“Just be yourself”. I heard this mantra throughout my childhood. I still hear it as an adult and have concluded that this may be one of the biggest myths of my generation. Someone once told me to be myself in an interview and the job would be mine. Can you guess the outcome? I didn’t get the job. The employer didn’t want “me.” It’s ok, no hard feelings….now. What they got was an authentically nervous “me” – analytical and uncertain, too honest about my prospective job opportunities at the time.
Before you judge, I was honest because the person who referred me to this job, the same person who told me to be myself, had already informed the employer that I was starting a new job the very next day, taking away my leverage. The “me” they wanted was confident and certain that their organization and this particular role was exactly what I wanted. I wasn’t that sure and I didn’t pretend to be. I had more questions than answers. I was totally thrown off by the employer seeing my hand and having insights about me as the candidate, while I did not have those same insights about the opportunity, the organization or their offer.
I was myself and it wasn’t accepted. This happens often in professional settings. We are encouraged to be ourselves, yet the expectation is to be ourselves based on others’ perception of us. I’ll break it down.
PERCEPTION IS EVERYTHING
This was a classic case of expectations versus reality. The person who referred me to the job truly believed I would be confident and impressive during the interview. That’s how he perceived me. While flattered, I’ll admit I’m not that way all the time. I’m not that way a lot of the time and especially not in nerve-wracking situations where I am literally being judged by an encounter that can alter my life course. Talk about pressure. The way he perceived me was not aligned with how I am during interviews and mostly, not aligned with who they were looking to hire for that job. Initially, I felt setup for failure – like I should have lied or seemed surer of the opportunity, even if I didn’t truly feel sure. “Fake it until you make it” – another misleading mantra. I am not a good liar and I am not comfortable being fake. I learned a hard lesson about myself that week – that I’m not good at conforming. I actually already knew that about myself but had never applied it to a situation of any real significance. Since then, I’ve adopted a new approach: “do what you can until you can do what you want”.
CAN’T PAY YOUR BILLS WITH OTHER PEOPLE’S OPINIONS RIGHT? WRONG!
I believe I know myself. However, I also believe that true self-awareness depends on the measurement. I measure my self-awareness by the way I was, the way I am and my progress toward the way I want to be. While insightful, this method neglects a huge component of my identity – the way I am perceived. I know we tell ourselves that others’ opinions don’t matter and we can’t pay bills in likes. I agree. Confidence should stem from within and not be based on any external factors. That is an entirely separate article. Unfortunately, modern society does not afford us the luxury to be completely unbothered, unless you’re a hermit or filthy rich.
Part of knowing yourself is knowing your brand and hopefully managing it consciously. By brand, I don’t mean your business or even your personality. Instead, I’m referring to effectively comprehending how others view you. You don’t know yourself if you don’t know and understand how others see you and why. I’m not saying you should accommodate or even care. I’m simply recognizing the importance of being cognizant of the vibes and energy you project.
Whether you agree with others’ perception of you or not, sometimes it does matter! For me, it cost a job. The reference was reluctant to share the feedback he received about me, but the critique was that I was cocky and that I didn’t seem like I wanted to be there. I found that comical because I recall feeling the complete opposite; sitting in my car moments before the interview, giving myself a pep talk, wiping my sweaty palms on the seats of my car and forcing myself to overcome my interview anxiety. I reminded myself that the worst thing they could say to me was no, and yet it still felt like a blow when I heard it the next day. We live in a world ruled by the courts of public opinion and that is not changing anytime soon.
So, what’s the best way to navigate? What can we do to identify others’ perceptions and ultimately understand and manage our personal brands? How can we maintain authenticity? Check out Part II for a daring challenge that helped me answer all of these questions and learn even more about myself and that you can do too.
Charlia is dedicated to helping others overcome various forms of social isolation through community-building programs and efforts. She currently works as a Project Manager in AARP’s Public Policy Institute, focusing on the development of resources and programs to empower family caregivers in multicultural populations. She is obsessed with understanding identity to promote effective communication that will lead to compassion and healthy relationships – the key to establishing emotional intelligence. Outside of work, Charlia spends time with her daughter Jayce, pet chiweenie Desmond, and as a Girl Scout Troop Leader for two troops in Washington, DC.