Yesterday a friend of mine who is the mother of bi-racial kids shared on Facebook the story of Meghan Markle, the bi-racial actress now engaged to Britain’s Prince Harry. In the post, Markle recounted the advice her father had imparted to her as a 7th grader when she struggled with what racial box to check on a required form at school. Markle wrote about this in an article for Elle Magazine in 2015:
Fast-forward to the seventh grade … There was a mandatory census I had to complete in my English class – you had to check one of the boxes to indicate your ethnicity: white, black, Hispanic or Asian. There I was (my curly hair, my freckled face, my pale skin, my mixed race) looking down at these boxes, not wanting to mess up, but not knowing what to do. You could only choose one, but that would be to choose one parent over the other – and one half of myself over the other. My teacher told me to check the box for Caucasian. ‘Because that’s how you look, Meghan,’ she said. I put down my pen. Not as an act of defiance, but rather a symptom of my confusion. I couldn’t bring myself to do that, to picture the pit-in-her-belly sadness my mother would feel if she were to find out. So, I didn’t tick a box. I left my identity blank – a question mark, an absolute incomplete – much like how I felt.
When I went home that night, I told my dad what had happened. He said the words that have always stayed with me: “If that happens again, you draw your own box.”
This piercing bit of wisdom taught 7th grade Meghan a lesson that has clearly stayed with her and impacted how her life unfolded: that her individuality was more important than her conformity , and that she should boldly do what it takes — including breaking some rules and expectations — to preserve that individuality.
The value of this advice goes far beyond the world of racial identity and expectations. Standardization and homogenization work great for industrial processes and interstate commerce infrastructure, but not so much when it comes to human beings. Todd Rose’s The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness is a great book detailing the value of deviating from the norm. Whether it is how you deal with adversity or how you manage your career, being You is better than just being what others expect you to be . This is true even when those expectations are not, in and of themselves, bad.
Here are a couple examples of what it looks like to draw your own box instead of just checking one of the boxes others expect you to in life:
I have several friends in my life who have had to face the reality of having cancer, most often woman facing breast cancer. It has been inspiring to watch women like my friends Jaimee, Michelle, Sherri, Carla and others embrace the fight they faced and use that framework as fuel to walk the road that lay before them.
Recently, my close-as-a-brother cousin, Chris, was diagnosed with a most aggressive form of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma (Stage 2B). This terrible discovery came soon after Chris completed his 64-day pilgrimage across the French Pyrenees and culminating in the Camino de Santiago. As Chris processed this shocking news, he found that the “fight it” framework just didn’t fit with who he is. In his words, as delivered in his video blog —
And I said “What is my role in all this?” And it’s just to enjoy it … to see the beauty in it every day and enjoy the walk. … Please don’t text me things about “We’re gonna fight this” or “You’re gonna fight this” or anything that has to do with fighting. That’s not me. I’m not confrontational on this. I appreciate those people that need to have that mentality when they want to do that, but for me, that’s not how I’m approaching this. For me, I’m approaching this as: I’m lovin’ it. I’m lovin’ what it is.
For Chris, his having cancer isn’t a fight; it is just another camino, one for which his first camino unexpectedly helped prepare him to walk. I must admit that it was a bit jarring to hear the closest person I have to a brother not embrace the ethos of “fighting cancer.” That’s what we expect people to say and do when they are facing cancer. But, that’s okay: Chris is drawing his own box.
A friend of mine recently left her GM role at a major international corporation. With an impressive resume and P&L responsibility for hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, Dustyn wasn’t just ascending the corporate ladder towards a C-suite gig in the future — she was cruising up the corporate escalator. But then she discovered something surprising: she wasn’t very happy. In spite of all the cultural expectations about what a person — especially a women! — should do with that career trajectory before her, Dustyn made a surprising decision. She left and joined the leadership team of a much smaller, much newer, less established company. She took less pay and more risk, foregoing the expected path of someone in her position.
Now, Dustyn is working in the fine arts space at Artsy.net, and simply checking the expected boxes is a thing of the past. Dustyn is drawing her own box.
Meghan Markle’s story resonated with me because it reminds me of the task before me as well. As anyone who knows me or has seen my TEDx talk knows, my first career as a prosecutor became the box by which I checked who I was as a person. Then, a surprising opportunity found me out of the blue, taking me into an entirely different career as an executive with a large, mulit-national corporation. Now, after five and half years of checking that box, my time there has ended as it does for so many in Corporate America: I’ve been laid off.
In the aftermath of this new development, the questions come to me from both others as well as inside my own head: what am I going to do now? Do I return to my first career, where I can resume checking the “prosecutor” career box? Do I find a new job with a new company where I can continue checking the box of “business executive”?
There are sound reasons why I should do one or the other of these things. That’s how expectations work: they are often well intentioned and soundly reasoned, after all. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can all treat expectations like Meghan, face adversity like Chris, and chart our own course for the careers we want like Dustyn. I know that what I aim to do. I am going to pick up my career drawing pencil, find an empty spot in the margin of my life’s plan, take a stab at drawing my own box instead.