“The quality of the question determines the quality of the response.”
This statement meant to encourage audience members to ask thoughtful questions also holds true for the questions we ask ourselves. Over time, I’ve come to realize, the better the questions I ask of myself, the better I respond to life and its ever-continuing obstacles.
The adversity we all endured in 2020 raised some challenging questions. One being, whose responsibility is it to make me feel comfortable in a new or different environment. Is life meant to be experienced as a McDonald’s customer or a guest in someone’s home?
From studying abroad in Paris to interviewing developers across Africa, I’ve had the opportunity to exist in a diversity of spaces and connect with individuals from all walks of life. Reflecting on this collection of experiences and assessing where I felt the most uncomfortable, it was clear it was in places I was one of few black people, which was often the case during my time in Corporate America.
Having existed outside of the corporate ecosystem for the past two years, I’ve been able to unpack my experience as a black professional honestly. And oddly, the only experience that feels similar mentally is walking through an unknown hood at night by myself. I’ll explain.
In my teenage years, I frequently found myself exiting train stations in unfamiliar neighborhoods alone. A task that required mental preparation well before my feet hit the pavement.
As my stop approached, my ritual began. Turn my headphones down to remain alert, but keep them in to display comfort. Walk with my head high, a straight face, making eye contact but not staring. The goal was to strike a balance between assertive and approachable. Too assertive, and I’m a threat but too approachable, and I’m a target.
As a black professional in Corporate America, finding and maintaining this balance felt like walking on a tightrope. Each side with its fate, one being labeled unprofessional and the other an angry black man.
At the heart of my discomfort and anxiety was fear. The fear of being fired shaped my daily experience. While in a certain neighborhood, it was the fear of being physically injured or, worst, killed.
Over time in both environments, my mental preparation became subconscious, repetition creating the illusion of confidence. When in reality, the fear never left. And overcoming it meant learning to operate from a place of comfort. Not to be confused with the comfort zone, instead the confidence to be comfortable regardless of the environment.
When we’re in an uncomfortable environment, whether it be a new job or walking down a different block, there are generally three types of people we encounter.
Friendly Frank represents 10% - 15% of people. They’re genuinely kind and are always looking for opportunities to help. Let’s say you emerge from the train station and you’re lost. Friendly Frank will notice, walk over, and offer to point you in the right direction.
The majority of people in our society, 70% - 80%, are IDC Catherine. Taking the same scenario, IDC Catherine may sense that you are lost or new to the area, but they won’t go out of their way to help you or make you feel welcome. IDC Catherine is not opposed to helping. Instead, they place the burden of initiating help on you.
Opportunist Omarion represents 10% - 15% of people and is whom our defense mechanisms are built to protect us from. Similar to Friendly Frank, they’re looking for an opportunity. However, instead of looking to help the vulnerable, they want to prey on them.
In Corporate America, fear led me to believe everyone who wasn’t a Friendly Frank was an Opportunist Omarion. A dangerous assumption to make as it isolated the majority of people, IDC Catherine, ultimately leaving me more vulnerable to Opportunists.
Reflecting on my experience, what at times stagnated my progress was not that I had a bad reputation. Instead, I lacked a strong one. By isolating Catherine, I created indifference and planted the seeds for assumptions because discomfort is often misinterpreted as apathy or anger.
For example, when companies decide compensation, our sponsors speak on our behalf, rarely do we get to plead our case. And in a room of 10 people, the negative remarks of Omarion and the indifference/assumptions of Catherines will greatly outweigh any positive remarks from Frank.
This is why operating from a place of comfort is important. It allows us to be seen for who we are, not the person fear has led us to become. We’re also better able to judge people and their intentions. Fostering the space to be present and only addressing issues when they arrive, instead of worrying and being anxious.
Looking back, I missed out on many relationships because I put the burden on others to make me feel comfortable to avoid rejection. Now instead of spending my energy on how I’m perceived, I focus on deciding how I want to show up. This puts me in the driver’s seat.
I’ve also learned that you attract people based on sympathy when you show up in fear. While you attract those who desire to connect or have a relationship with you when you show up in comfort.
Nevertheless, how we show up has the most impact on our experience, whether it be a party, networking event, or client meeting. And fear, while it can alert us of a potential threat, limits our impact on spaces we find ourselves.