LMNO Peas (photo from GoodReads.com)
For her third birthday, my daughter received the book LMNO Peas. The book featured little green peas who act out various professions alphabetically (acrobats, bikers, you get the idea). The best page of the book is dedicated to U – “We’re peas and we’re unique!” Dozens of little peas parachute down from the sky. Some with goatees, others with glasses, some smile while a few frown. They are all different – they are all celebrated. I told my daughter that there was no one in the world like her and – wasn’t that pretty neat? She agreed but didn’t fully grasp that big idea. I’m 27 years older and I don’t know that I fully appreciate this wonderful truth.
Imitation can only take you so far
When reading articles titled: “10 Ways to Present Yourself on Social Media” and “Only Display These Four Personal Items in your Workspace” it feels like even our methods of self-expression are becoming formulaic. And for what? We tend to believe that conforming to an idea of how we should look or act will suit us well in business.
Presenting your authentic self is tough at the workplace. But so is putting on a front. When I started off in my career, I was intimidated by a co-worker. Like me, she was fresh out of school but, unlike me, she was pulled together, disciplined, well-traveled and well-read. She didn’t have any vices. She was fantastic at her job and acted as if she knew what she was doing, even though she had zero experience. Unintentionally, I started acting like her. I tried to copy her folder organization system. I found myself mimicking her phone sign-off. But even though her folder organization system was flawless and her phone sign-off was professional – it was all wrong on me.
Why is this important? Because employers don’t hire us because we’re “just like so-and-so.” They hire us because of our uniqueness. Nilofer Merchant calls this our “onlyness.”
Owning your onlyness
Here’s how “onlyness” struck a chord with me:
- Onlyness is whatever your “kickassness” is. It can come through in a mission, hobbies, small ways and in big and it’s recognizing our own story as to “why do we care?”.
- Pattern recognizing: why investors keep going to white, young, well-educated guys because that’s what worked in the past.
- How do we NOT break in (i.e what’s holding us back?)? We tend to kiss ass. But we’re kissing ass “to a moving butt.” You’ll never fit in to someone else’s constraints – so stop trying.
- How do we break in? Stand up for our onlyness and celebrate our kickassness.
Merchant believes there are so many people excluded in our economy and embracing our onlyness is the key to unlocking our (and everyone’s) potential.
Putting it into practice
Embracing onlyness sounds empowering and easy. How hard is it to be ourselves? What holds us back? For me, it’s the need to please. An example: I see so-and-so succeeding so I think that’s what’s valued. Then I emulate that style until I’m finally comfortable in the role. And then, I start to sound like myself.
Going back to when I started off my career, once I started sounding like myself and owning my onlyness, then my phone sign-off sounded genuine and my folder organization (although it won’t ever be perfect) worked for me. I learned to stop “kissing ass to a moving butt” so that I could finally be myself. It’s easier, it’s authentic and isn’t this what we all want from our co-worker, family, friends and our kids?
What is your onlyness? Wasn’t that a painful part of the presentation? Even though the audio is cut off you can still feel the tension. People struggled to participate and voice their unique qualities. Even in a comfortable, safe setting it’s hard for us to be proud out-loud. Nearly impossible for us little peas to parachute down happily wearing glasses, waving.
The last page of LMNO Peas, asks the reader “Who are you?” I started asking my daughter to say a few things beyond her name. So far, she’s noted that she’s a daughter and princess but, at least that’s a start to identifying her onlyness.
If I’m asking her to celebrate her uniqueness, I better do the same. I asked myself: “What’s my onlyness? What makes me kickass?” Going through this exercise by myself was a challenge. I brainstormed for 15 minutes and only scratched the surface. I invite you to do the same because we’re people and we’re unique!