I have experienced many awakenings in the past year. Being surrounded and supported by amazing tribes—people from inspiring conferences, social groups, and fellow unicorns--have led to many of these discoveries. Some of them are easily self-evident while others percolate over time before the insight becomes unmasked.
After decades of acknowledging the symptoms but never taking time to fully address the issue, I've realized that I've done an excellent job of letting myself be defined by others' expectations of me and by how I respond to failures. I let arbitrary constructs as role, level of conformity, title, perceptions, and conventionality define whether I was successful or not, in eyes of others--and even myself. I let labels define whether I was a success or a failure at life and work.
It recently occurred to me that I don't need to be the smartest worker at my technical workplace. There are others who have strong suits in various knowledge areas. Does that make me a failure by comparison? I excel at communication, documentation, relationship- and culture-building, and ass-kicking as member of project teams. These are my strong suits and my career capital. I would rather add value and emotional meaning to the lives of my peers by leading with my actions when I am at the office, than bemoan my not being the technical cream of the crop who will get promoted if a leadership post vacancy opens up. If my value propositions have no currency in my current workplace, I am not a failure.
Last month I made a conscious and deliberate decision to abandon my plans for studying for and obtaining paper certifications for technology areas which did not interest me. It was liberating to be unshackled from the mindset of keeping up with others for the sake of doing so, to realization that I had freed hundreds of hours in the upcoming years for investing in activities which add value to my life. I created space to explore friendships, hobbies, volunteering activities, study time for topics which are pertinent to my future, and rejuvenation.
And recently I learned that I was destructively channeling the harsh words of my biggest critic: myself. There has been decades of believing in the self-talk of "I'm not good enough to do this," "I always destroy good friendships," and "great things only happen to other extraordinary people, not to me." Those were the narratives through how I interacted with the world every day. It's a shock that I didn't invest in personal business cards with those critical self-talk as my taglines.
But I stopped those talks. Or at least made efforts to recognize them when they slipped through my mind and mouth. Putting a stop to the limiting chatter has led to the discovery of awesome events and connections. I learned to show courage in public, suppress the "what would they think?" reflexive reactions, and stop discrediting myself after making bad choices. I co-presented several talks at a professional organization conference few weeks ago--I didn't let fear and Ms. Amy G. Dala prevent my entry into the arena. I dared greatly and cultivated amazing friendships and connects in the past year. I feel greater connections and commonalities with these relationships.
There is a line from Kanye West's song, "Last Call", which resonates with my recent realization--"I ain't play the cards I was dealt, I changed my cards." Kanye was initially seen as a "good studio producer, but not a rapper material," but silenced his critics by releasing his first album (The College Dropout), which sold over four million units. 'Ye didn't stop others' expectations of him abilities and passion stop him from recording The College Dropout—the album which propelled his career and stardom.
Sometimes I forget that I've done things in my life which defied conventions and expectations. I was viewed as a nerdy band geek in early high school days, and was mocked accordingly. By time I graduated, I had earned a varsity letter in football. Earlier this year, I had repaired a fractured and strained friendship with a friend whom I had differences with in the past. She is now a great professional contact for technologies that I am interested in pursuing. I have evolved from a careerist tech worker whose psyche was damaged every year after annual reviews, to a creative, forward-thinking linchpin who learned how to channel his time and energy towards things that matter in the long run. I've been asked to join several project teams and collaborate on creative projects during course of this year.
I can spend the rest of my life trying to live up to others’ expectations, and constantly disappoint myself by whatever shortcomings I may have. Or I can try, abort, fail, retry, and succeed on my own terms. The choice is clear.