"Everyone wants to be understood. Listen with the intent to understand, not to answer."
During the early morning hours of August 27th, 1997, I exited the plane and entered Frankfurt International Airport at the age of sixteen. It was immediately apparent to me just how tough this was going to be. Although many passengers and employees in the airport spoke English, I immediately noticed every sign that was written in German. While many of the signs were bilingually designed, seeing numerous words that I could not recognize, let alone pronounce, caused an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. Aware that teachers in schools do not come with bilingual signs, I felt that fear creep up out of my stomach and make its way toward my throat. How will anyone understand me? How will I understand them? Teachers do not hold up bilingual signs in their classrooms and neither do people on the street. Or children of the same age, who are looking at you, staring at you, waiting for you to fumble over words so that they have something to laugh about, something that they can use to distinguish you as different from themselves. Weird. Peculiar. Queer. Breathing through that fear, there was nothing left to do but to keep walking through the lineups, dragging my suitcase behind me. Today, at thirty-six, Im still walking through the lineups. My suitcase, however, has become lighter. Here is how.
"Do not conform to the lesser expectations people may have of you.
(And do not expect less from yourself)"
No one at the small school my mother enrolled me in quite knew how to deal with someone so “other”, who was taking “too long” to adjust and learn the language. Too long to become “normal” and “settle down”. It came as no surprise that I was released from school following the tenth grade and told to focus on learning German and getting a spot as an apprentice in a good company in order to then get a nice job and make a good living for myself. Unable to fathom what leaving school would do to my future self, and not daring to question the authority of my school principle, I did what I was told and conformed to the lesser expectations he had of me and I was gradually beginning to have of myself. Somewhat successfully, I landed an apprenticeship in a global company and spent the remainder of what should have been a more curious, experimental time of my life trying to fit into jobs and teams where I really had no business being in the first place, trying to make “it” work.
"Your success is your own responsibility.
If you have to "fit-in" to belong, the container is too small.
I did not belong. It did not feel right. I felt like an imposter, a fake, a mole. Breathing down my neck was the constant feeling of being “found out”, as though someone was going to pull me aside and ask me what I was doing here and when, for the love of god, was I finally going to get about the business of doing whatever it was that I was supposed to be doing. After a year or two, no one could hear that I was not from Germany. I had learned the language, integrated myself. Done, basically, as I was told. I fit in. However, the assessment of my role in the teams within which I was performing was rarely, if ever, based on job performance. My results were good. The numbers were okay. I fulfilled contractual obligations, went above and beyond by taking on extra projects and did as much overtime as was required to get the job done. I advanced in my career to the point where I was “second in command” in my area, with five workers “under me”. Still, during each and every “personal-development conversation” or “performance assessment situation” my bosses noticed something was “off”. My performance was judged based upon my “difference”. My “otherness”, which no matter how hard I tried to stifle, kept on bubbling up to the surface. God knows I noticed something was “off”, too. But making rent, needing to eat and the sheer fear and shame of being dubbed a failure prevented me from ever telling my bosses, or admitting to myself, that the career path I was on had been dictated to me, rather than grown organically from what I love to do and what I can do. The truth is, while I was “good at” my job, I just didn’t care about it. Still, I knew, there was no excuse. There is nothing that defines success less, than someone who was “wrong-done” and won’t accept responsibility for the un-wronging of the doing. I had to outgrow being the victim of my circumstances.
"You absolutely must love what you do and it must be of your own choice.
Autonomy and Passion are non-negotiable."
At twenty-eight, a radical and necessary contemplation of where my life was going was in order. I had been denied educational and work-related opportunities, whether intentionally or not, based on where I had come from and how well and quickly I had been able to integrate. How well I could conform. My worthiness of opportunity had been inherently linked to my resemblance of everyone around me. The idea that only those who speak a language perfectly are worthy of being heard, are considered “integrated” is an idea that bothered me before it actually happened to me and continues to bother me to this day. I had been denied a high school education and any hope of a university education based on this notion and had embarked upon a career in order to compensate for it. This career, although I had been able to figure it out and perform adequately, had not been able to fulfill me because firstly, I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do and secondly, I hadn’t chosen it for myself. It had been dictated to me, pushed upon me, but it hadn’t been a choice. The real problem, however, was that I had remained a victim of my circumstances out of fear. The boy who hadn’t dared stick up for himself in the face of his school principle had grown up and the fear of “ending up this way” and a number of friends who were tired of hearing me complain pushed me into a local night school and finally, into university. There, I took night classes (and shifts as a night receptionist to pay for them) until I emerged with degrees in Diversity and Gender Studies. Now I was finally doing something that I had chosen to do myself, loved and that I actually wanted to do.
"Everything that you were criticized for when you’re young (everything that made you “different”)
will make you unique when you are an adult.
Own it or it will own you."
I studied everything I loved. Everything I was good at. Everything I could speak of and about. I proudly planted myself into a field that I had lived, breathed and felt for my entire thirty-six year lifetime. Migration, negotiating differences, speaking on the intersections of age, race, class, ethnicity, language, health, and sexual orientation: such topics became my everyday deliberations. I looked at team performances of those who felt included versus those who did not. I examined innovation, creativity and their connection to diverse teams. I argued the business case of diversity with top notch managers asking me what it would cost them and I argued the ethical case of diversity with individuals who again, asked me what “dealing with” diversity in their company would cost them. I discussed the construction of the terms “home”, “identity”; “otherness”, and “language” with countless groups of people. All the while, aware that my story, my narrative, had changed. Everything for which I had been criticized as a child, an adolescent and as a young adult: Everything that had made me different, had now become my strengths. No longer did I feel the need to shed my skin in order to be able to do my job. My calling and my profession were intertwined. I did belong. It did feel right. I was no longer the imposter, no longer waiting to be “found out”. I became interested in politics and completed an apprenticeship in the German Parliament, (which my principle, I am sure, would never have believed). I joined a political party and founded a humanitarian organization dedicated to providing aid to those who need it. But most importantly, I found my own unique niche in a team that lifts me up every time I go to work. And when they need uplifting, I’m now secure enough to provide it.
My journey, and I have spoken to countless others who have travelled similar ones, has taught me some fundamental truths about work and personal ethics:
1. You do not have to check your private life at the door, before you get to your desk. As a matter of fact, you can’t, no matter how hard you pretend to.
2. You absolutely must love what you do and it must be of your own choice. Autonomy and Passion are non-negotiable.
3. Your education is paramount, but you do not need a degree to speak the truth on any given topic.
4. Your success is your own responsibility.
5. Your inner voice is there for a reason. (To be ignored, is not that reason).
6. Everyone wants to be understood. Listen with the intent to understand, not to answer. (-S.R. Covey)
7. Do not conform to the lesser expectations people may have of you. (And do not expect less from yourself)
8. If it feels right, it is
9. If you have to “fit in”, the container is too small. Move on.
10. Everything that you are criticized for when you’re young (everything that made you “different”) will make you unique when you are an adult. Own it or it will own you.