Dear Younger Self – STOP Doing These 5 Things (aka, Hello from the other side)

There are so many things I wish I could tell my younger self. Whether in my personal life, my professional life, or at the intersection thereof, there a ton of mistakes and fails along the way. Of course, one argues, I wouldn’t be where I am today without those mistakes… sure. I can dig it, everything happens for a reason. And yet, I know there are things that held me back (and probably still do). There are a few which really irk me, and it’s everything I have not to grab the young professional women around me by the shoulders and shout “STOP doing that!!”

Stifling my creativity just to ‘fit in’

As a kid I was imaginative, precocious, and a dreamer. I wrote stories, poems, songs, you name it, and I built worlds in my mind. I was told I was “weird” so many times in elementary and middle school, and I desperately wanted to be accepted. The risks I took being myself, never seemed to pay off, and as I look back I can see myself slide down the slippery slope of conformity so fast, I get whiplash just thinking about  it. I think we must all go through some form of this process, walling off parts of ourselves so that no-one else can see, keeping things hidden or even denying ourselves until the “weird”, nonconforming parts just sort of wither away.

I wish I had nourished my inner-weirdo. I wish I had written, and painted, and sang my sad-song-lyrics out to the world. Sure, I probably would have failed, I may never have been an artist in any genre, and my burgeoning singer-songwriter career would have fallen flat (like most of my lyrics). I wish I would have told myself it was okay to be out there, and kept shooting for the moon, and watered my little internal creative flower garden, because now that I’m mid-thirties, it has become SO MUCH HARDER to tap into.

I find myself trying to let that creativity flow from my fingertips once again, and coming up empty, like the well has become drier and drier every year. That magical place inside me where great ideas, and laughter, and hopeful optimism used to spring, is somehow harder to find and maintain. There are many, many aspects of my life that I know without the shadow of a doubt would be improved if I hadn’t stifled my budding creative little funk-master, from my writing, to cooking, to interactions with friends, to sex, to… you name it. I wish I had focused less on fitting in and more on fitting out however my crazy little heart wanted to express itself.

Mistaking a lack of “professional goals” for a lack of ambition

‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I’m still asking myself that question, even in my thirties. For a long time in my early twenties I thought that my lack of response to that question meant that I didn’t have professional ambitions. In a quagmire for this hard-core feminist, all I was seriously certain I wanted to do with my life was to have a family, and a dog. I could sort of see myself in certain roles, things I’d always wanted to try out, or things I was sure I’d be pretty good at (teaching, writing, etc), but I was at a loss for the “ONE THING” I really wanted professionally.

My lack of a single direction hasn’t really hurt my career at all. I’m an executive at a tech company; I’m respected, liked and (most days) I crush my work. I’ve had a winding road to this place, full of rich professional experiences where I’ve brought new skills on board, built fantastic relationships, and challenged myself in a variety of ways. Yet, I have no idea what my next step might be.

I have learned a few things about myself and my ambition that lead me to believe that I have a stronger vision of my future professional self than I thought I did, even if there’s not a name for it. I want to be respected for the work I do. I want to work with teams who are invested in their work, and make each other better for it. I want to help people grow. I want to make connections and problem solve to move the process forward, and see projects completed with excellence. I enjoy planning, facilitating, and project managing.

In short, my problem isn’t a lack of ambition, or vision for myself – the problem is that we haven’t really defined “career” as a state of being rather than a singular role, or industry. I do know what I want from my career, and I am more and more confident every day that there are plenty of opportunities in the world for people like me who don’t want to be just one thing, but want to be one who is cultivating many things about themselves.

Being “too shy” to network effectively

How hard is it to ask someone to coffee? What is it about talking about myself that makes me cringe? Why would XYZ person want to talk to me? These are the questions that held me back from networking for a large portion of my younger life. Instead of grabbing the world by the horns, I was patiently sitting back and waiting to be noticed.

