“Hi! It’s so good to be here.
Today, I’d like to take you on a journey of transitions and transformation that have transpired for me over the past two and a half years.
It began with leaving Bain…
Why go into this laundry list?
- I want you to have a feel for what have been some truly untethered times. If things sound crazy, they have been.
- There’s a part of me that wants you to know that I tried. That when I say it’s been 18 months since I was fully employed, that part of me wants you to know that I’ve been busy and I haven’t been sitting around “wasting time.”
Why do I care if you think I’ve been busy?
That’s the point of this talk.
What I’ve learned in past few years of facing unknown, after unknown is not what I’m going to do with my career.
That I’m still working out.
What I’ve learned is how much power our own self-identity can have over us — how much power it’s had over me — and how much of my life I’ve let be run by the wants of my own ego, caring about what others think.
And that’s what I want to talk about.
Ego and self-identity — the stories we tell ourselves — borne initially out of our upbringing, shaped through our own experiences, and eventually polished into the narrative we feel comfortable presenting to the world.
To be clear, I am highly uncomfortable right now.
My ego is flipping out. This would be a far easier story to tell if I had come to a tidy resolution. But that’s not the point. The point is to share my experience, to be real and to be fully visible.
I don’t have the answers. But I do have three hard learned lessons that I’m going to humbly present, as best as I can.
Lesson #1: Ego Is A Thousand Headed Dragon
In the past, I’d associated Ego with “ego trips” or “big ego” — an excess of confidence and swagger. Over time, I’ve realized that Ego is a lot sneakier than that.
A book I cherish put it well:
“Ego is a thousand headed dragon, a mental entity masquerading as our self. It is a construct, fueled by factors outside ourselves to justify our own existence. Regardless of the source of the ego’s expectations, the result is the same: we are slaves to externally derived influences rather than being the master of our internal mental environments.”
I want to briefly take you to a time when my ego was in full force.
I’m about to earn a big promotion. I’d successfully interviewed to be the replacement for an underperforming exec being managed out. I felt… smug. I’d been quietly bragging about my new role to family and close friends. (Not sure there is such a thing as quiet bragging, but I was trying.) It felt as if I was about to get my due.
Then, 9pm the night before the transition, I get an unexpected call:
“We need another week.”
That week became another week.
And another week.
And another week.
By the 6th week I forced the answer I had feared was true: they weren’t firing the underperformer. And they weren’t promoting me.
You know Dante’s 7 circles of hell?
Well, it wasn’t nearly that dramatic, but I did start passing through my own levels of hurt.
- Disappointment. Amazing new role? Not happening.
- Anger. How dare they.
- Confusion. Did I do something wrong?
- Doubt. I should have seen this coming…
- Embarrassment. What am I going to tell people?
And ultimately shame. Quiet bragging time was over.
To me, there was no going back. So I swallowed my pride, fabricated an excuse for leaving, and exited.
It was painful. But my ego amplified the pain.
Which illustrates an interesting aspect of Ego: how it swings from smugness to shame.
In our life, our alignment with other people’s values fluctuates. It depends on what we’re doing, who we surround ourselves with, and who we admire. Try as we might to keep that alignment high, sometimes it’s up, and sometimes it’s down.
Quiet bragging time? That was me in alignment, feeling smug, wanting to be seen. Let’s call that high alignment zone the “Smugness band.”
My low point? That was me not in alignment, wanting to hide. Let’s call that low alignment zone the “Shame band.”
Here’s what I’ve realized about the smugness and shame bands and everything in between:
Me moving in and out of perceived alignment with outside forces?… that’s going to happen.
But caring about that alignment? That came from wanting… wanting to please others, wanting recognition, wanting achievement, wanting success.
That’s the dragon rearing its heads. Which brings me to…
Lesson #2: How To Defeat The Dragon
For me, as soon as I started looking there were a lot of dragons to deal with.
- Concerns about what I “should” write on my LinkedIn Bio — that’s a dragon.
- Preoccupation about what other classmates are doing — that’s a dragon.
- Wishing I could just meet the right cofounder — that’s a dragon.
- Feeling FOMO flipping through instagram — that’s a dragon.
And for me — the big one.
My desired identity as the founder of a cool, meaningful, successful consumer business.
That’s a Dragon.
I wanted to make that identity true. I really did. I mean I just spent the past year and half working on that! But finally after a lot of soul searching, I realize being a founder isn’t for me. And I’ve accepted that’s okay. It’s an identity that I wanted to wear, but it’s not ultimately aligned with me.
And that’s been my key to fighting the dragon — not aggressively wrangling each head to the ground — but instead gentle awareness of my own ego wants, and acceptance of what is, and what isn’t.
Which brings me to the last lesson.
Lesson #3. We are Not our LinkedIn Bio
Letting go of my founder narrative is hard. Right now, standing here in front of you [Stanford MBAs!], still not knowing what I “should” put on my LinkedIn Bio is uncomfortable. But fortunately, as I have stripped away identity-after-identity-after-identity over the past year, I’ve realized how much we are not our LinkedIn Bio.
Or any other public or private identity we make up for ourselves. We’re much deeper than that. We have the freedom and the flexibility to change. Or to remain undefined.
I recently caught up with a former colleague who was in process of weighing Other Business School vs. Stanford GSB. She told me that she visited Other Business School and felt like she could fit in. But then she visited Stanford and said felt like she could belong.
Fitting in vs. belonging. What’s the difference?
Fitting in is external. Conforming to something outside ourselves. It’s the thousand headed ego dragon.
But belonging — that’s internal. It comes from facing and accepting our own dragons so that we can be our true selves, fully visible, and hopefully be welcomed for it.
Our time together this weekend is short. And we are so much more than what’s on our LinkedIn bio. We are fortunate to be a community that values belonging — so let’s make sure we show up.
This impetus of this talk came from the 10 Principles Project I undertook in 2017, to explore May’s theme of “Radical Self-Expression.”