Don’t look to the outside world to tell you that you’re on the right path; that’s an inside job.
When it was time to go to high school, my mom begged me to go to private school rather than the notoriously “ghetto” school the kids in my neighborhood were bused across town to. Admittedly, my ghetto high school did end up getting shut down after a string of fleeing principals and a long run of too-low standardized test scores, but I also had an outstanding educational experience and am still best friends with my high school friends and in contact with my teachers.
When I turned down admission to Brown, Wellesley, and a full ride to the University of Texas to attend a college my parents had never heard of, they didn’t understand it but they supported me as best they could. Pomona College it is! Or is it Ponoma?
My first semester of college, I found myself drawn to classes like “African American Mental Health” and “African American Crime and Mystery Novels,” and consequently decided to major in Black Studies. Upon hearing about my choice in major, my uncle shook his head and said, “Black Studies? What is that? Why aren’t you studying engineering? Girl, I thought you were smart.”
When I cut off all my expensively and chemically straightened hair the summer after my freshman year of college, my mom and sister were incredulous. I had wasted all the years of hard work to have “pretty hair” just to now be nearly bald—like a man! Subsequently, at my summer internship, I got mistaken for my fellow intern John on a weekly basis, and my uncle (yes, same uncle) asked me if I was “runnin’ with them gals.”
When I started to grow dreadlocks, people asked me questions like, “But how will you wash your hair? What will you do if you change your mind? Aren’t you scared it will be hard to get a job?” The brow-furrowed curiosity and concern of friends, family, and hair-fondling strangers wore on me but didn’t dissuade me. (In case you are wondering, I wash my hair just like everyone else.)
When I decided I wanted to get my MBA, my college advisor urged me to consider a career as an academic. I could have a great career, a good life. I was so good at my coursework in Black Studies, and I could do so much more. I loved what I had learned in college, but I knew my path was taking me elsewhere.
When I wrote and self-published a self-help book, I often had the experience at my book signings of overhearing a passerby make fun of my book title, not realizing that I was the book author rather than a Barnes & Noble employee. More than once, that very same person who made a snarky comment on my book title returned to the signing table to buy a signed copy!
When I finally admitted to myself that I really wanted to teach business at the college level along with running my admissions consulting business, several people urged me to only accept a teaching offer at the very top schools. Otherwise, it would look bad (At the time, I didn’t stop to think, Look bad to who?!).
I bought into the idea that a recently minted HBS grad shouldn’t be “wasting” her time teaching at a “no name” school. As the new school year is starting, my heart aches that I’m not preparing my classroom and lesson plans for my new students. I let the outside world tell me what to do next—and I don’t think I made the right choice. I look forward to a second chance to teach business or a related subject on the college level—top-ranked school or not.
As you work toward your goals, people you love, people you look up to, and people you want to approve of your choices will be confused by your decisions, may doubt your ideas, will laugh at your folly. This is to be expected—not because people are cruel but because people are scared.
They’re scared you will fail and won’t recover from the wounds of your fall. They’re scared you’ll succeed and that your cacophonous joy will awaken them to their own long silenced visions. They’re scared that the spotlight you shine on your hopes and dreams might blind you, burn you, or beam you up to an entirely different planet, far away and forever inaccessible. This love-tinged fear, though well-meaning, is usually not useful.
My fellow adventurer, understand that on your journey, you will be ignored, overlooked, shown up, and passed up. This is a natural part of trailblazing. As you discover and follow your path, do your best to look not to others to cheer you on, give you Facebook likes, or pat you on the back. Turn inward and listen to the still, small voice that says, “Yes, this is what I should be doing. Yes, this is the next right action.”