aware of who we are:

  • By knowing and honouring our values, the innate qualities that define us and what we deem as individuals to be important.
  • By getting clarity on our purpose, why we are here and what we were born to do. As Mark Twain so eloquently puts it:

the two most important days of our lives are the day we were born and the day we find out why

  • It’s also about embracing our strengths and refusing to accept that we are broken when ‘our gaps’ are highlighted more than our talents. I’m in violent agreement with Peter Drucker that:

it takes far less energy to move from first rate performance to excellence than it does to move from incompetence to mediocrity

  • To be authentic we must be clear that we always have a choice.  We have the power within us to be conscious about how we see the world and ourselves in it. We also have control over how we react, especially when things aren’t going our way.
  • The heart of authenticity is vulnerability which is inherently risky. As a recovering perfectionist, it’s something I’m painfully aware of. One of the hardest things for me in being authentic is learning to ‘embrace the suck’ as Brene Brown would say. That means owning that I won’t always get it right, to be comfortable with failing and giving myself permission to learn and experiment. Resilience is recognising that to fail is not to be a failure.

Bring your whole self to work

In a recent speech, The First Minister talked about her early career and how she felt the pressure to conform to those who were around her. At the time that was largely white middle-aged men, there were no female role models. Her guidance was, don’t try to be like other people, be yourself.

I recently interviewed Lambert Walsh, SVP of Customer Success at DocuSign as part of my inspiring leaders series. I asked him ‘what is your number one piece of advice for emerging leaders’, his answer was, be authentic.

According to Mike Robins, when we don’t bring our whole selves to work our organisations suffer from low engagement and productivity because we spend too much time trying to ‘look good, fit in, and do or say ‘the right thing’.

He said, that the lack of psychological safety in the work-place makes it difficult to achieve the highest levels of performance. In a world that is challenged with a lack of diversity, it seems to me that now is the time for us as individuals to embrace our own identity and even more for our workplaces to welcome that with open arms. There is still much work to be done here.

Just be yourself

The good news is that I didn’t drown in my management training course back in 1993, I lived to tell the tale. I survived and learned a few things along the way.  I went on to have a long career and success leading high performing teams as Director of Customer Care at Adobe.   Most recently I’ve been brave enough to set up my own business.

I’ve learned that our mind doesn’t always allow us to speak our truth.  Our truth has to come from the heart.

So what’s the moral of the story. The moral is that my big regret over the past 25 years is that it took me so long to learn to be my true authentic self.  I spent too much time trying to fit and be what I thought I ‘should’ be based on comparing myself to others rather than just embracing me.

The final guidance I got from my course facilitator back in 1993 was ‘just be yourself’.  It’s ironic that it’s taken me all this time to realise how profound and important his words were. I often wonder what would have been different if I’d taken his advice. Maybe I would have avoided some of the stress and anxiety I put myself under over the years. I guess I’ll never know. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been so exhausted!

Find your music and play it

What I do know, however, to share my favourite quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes, is that most of us go to our graves with our music still inside us, unplayed.

Most of us go to our graves with our music still inside us, unplayed.

So I invite you to find your music, to play, to dance and to celebrate the unique talents and values that make you amazing. Only you know the music you were born to play and rest assured the world is waiting to hear it.

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