When you are just starting out in business, it makes sense to search out those that are more experienced, successful and connected than you, right? I have said as much when talking about finding a mentor to guide your entrepreneurial efforts. You may even find yourself working with these bright stars, helping to grow their businesses and public profiles. One of the best ways to learn about a new business is to work with someone who already has a great track record.
But if you don’t watch it, something might happen to you that happened to me: you become stuck behind the curtain.
Let me explain.
For years, I enjoyed my role as a consultant, where I worked with a lot of successful business owners and executives. I helped them grow their businesses and become better leaders, coached them through difficult decisions, and sometimes delivered training representing their companies. And I dealt with a whole bunch of crap that they didn’t want to deal with, as it was part and parcel of “making things happen behind the curtain.”
Watching their companies get stronger and revenues increase was always very exciting, and I prided myself on my knack for intuitively knowing how to help them address interpersonal issues while growing their business in a healthy way.
But after a number of years, I realized that all of my effort was being used to further their business goals. I don’t know why that came as a surprise, since that is what they were paying me for. I started to see myself as that character from the terribly crude
and sophomoric but strangely entertaining movie American Pie who
started every other sentence with “and in band camp …” My “band
camp” was parroting the philosophy or theory from my circle of expert
mentors and clients.
I hungered to create my own body of work, to speak in my own voice and to make my own views known in a more public setting. But preparing to do it scared the crap out of me for the following reasons:
- I wondered if I had anything useful to say. After so many years of spouting others’ ideas, I wasn’t quite sure what my own were, or if anyone would care about them.
- I feared criticism. If someone didn’t like the materials, presentation or approach of my clients in my “behind the curtain” days, I didn’t take it personally – they got the big bucks and fame, so they could take the heat. But if I were the one front and center, I worried that I would be called out as intellectually inferior, fake or “not good enough” (symptoms of “impostor syndrome” which affects a lot of people, apparently women in particular).
- I wondered if I had “it.” Acting in a supporting role for so long made me wonder if I even wanted to step out in a more public way with my work and my views. What if I couldn’t take the heat?
- I felt unprepared. Although I had been coaching people for a long time, had launched my own successful ventures and had studied and worked in the world of business for many years, I didn’t have specific experience helping people leave corporate jobs to start their own business. I wondered if I should spend a lot of time studying or reading before hanging out my shingle.
- I feared the fate of politicians, where all of the dirt about how I stole someone’s boyfriend in high school, paid my credit card late or “inhaled” in my youth would be dug up and splashed across an imaginary newspaper headline.
- I wondered if I would regret leaving the “easy big bucks” behind. After so many years in an established consulting practice, I didn’t have to work hard at all to make very good money. My network was deep and reputation good, so I didn’t have to prove my competence to anyone.
The funny thing is, most of the highly successful, famous and charismatic people I had worked with were not perfect moral specimens, nor were they totally secure in their subject matter expertise. Most made things up along the way. Some had more skeletons in their closet than a Halloween supply store in October.
So despite my own emotional baggage, I did step out from behind the curtain, thank God, in great part due to my son Josh, who was just 3 months old when I launched this blog. I was holding him right before a client call that I was dreading, to talk about a deathly boring corporate project that I cared nothing about. As I tensed, I could feel him tense along with me. I got a chill through my body as I realized that I was transmitting feelings about work to him directly, and through osmosis. If I was unhappy about work, he would see that, and, from what I know about kids, that is what would shape his own experience with work. My love for him and desire for him to live a free and happy life was the final boot in my reticent behind.
The irony of it all is that as soon as I got started, I realized that most of my fears were unfounded. Not because I was brilliant or bulletproof, but because no one really cared! There was no governing academic body checking the facts on my posts, mostly because my only readers were my best friend, sister and father. Most importantly, I found that finally being able to speak my truth was so much more important than being perfect.
Brenda Ueland, who wrote my favorite writing book of all time in 1938, If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit describes it perfectly in the chapter where she sums up her advice to her female writing students:
“In fact, that is why the lives of most women are so vaguely unsatisfactory. They are always doing secondary and menial things (that do not require all their gifts and ability) for others and never anything for themselves. Society and husbands praise them for it (when they get too miserable or have nervous breakdowns) though always a little perplexedly and half-heartedly and just to be consoling. The poor wives are reminded that that is just why women are so splendid – because they are so unselfish and self-sacrificing and that is the wonderful thing about them!
But inwardly women know something is wrong. They sense that if you are always doing something for others, like a servant or a nurse, and never anything for yourself, you cannot do others any good. You make them physically more comfortable. But you cannot affect them spiritually in any way at all. For to teach, encourage, cheer up, console, amuse, stimulate or advise a husband or children or friends, you have to be something yourself. And how to be something yourself? Only by working hard and with gumption at something you love and care for and think is important.
And that is what I would say to to worn and hectored mothers in the class who longed to write and could not find a minute for it:
‘If you would shut your door against the children for an hour a day and say: ‘Mother is working on her five-act tragedy in blank verse!’ you would be surprised how they would respect you. They would probably all become playwrights.”
I now notice the “behind the curtain” syndrome with some of my coaching clients and encourage them to develop their own bold, audacious, quirky, imperfect and inherently flawed public selves. Because all of us deserve to have our place in the sun, even if we are standing on a milk crate in a public square, passionately sharing our views with an audience of one.
If you are stuck behind the curtain, come on out. We can’t wait to hear what you have to say.