It wasn’t until I was several years into a great job that I realized that the connections I was making were for life, and that the things I could learn from the people around me were FAR more valuable than the expensive liberal arts education I would be paying off forever. I kick myself thinking about the people who were willing to invest a little bit of their time in me, while I couldn’t get past a weird shy, shamefulness about asking questions and talking myself up (even the tiniest bit). Those people are captains of industry now. They run the world – and they wanted to buy me coffee and give me advice.

I wish I could have whispered in my younger-self’s ear – “Just ask them about how they ended up here!”; “Strike up a conversation about the future of the industry!” ; “Ask about where they see the department going, and what they think would be their own ideal next step!”

The secret here is this: people love talking about themselves, and they feel good when they’re talking to someone who is thoughtfully listening. People want to help you when you ask intelligent questions, show interest, and make manageable asks. “Could we grab a coffee? I’d love to hear about how you ended up here.” It’s not hard, and it’s an investment that will pay dividends in the future.

Not taking my physical health seriously

My body holds me back a lot. Fatigue, pain, fear, anxiety – all of these things are my bodily response to a lack of care and feeding (so to speak). I had no idea the impact that being a lazy twenty-something would have on my now. I ate poorly, drank too much, and didn’t exercise. Now, I wasn’t some crazily unhealthy person (I ate greens, went for the occasional run), but I still feel the effects. Whether it’s a bad shoulder from too much time slumped over my computer, a struggle (STILL!) to get on the exercise bike, a wave of tiredness because I’m making up for lost time, or brain chemicals causing an anxious reaction – ALL of these things are manageable with healthy diet and exercise, and a little mindfulness.

Yoga has changed my life. Yeah, yeah. I used to really dislike people who were obsessed with yoga. I thought they were fad chasers, and posers, and lame, weaklings. Then I read an article that changed my life. I had just started running, and was really turning around my fitness. I was super proud of myself, but I was also struggling with soreness and not necessarily feeling that “runners high” that so many people describe. I came across a piece about how yoga exercises your body and brain at the same time – helping you to overcome your “fight or flight” response, lessening stress, and becoming more flexible at the same time. “Huh,” I said to myself, “that seems like it might be worth my time.”

Now this isn’t an advert for yoga (but it did change my life),  the point is that I stated taking care of my body, and therefore my mind, and I am 100% happier for it. I used to make the age-old excuses of time, money, tiredness, youth, blah, blah, but now I know how much better I feel every single day when I move and manage my health. It’s changed everything for me personally and professionally, and I damn well wish I had started LONG ago.

Letting a guy drag me down

When any part of my day is wasted on a man who wasn’t worth my time, I get pretty pissed. The problem is that at the time pining and feeling that melancholia can feel good (thanks brain chemicals), and that I only can really assess the cumulative impact later. I’m now aware of how much time I’ve wasted in both my professional and personal life on guys who LITERALLY WEREN’T WORTH MY TIME. When I multiply my hourly rate by the amount of time I spent on these assholes, I can actually monetize the expense they’ve cost me – and I would really like to know where I can send the invoices. It’s thousands of dollars. Maybe even tens of thousands, and that is way beyond fucked up.

I need all my energy, everyday, all day, at work. I have a large staff, a thousand decisions to make, and a lot to get done in between. I have no room in my life for a man who is dragging me down, and more and more I’m trying to be mindful about letting myself drag me down too. I can’t afford it (literally), and I don’t want to be that person. I’m human (sigh), and a human woman (double sigh), and one who likes the cocky asshole males of the species (quintuple sigh (x10)). I don’t have time for their bullshit anymore, and definitely not my own. I wish I had realized this earlier, but I’m also aware that building up a bullshit meter, and developing defense mechanisms and coping strategies takes time and experiences. So, here’s to all of those things, to saving myself some money, and to investing my time like the wise-amazing woman I am – in myself.

Thanks, Adele…

… for putting into words what I’ve always wanted to say to my younger self: I must have called a thousand times, to tell you I’m sorry for all the things that I’ve done.

Oh wait, you’ve never listed to “Hello” from the perspective of you calling your younger self to apologize…. Try it.

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