Becoming caricatures of ourselves
Several years ago, after having been obsessed with poetry for a couple key chapters of my life, I stopped altogether. For about three years, I didn’t write a word of anything that I would ever even claim as being poetry.
My poetry had gone viral on YouTube a couple of times (we’re talking “2015 viral” here, so think hundreds of thousands of news rather than millions), and I felt like I probably could’ve again if I had continued to write and look for stages to share on where somebody might be there to film me.
But that was precisely the problem.
I’d gotten so attached to the validation those clicks and views had offered that I didn’t even really feel capable of sitting down and writing for any audience other than the entire world. I didn’t feel capable of writing what I thought in the way I wanted to write.
I’d become a caricature of myself.
So I stopped writing until I felt able to stop shouting out whatever twinkle of an authentic voice could be found anywhere in my more recent writing.
As the tiny handful of people who read these posts may know, the primary audience of these posts is supposed to be… well, myself, honestly.
When I started writing these weekly posts, it was because I wanted to commit to continuously sitting with and sending out my thoughts somewhere where I’d have to call them “done.” I wanted to continue to build my body of work, and I didn’t want my creative brain (or my brain brain) to have any opportunity to atrophy. For the same reason, I’ve also been committing to writing and posting a poem every week.
But I didn’t just want to hold myself to a commitment to writing poems and posts on a consistent basis. I also wanted to do that writing in a place where I wouldn't feel like I’m being observed in the way that I might have during the first chapter of my poetry and performance career. In other words, I’d rather post on this website and on an anonymous Instagram account than on LinkedIn and YouTube.
The reason that this feels important may be self-evident, but it bears specifying nonetheless. I’m human. I hear that makes me a “social creature.” Regardless of whatever that means, I know I’m socially impressionable. My guess is that to some extent, you are too. And when making stuff – whether it’s art or work – no matter how confident we think we are in our thoughts, we’re probably all susceptible to some degree of influence from opinions of others.
This obviously isn’t strictly a bad thing. The reactions we get when we “build in public,” as it’s often called, can be instrumental to the refinement of our work, the clarification of our perspective, and our resilience to criticism. This is especially true when that input comes from people we admire and/or respect.
But there are certain features of the creative process that are inherently at odds with the experience that comes with being a primarily public creator (which we all are, even if our “creations” come in the form of corporate work).
When we sit down to make something and we’re already thinking about how it’s going to be received, or which stakeholders will like and hate it, we begin to suppress the part of ourselves that has its own opinion about what it wants to make; its own needs and ideas to explore in order to actualize our potential.
Our awareness of the “stakeholder gaze” can create a nasty cycle in which we end up hiding from our own ideas and drives, even if we don’t notice it happening or intend to let it.
I find something intensely sacred about committing to giving ourselves ongoing space to create in private, and taking time to develop a close relationship to our own perspectives and ideas before we deign to whip them out in public. Another way of saying this is that it’s worth making some ideas unshakably yours before inviting the world to prod at them.
Consider the changemaking process in a large company environment. In that environment, so much of our work is scrutinized or publicly visible, and in my experience in that setting it can be difficult to notice when we’re planning, managing, or executing out of a desire to reinforce the status quo rather figuring out what we truly personally think would be good for our organization’s mission.
The irony here is that we can offer so much more to the cultures we aim to contribute to when we develop this clear sense of perspective and a differentiated vision that we offer to our teams than when we simply and automatically parrot the party line.
So here’s a litmus test for you to try at least once:
At the end of next week, try to identify the three biggest decisions you made at work and ask yourself these questions about each decision:
Was the decision the one that I think is best for our mission?
If not, what drove me to make the decision I did?
What do I think is the best decision for my our mission?
These private moments of honesty with ourselves can lead to some of the quietest but most foundational opportunities for all of us to innovate on the way we show up for those around us.
What matters is that we know how to get honest with ourselves when we’re not acting in alignment with our unique perspectives, that we take time to realign to that perspective when we’ve floated astray, and, once we come back to clarity, that we get out there and do something with it.