When I was 16, I was an English tutor to a 10-year-old girl for a couple of months. Shortly after, I declared to my mother that I want to become an English teacher. She dismissed the idea immediately, and I never asked why. Then, one of my first jobs after graduating from university was as a researcher/ writer for a news magazine – the now defunct Asiaweek. I worked for them for six months and even got my first (and only) byline, a book review of Memoirs of a Geisha, an article that is until today available somewhere in the recesses of the internet. I loved my job for so many reasons, but it wasn’t full-time, and there were no guarantees that it would be someday.
Along came adidas and offered me a management training program. A three-year commitment: one year in Germany followed by two in China on a full expat ride. They mailed me a contract on heavy stock white bonded paper and a business-class ticket to Nuremberg. I was 23, it was an easy decision.
When I got the job offer, my best friend asked me why I was considering it when I already had a job I loved, even if it wasn’t permanent. “That’s the problem,” I said. “I love it too much, writing is emotional for me, and I don’t want to combine passion with work. Sportwear will just be a job.” How can someone be so wrong and so right at the same time? To top this, my parents were incredibly proud of me when I told them about the adidas offer. Thanks to them, every Indian aunty within a 5KM radius knew that my company was going to pay for my apartment.
Fast forward 22 years, I am now a teacher (technically, a soft skills trainer but poetically it’s close enough) and a writer. Yes, it took me over two decades to come full circle. But I’m also a coach and I’ve learned a thing or two about reflection and courage. Over the years, I’ve learned that I have multiple true selves. And maybe you do too.
A disproportionate number of my clients from different age groups come to see me because they’re unhappy/ lost/ stuck in their careers. They experience a sense of doing what they should be doing versus what they want to do, but are in too deep to get out. Or so they believe. I generally hear two reasons for this (though there may be others): (1) I don’t know what I want (2) I’m doing this (knowingly or not) because of my Indian aunties.
According to professor and author Herminia Ibarra, we need to flirt with our possible selves to discover what we truly want. In spite of my early forays, I didn’t wake up one morning knowing I wanted to be a writer or trainer. For over twenty years, I entertained various options before arriving here, and I still flirt. Ibarra also posits that this process is a necessary prerequisite to finding our true selves and yes, selves, not self, for there may be more than one thing you want to do. Along the way, I didn’t know I was flirting, and you may not either. I often hear my clients tell me how they wish they could pursue a passion as a career, not realizing that they have already started the journey and just need to nudge themselves.
As for your Indian aunties, define them. Who are they and what’re they saying? When did they start telling you what to do or rather, when did you start listening to them? One client recently told me that every time he thinks about his strengths, there is a woman’s voice in his head disagreeing with him. Upon further probing, he described this voice as his mother’s which led to reflection on how best to ‘use’ it in future coaching work, and when to tune it out completely.
This is uncomfortable work, and not everyone wants to engage. But maybe you do. Whether you’re 25 or 55, ask yourself: are you your true self?