While I would love for everyone to read this, the relatability of this article will be with people who belong to marginalized communities.
We all want to be successful. However, there are institutions of power at play that force us into specific roles and codify our behavior for us to achieve conventional success.
For those of us who belong to marginalized communities, this comes at the expense of sacrificing our identity. Hence, we’re faced with an internal dilemma. Should we be conventionally successful, thereby conforming to whatever role institutions have outlined for us? Should we be our authentic selves? If our ultimate goal is to achieve happiness, we need to reframe the definition of success to affirm our identity. Personally, I take pride in being a 31-year-old Indian-American mom and make that well-known everywhere I go.
What do I mean by “conventional success”? For us side-parting, legging-wearing millennials, achievements were well-defined for us throughout our childhood by society: Get good grades, participate in extracurriculars and ultimately attend a prestigious university. We are molded by society to believe our greatest achievement in adult life will comprise of a reputable job title with the corresponding pay. Therefore, we strive to attain the most highly sought-after career to successfully secure bragging rights and fulfill the promise of our youth. We are raised to believe that this is the only way to attain true satisfaction. Our equally self-involved peers are focused on the same outcome and also seem to have made it, as exemplified by their creative humblebrags.
If this is the definition of success driven into us, then why do we still feel ever so unfulfilled?
My theory: External forces dictate both the types of jobs we should desire and the type of people we need to be to fit the job description. This makes it particularly constraining for disproportionately affected people. The more we forgo our subjectivity, the more we ultimately get erased. In reality, the only way to offset this is to fight for ourselves and make our identity known, regardless of the outcome this has on our careers. Huey Newton puts it much more eloquently by stating that “human existence is based upon hope without any real understanding of the odds.” I recognize the irony of an investment banker quoting a revolutionary Black Marxist, but the point remains that we feel a sense of responsibility to stop constricting ourselves into some predetermined template.
I saw an example of this sense of responsibility when my friend resigned from her job because her organization refused to institute the proper training and discussions in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. Principally, the organization was not abiding by her core belief system. Therefore she did not feel she would achieve her long-term goals by staying put. Although she may never see the fruits of her labor, she needed to take a stand to affirm her beliefs and agency, lest she loses herself.
My Journey to Embracing Authenticity in the Workplace
I had a similar dilemma. Several of my female mentors advised me to keep my pregnancy a secret for as long as possible. They advised me to shorten my maternity leave so I could secure my place when I return to work and avoid discussing my child in the office. They explained how people had internalized the fact that women are genetically disposed to prefer motherhood to anything else and hence, are the primary caregivers and nurturers. Therefore, taking these measures would mitigate the average person’s perception of me choosing to be a mom versus a career-oriented woman.
[Read Related: On Career Breaks and Materializing Dreams: How I Came Back to Bharatanatyam as an Adult]
I started understanding why Miranda from “Sex and the City” felt obliged to pretend to be a lesbian so she could expand her networking opportunities, thereby becoming a “partner” in her male-dominated law firm. I, on the other hand, chose to embrace my inner-Elle Woods, happily showing off my feminine side. Like Elle, I rejected the notion of hiding who I was.
In contrast to my colleagues, my desk is occupied with sentimental memorabilia and photographs of my family. The only tombstone I display is the heart-shaped personalized one Nick gifted me for our anniversary. And no, my husband did not literally make me a tombstone as that would be quite a morbid, and frankly, creepy present. For non-bankers, a tombstone is the equivalent of a trophy received whenever an investment banker completes a deal. I excitedly informed everyone in my life, including colleagues, about my pregnancy before my second trimester. I continue to proclaim my motherhood as I make it a point to be present for my child’s desi bedtime of 8:30 p.m.
Reality check? This indeed impacts people’s perceptions of me, given the aforementioned outdated views many still retain. Still, I can attest that there is something satisfying about revealing my identity in the places that mean the most to me, including my workplace. If I didn’t, I would feel much like Michael Scott would if he became best friends with Toby. Indeed, for many marginalized groups, your push towards positive change is a survival mechanism and hence, you are unable to be complacent without exercising your alterity.
I encourage you, fellow readers, to embrace your subjectivity and inner belief systems in all of the important aspects of your life, including your workplace. Without doing so, can we really look at ourselves in the mirror and feel satisfied, no matter what our resume reflects?
To be satisfied with ourselves, we need to strive to merge our value systems with career goals. Thus ultimately attaining “achievements” as we’ve been taught, yet shaping our own narratives.