When I was first starting out in my career, I read a lot of expert advice on how to be a rockstar at work. I researched everything from what to wear to the most marketable skills to how often to attend happy hour. Like a lot of fresh graduates, I wanted to make a great first impression and believed that I could study and master a prescribed set of rules that would get me to that goal.
Given all that, it’s probably not going to shock you that when I created my first Individual Development Plan (this book is an awesome IDP tool, by the way!, confidence was my number one area of opportunity. Looking back now, it’s easy to see why I wasn’t confident. And the answer isn’t the obvious one (that I lacked professional experience), although that certainly contributed.
The bigger reason was that I bought into the lie that if you want to be successful, then you absolutely must be a specific way. And y’all, who I naturally am does not fit neatly into that stereotypical mold. I can think of few things that are less appealing when I start a new job than a happy hour after a full day in the office, building relationships with my new colleagues (I enjoy happy hours once I’ve established relationships, but in the new job stage I find them to be the cherry on top of Too-Much-Peopling Pie). I’m an introvert, and I always will be, even if extraverts generally earn more money. And you should see me try to walk in heels.
The fact that I was able to write that last paragraph and not water it down before publishing this post demonstrates to me just how much confidence I’ve built over the past eight years. As I practiced new skills, became a subject matter expert, and and stepped outside of my comfort zone, my confidence as a professional grew. While this skill-related confidence grew naturally, my confidence in my ability to show my true colors and still fit in at work required a spark.
And if you’ve read anything else I’ve written, you can probably guess what that spark was: the garden. Before I jump in to another garden metaphor, I’ll pause here to say that another important catalyst is finding a workplace culture that is in line with your values and that places an emphasis on individuality, creativity, and innovation. I am so thankful to have found this type of culture at Primo Water, an organization that has made it easier for me to take what the garden has taught me about myself and bring it to life in my work. If you haven’t found that yet, keep looking — the end result is absolutely worth your persistence.
Companion planting is one of my very favorite gardening concepts. When you grow different types of plants together, they can build off each other’s strengths and the group is diversified, which equips the entire community to more effectively fight off pests and disease. Diversification is a commonly understood business practice that helps to limit risk. And more and more companies are embracing workforce diversity to take advantage of this power.
While I understood these ideas well at a high-level, I didn’t fully understand that the rules applied to me until the garden illustrated the concept for me. Eventually something clicked. Why should I spend my days trying to fit into a specific mold, when nature shows so clearly that everyone (myself, my colleagues, my company, and my community) would be better off if I played the unique part that only I was capable of playing? I wasn’t doing anyone any favors (in fact, I was doing them a disservice) by pretending I was a pole bean when what my organization really needed was a squash plant to shade out the weeds and keep the soil moist.
I’m not saying that you should ignore your company’s culture and do whatever you want as an individual 100% of the time. Being a team player is critical. There are some situations that require formal attire as a way to demonstrate respect. And I always encourage people to step outside their comfort zone and give that happy hour a try at least a couple times. But never lose site of the fact that your team, your company, your community, and our world will be stronger and better if you bring what makes you unique to the table. Be confident in the value that only you are capable of bringing to the projects you work on and care a little less about what our culture says you should be.