Unique, Multi-Dimensional, Irreplaceable You (Part 1 of 2)

My kitchen table is spilling over with textbooks, lined paper, construction paper, a shoe box, some old and unwanted papers mixed in with some of my favorite magazines, a bowl of grapes, several tumblers of water, an iPad, a baseball cap, a hoodie, three #2 pencils and erasers (and of course eraser dust everywhere). And just a couple of feet away, my stove top is covered with pots and pans, field trip notices and soccer equipment slips sit on the kitchen island, and the television silently projects what would be a much more interesting version of the evening news if only the volume could be turned up without distracting my son. Yep, that's a little glimpse into a typical day in my life, in my house, and in my kitchen. Not too exciting and not too unlike the lives of many parents of young children.   

Add to this that just down the hall is my office with a scene much like the one on the kitchen table, but filled with my stuff—laptop, bills, reference books, iPad, etc. You get the picture, right? A lot of us are living pretty complicated, messy, and sometimes downright un-pretty realities. So, why, when I look around, do I see so many perfect-looking people? At my son’s school orientation, well-dressed moms and dads walked unhurried through the narrow halls wearing big smiles and carrying the information packet sent to my home the week before bearing a note "Bring to Orientation"; but that I, of course, forgot to bring. "They are perfect," I thought to myself. “What’s wrong with me?” Then I inhaled, plastered a fake "cool, calm, collected" smile on my face, patted my son on the head, sat in a pint-sized plastic chair behind a pint-sized desk, and pretended to be perfect.  

I don't think I'm the only person who does this—strive to create an artificial facade that makes my life look perfect. Many of the women with whom I talk are exhausted, frustrated, resentful, and riddled with guilt. So this is my—and hopefully your—credo going forward: Let's be the modern-day trailblazers. We can redefine perfection to include the stuff that makes our life stories rich and that deeply informs our identity.  

This isn"t a "Can women have it all?" debate. What I'm proposing is that we define, for ourselves, what "all" is – rather than debating a societal definition. Think about it; we are at an incredibly important juncture—women's issues are at the forefront of everything from politics to industry to popular culture. The conversation—"Can women be women and men, too?"—is a bit awkward. Moreover, it defers to a male power structure. 

I propose that we start fresh, framing the exploration of a woman’s and a leader’s journey at a more fundamental level—identity. Traditionally, we have taken a uni-dimensional approach to identity. We tend to think of and describe a person as a woman, outgoing, a born leader, African American, Gen-Xer, or a working mom. Did you notice the "or" in the previous sentence? Odd isn't it? Why not take a more multi-dimensional approach to self-definition, allowing a broader base, a richer context, upon which to build?  For example, I am a 50-something biracial woman, a first-generation college graduate who now holds multiple degrees. I am an entrepreneur, a wanna-be fashionista, a mother, a life partner, and a world traveler. I am an introvert who struggles to make conversation one-on-one but who feels most fully alive when standing in front of an audience. My son and I have “car dance parties” on the way to school each morning, and again after school on the way to piano lessons. I have books piled up beside my bed, a rabbit named "Bugs" and treasure the days that I can practice Bikram yoga, which heals my mind and body. I'm a multi-dimensional person and so are you. All of us have many aspects of ourselves that make us uniquely the people we are, and aspire to be. Now is the time to fully embrace you—all of you.

I have spoken about multi-dimensionality for years and years before ever using the phrase. Multi-dimensionality is a simple and powerful concept because it acknowledges and provides access to the unique intersections of our life experiences, our talents, and our aspirations—to help achieve desired results. It’s also important to realize that experiences, talents, and aspirations may fluctuate over time, with some being more prominent at certain parts of your life than others. 

I have experienced this shift in my own life. Before the birth of my son, I didn’t associate with being a mom; now, it is clearly one of the most important aspects of my identity. Motherhood is a particularly important element of the identity equation for women. This is true even for women who don’t have children. 

When I conduct focus groups in companies, one of the major points of contention is around the topic of work/life balance. Now, I have to admit; I don’t know if work/life balance is even a goal given today’s intense pace of everything—technology, change, demographics, markets. On the other hand, it is true that people with children (mostly women but some men) are more likely to cite experiences where they: 1) believe they have been passed over for leadership positions, 2) felt torn between a family obligation and the need to be physically present at work, or 3) have suffered repercussions associated with taking "approved" leave to tend to family. On the other hand, there is, what magazine Marie Claire calls "the newest form of workplace discrimination": a second class of women who have not had children, carrying "an undue burden at the office, batting cleanup for their married-with-kids coworkers." In focus group sessions, many of the women in this category describe feeling that work is being “dumped upon” them, and further, they are robbed of valuable after-hours time that is rightfully theirs and could be used cultivating a relationship (and potentially, a family). To top it all off, many of the single and/or childless women I have interviewed felt resentful toward women who are married or partnered or have children. They "get tired of hearing about the back-to-back softball games over the weekend" knowing that describing their first date and otherwise restful weekend is considered frivolous; hearing "my husband" this and "my husband" that; "At your age, you really should be married. Why don’t you stop being so picky?" or the most belittling of all, "Oh, you’re single with no kids. You wouldn’t begin to understand what it’s like to be tired!" Of course, the root of all these feelings and realities—the realities of how company policies are established and how managers set performance expectations—is that we live in a world that is still struggling with a very different workforce than just fifty years ago. 

Are you over forty? If yes, what cultural messages were the norm during your childhood? What was the picture of the American family as seen on television? What roles did women play? When I ask this of groups the most common responses are "Leave it to Beaver" and women in heels pushing vacuum cleaners around the house or sitting in a typing pool. Just one generation later, women are showing up in full force and demanding a seat at the proverbial table. Not only has their presence in the workplace been noted, we are literally changing cultural norms. Think about the picture of the American family as seen on television today. What roles do women play? When you think of cultural norms, are you considering the expanded role that women play in politics, marketing, media, and their households? To put a fine point on the fact that women are literally shifting culture, consider this: The rapid pace of women’s changing contribution to society has led to the emergence, in a generation, of a multi-billion dollar industry that did not exist just 50 years ago–childcare. 

Considering the major shifts that have occurred in such a short period of time, it’s no wonder that many companies with their legacy policies that were created with a very different type of employee in mind are now scrambling to reflect the varying needs of our generation, where one size does not fit all. 

Real people sometimes have messy, multi-dimensional lives. With a little effort, you can pull those dimensions together to put yourself on your desired path. From the perspective of your leadership journey, identity is one of the first major milestones along your path. Why? Because identity sits at the intersection of self-perception and perception by others and effective leaders 1) understand themselves (are self-aware), 2) are aware of how others view them, and 3) are able to make needed behavioral adjustments in order to maintain relationships and the ability to influence. 

Take time to reflect on the many dimensions of your identity and how they are interconnected. Our identities are like tapestries, with a variety of aspects that allow our unique and multi-dimensional identities to be called forward.

Leadership Take-Away
What are the ways in which you are multi-dimensional: your unique biography, the cultural lenses through which you see and interact with the world, and the dimensions of your personal tapestry?   

-- DeEtta

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DeEtta Jones & Associates (DJA) guides leaders and organizations on a journey that builds capacity, strengthens innovation, and increases organizational performance by creating a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive environment.

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