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Who tailored your suit?
Altering ourselves to fit external expectations
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As a quiet leader among vocal extroverts, I didn’t quite felt comfortable in my own skin.
A few years ago, I worked with an executive coach. We collected a thorough round of 360 feedback from twenty colleagues up, down, and around in the organization. When I read about my strengths, I winced:
“Mindy is extremely personable and makes a conscious effort to get to know people that work with her to enable the team to operate better together.”
“Mindy builds empathy and solidarity with team.”
“She’s kind and relatable.”
“Mindy is thoughtful and people-oriented. She is able to get a large group of diverse stakeholders onboard with the same vision."
Surely, being nice and personable were not enough. These were euphemisms used to describe weak leaders who got nothing meaningful accomplished.
After all, could I imagine the top executives in technology getting this kind of feedback? Absolutely not.
They were decisive, visionary, unabashed, bold, risk-taking. I spent a lot of headspace observing leaders who fit the right mold and dissecting how I could shape shift to be more like them. After an important meeting, I would berate myself for sounding too “Mindy-like” and take mental notes about how next time I’d show up differently.
Why we shape shift
Growing up, and throughout our lives, we develop strategies for fulfilling our basic human needs: respect, belonging, and security. These strategies are incredibly sticky, and they often involve observing what works in the world and adjusting our behaviors to fit in or feel accepted. They’re also reinforced by myriad signals around us: the articles we read, the people we interact with, the labeling of who’s winning and losing in our industries and circles.
I’ve worked in tech my entire career, and it’s an industry with a penchant for celebrating archetypes. While I’ve appreciated the recent push for diverse voices, the mold of what a successful tech leader looks like leaves a resilient impression. And it’s the depth of this imprint that, earlier in my career, made it difficult for me to accept that perhaps my most defining qualities would deviate from that paradigm.
There once lived a tailor name Zumbach who had a reputation for making the finest of clothing. He used only the best fabrics and he was especially known for his impeccable suits.
A fellow went to Zumbach the tailor to be fitted for a new suit of clothes. After Zumbach altered the suit, the man stood in front of the mirror to check the fit.
At first glance he noticed that the suit jacket’s right arm sleeve was rather short, and too much of his wrist was showing. “Say, Zumbach,” the fellow noted, “this sleeve looks a little short. Would you please lengthen it?”
“The sleeve is not too short,” replied the tailor. “Your arm is too long... Just pull your arm back a few inches and you will see that the sleeve fits perfectly.” The man withdrew his arm a bit, and the sleeve was matched with his wrist. But this movement rumpled the upper portion of the jacket.
“Now the nape of the collar is several inches above my neck,” he protested." There's nothing wrong with the collar,” Zumbach insisted. “Your neck is too low. Lift the back of your neck and the jacket will fit well.” The customer raised his neck a few inches, and sure enough the collar rounded it where it was supposed to. But nöw there was another problem: the bottom of the jacket rested high above his seat.
“Now my whole rear end is sticking out!” the man complained. “No problem,” Zumbach returned. “Just lift up your rear end so it fits under the jacket.” Again the customer complied, which left his body in a very contorted posture.
“But standing like this the pants are too short.” Said the man.
Zumbach answered, “There is nothing wrong with the suit! If you’ll just bend your knees a bit, you’ll see the trousers are just right.” The customer tries it and, lo and behold, the suit fits like a glove – and it’s gorgeous.
Zumbach had convinced him that the problem was not with the suit, but with him. So he paid the tailor for the suit and walked out of the shop in a most awkward position, struggling to keep all parts of the suit in their right places.
Later that day, he was waiting at the bus stop with his shoulders lopsided and his head straining forward, when another fellow took hold of his lapel and said, “What a beautiful suit! I’ll bet Zumbach the tailor made that suit for you.”
“Why yes,” the man said, “but how did you know?”
“Because only a tailor as brilliant as Zumbach could outfit a body as crippled as yours.”
Our families, friends, schools, religions, and society prescribe many suits for us to wear. Some of them fit and many don’t. If a job, relationship, living situation, or spiritual path does not match you, others may try to convince you that you have a problem.
A good, strong, wise, devoted, or mature person, they tell you, should be able to stay in this position and even enjoy it. Yet if such an arrangement does not bring you happiness, you only cripple yourself by trying to stuff yourself into it.
You will never walk comfortably in an ill-fitting suit prescribed by a shortsighted tailor. Your inability to adapt is not a sign of your weakness, but the strength of your inner guidance to remind you where your passion lives. So what you thought was wrong with you may be what’s right with you.
I first heard this story on Tara Brach’s podcast, and it reached right into the most vulnerable parts of my heart.
Reflection #02: Whose suit have you tried to fit into, and what attempts did you make? How is this tailoring influenced by those around you (co-workers, friends, mentors, family, etc.)?
Love and health,