Being Uncomfortable and Being who you Are
A bit of background before we get into this…
This week, for the first time in 2yrs, I had the opportunity to meet lots of my coworkers in person. While this a fun event and I was looking forward to it, something bugged me in the back of my head.
Over the last few years I’ve started wearing sarongs and opening up to the fact that clothes don’t have to be gender specific, and anyone can where whatever they want without changing who they are. That’s actually the point, wearing what you want allows you to explore who you are.
So why is this important, well, because over the last 2yrs at home I’ve become more comfortable wearing Sarongs and recently skirts. While I wore that attire around town here and there, it was never in a crowd, busy city, or office setting. So when this opportunity came up to travel to the AWS NYC office and next day to the loft for an internal and external #Blockchain event, I had to think about what clothes I’d take.
Normally, this wouldn’t matter or even be much of a concern. But now, I had a choice, do I take the skirt and where it on the streets of NYC or at the office. What about after hours at the dinner event? Well, with the encouragement of my coworker, I decided to go ahead and bring the skirt along for day 1 of the 2 day event. Having been at Amazon for 5yrs now, one thing I’ve learned for certain is that we encourage exploration and being ones self. We encourage individuality and create a safe place so anyone can feel safe being uncomfortable.
I’ve also recently had the joy of taking on the Global Segment and Tech Lead for Blockchain at AWS. So I had to think, “What does in mean as a leader to challenge the norms of society, what message would that send to my peers?”
Suffice to say, I felt extremely comfortable and all of my peers were supportive and encouraging. Many of them sharing stories of their cultures perspective on men wearing what American’s could consider “woman's clothing.” Many of my peers thanked me, that although it wasn’t my intention, my challenging the norms showing that you can be successful at Amazon by being who you are, and that inspired them to be more of themselves.
So if everything was honky dory, why am I writing this? Well, everything wasn’t. While the day at the office was Amazon, but not so much on the walk home.
On the way to the hotel I decided to walk ~3 miles back from the restaurant at around 11PM. About a mile of that was with some coworkers so that was no big deal. But once my coworkers peeled off and I kept walking south on Park Ave. with some parts a bit dark and with questionable characters around. I was safe, and I knew NYC was generally a same place, but I felt vulnerable. I’m a 6'4" male walking down the street with a giant backpack and a skirt.
I felt like I was a target, people were looking at me, and at any moment someone could confront me. So part of me wanted to find somewhere and change because I just didn’t want to have to feel that discomfort anymore, but I persevered through it and continued forward. I thought a-lot about how as a white man I can just walk in any neighborhood and ignore ppl and I’m generally fine. After all, I’ve been to questionable places in many cities and walked the streets at night, but never wearing the dress, and that’s what made me feel like I had a target on this time. Like I was asking for trouble just for exploring myself and wanting to be comfortable. I just wanted to be me and get to the hotel to sleep.
I thought how painful and scary life is if this is how it is all the time. How challenging it would be to be yourself but at the same time scared to be yourself and explore curiosities. I was making a conscious decision to wear a skirt. I made a choice to be uncomfortable and be vulnerable, I choose that. But what if you can’t? What if you don’t have the privilege I did. Skin color, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, mental health, birth defects, and so many more are just things we’re born with. They’re who we are, so why should anyone be judged for something they didn’t choose or the choices they make.
This experience made me realize that while I always felt like an ally in ID&E, I had never really felt that hurt. And I still don’t know what it’s like, because after-all, I’m still a tall WHITE MAN. I’m not going to pretend to know what it’s like when you don’t have the choice, but I can only image the hurt I felt scaled exponentially.
I want to somehow express this to my kids and everyone else. I want them to grow loving all and everything about ppl. Everyone deserves a chance and earns their way in life. So there’s no need to judge.
Let’s close this off by talking for a bit about why this experience taught me about being a leader. There’s a book from @SimonSenek “Leaders Eat Last.” And while he uses it to explain general leadership, I think it apply here too. We need to look at our teams and peers and ask ourselves how can we be an Ally and include everyone in the conversations? How can we create a an inclusive environment if we haven’t felt the pain of being excluded? You can’t understand inclusion w/o digging into what exclusion really means and feels like.
Therefore, as leaders we need to make sure we take the time to create a supportive environment. That means a safe place where people can be who they are or want to be with minimal challenges and encouraged to explore.