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ORIGINALLY AIRED 04.03.2015
Note: Designing Yourself is produced as an audio podcast. We encourage you to keep in mind that emotion and emphasis may be lost in the written word. Transcripts may contain errors.
Paul McAleer: Hi. This is Designing Yourself. I’m Paul McAleer.
Whitney Hess: And this is Whitney Hess.
Paul: And, you know, I have to admit something right off the bat. This was not the first time we have recorded and spoken about the topic we’re going to talk about today. We had, I guess you could say, a gaffe of sorts that led to us having really weird audio issues. And so, we are doing the conversation all over again. So, that other conversation is lost and gone forever. It’s no longer preserved anywhere except in our memories.
Whitney: And in our hearts.
Paul: And in our hearts, of course. So, the thing that we were talking about was the idea about finding our truth and knowing what our truth is and really how it feels and what we think about it. Not, again, you know, not a small topic, but a really great place to start.
Whitney: And expressing that truth to the world so that the version of ourselves that we demonstrate to everybody else matches what we feel on the inside.
Paul: Right. It’s something that we’ve chatted a little bit about before with the idea of identity and who we portray ourselves to be when we are alone, say, versus our professional selves and our work selves. I remember we had a talk about work-life balance back in the day, probably about, oh, ten episodes or so.
But the idea of really knowing and finding what our truth is feels a little different to me because this idea of personas and putting on these masks is certainly one thing. Those things can bring in some of these elements of our true selves and who we really are. But they don’t necessarily have to. I don’t think so, anyway. If I am in a mode where I am doing a formal client presentation, say, something really straightforward like that, I’m going to be present, and I’m going to bring myself to it, and I’m going to deliver what’s true, of course, truth on a very cerebral level.
But, when it comes to the idea of am I bringing my true self to it, partially, I would say. I don’t know that I’m bringing my entire true self to something like a presentation.
Whitney: Well, you bring up a good point, that there are parts of yourself that you’re bringing that are true, so it is a truth. But there are many other truths as well. And so, I have to wonder if truth is in some way - when you say “the truth,” we’re really referring to the whole truth, which isn’t just a partial truth of you’re an expert in your field, you’re well prepared to talk on a particular topic, you deserve to be heard on that topic, you have a unique message to share. That’s a truth.
But there’s also a lot of other truths that are wrapped up into that. And speaking for myself, I can’t speak for you, but part of my truth, when I’m in that kind of circumstance of when I’m speaking is that I have prepared, and I do feel that I have a unique message to share. And I do feel that I’m worth listening to. But I also am scared out of my mind. I’m also not eating or sleeping leading up to it.
And I’m also worried that people already know what I have to say, that they already feel like they have a great understanding of this and that I’m not adding anything new, or things like that come up. And if we aren’t revealing those aspects of ourselves as well, are we telling the whole truth?
Paul: I’m not sure if we are. The idea of how this relates to speaking is so relevant, and I know that we’ve chatted about it. And it’s in part because it’s something we both do, and it’s just a really - I think it’s a really salient example because I will fully admit that I get super butterflies and nervous before a talk, like right up until the moment. And then when I give a talk, even - I’m not saying just like a big conference presentation, but also on a client level, too - I will have that nervousness. But I know that once I start it will go away.
That is - and getting to a point where I could be honest with myself about that and recognize, too, that it’s not something where I need to stay in that moment of nervousness, but really consider that this is just part of this overall arch, to me, sharing something with somebody. I’m going to get nervous. I probably shouldn’t have a big hunk of barbecue before I talk. I had a hard time with that yesterday, by the way.
You know, those are the things that I have to know about my - well, have to. Those are the things that I do now about myself. And that’s come through experience. And to me that is being truthful and honest with me and who I am in that moment.
Now, when it comes to the idea of parts and our true selves, that’s something that you brought up, and that’s really a great point in that these parts of us are true to some degree unless we’re conjuring up something entirely different, like if we are acting, for instance. I’m not an actor, but I trust - even then I trust there’s some degree of truth in there, but otherwise you’re pretending to be someone else, right? So, I don’t know where you find the truth in those times. I’m not sure about that.
Whitney: Yeah. It’s really interesting what you’re saying, that how do we know what is true? Because, while we may not be identifying as actors, so to speak, many of us are acting all day every day. When you give a presentation to a client, you’re acting like someone who has it all figured out and has something to share with the client. Or when you are speaking to an audience, you’re acting like a confident speaker who is prepared and worthy of their attention.
When you are on a job interview, you’re acting like a confident, successful, viable candidate for the company who’s worthy of the job. And we do a lot of things like this where we put our best foot forward. That’s what we’re always told to do. Like, the worst foot isn’t something that should come, too, but guess what? You’ve got two feet.
And so, there’s something about this truth that for me feels like the whole truth and nothing but the truth requires not only playing up all the good parts but owning up to the not-so-good parts as well and maybe not judging in the first place what is good and what isn’t good, just recognizing that we are all a mix of positive and negative, and when we try to isolate only the positive and present that to others and believe that within ourselves as well and not come to terms with all of the other pieces that maybe we’re really losing something.
We’re losing the wholeness of an experience and maybe a connectedness to other people because I know at least for me that when someone presents themselves in such a good light and they’re so inspiring and incredible but they don’t have any vulnerability, I can’t feel as connected to them because they just seem too perfect, and then how could I ever measure up, or what would I ever have that would be of interest to them? All those feelings arise because they’ve presented as perfection rather than as human. Do you ever have that experience?
Paul: I do. And the parallel that I drew right away was this whole idea of failing fast, right, this old saw of how to be successful in business. Thinking about that angle first is about this vulnerability and, wow, if you messed up, then you come out and say, wow, I really messed up.
But a lot of the conversations that I had heard over the past, oh, I don’t know, five, ten years were more about business failure and not necessarily just personal failure. And that’s very different. If you start a company and it’s not successful, people are impacted, of course. People are affected by that.
But it’s very different to hear about a time when, you know, say, somebody was going to do something very important to themselves in a relationship or wanting to build a family or doing something that was really scary. And it was fucked up. That is - it’s not a moment that really prompts joy. But as you say, it does bring forth that idea of, oh, this person is human, too.
You know, one thing that that made me think of was the idea of don’t meet your idols, right, that whole concept of don’t meet the people that you, say, follow on Twitter or see on TV or the movies or what have you, because the idea with that phrase and the way I’ve always understood it is that you’re going to discover that those people are messy humans, too.
And when they’re putting out that image - they are acting, they are writing, they are putting stuff up on Instagram - things do look really good for the most part, right? We self-edit. We all do this. But some of us have chosen instead to also show that vulnerability in public. And I’m curious why we do that. I want to chat about that with you.
Why do you think we do this? Is it strictly because that, like you, I find those connections way more powerful and interesting, I mean, and connections even being just reading something or watching something. Or is there something else that comes to the table there? Like, what parts show up when you’re sharing something vulnerable in that way?
Whitney: Well, when I have tried to present myself as having it all together and knowing everything and believing everything I say all the time, I find that I’m very uneasy with what I’m sharing because there’s a little voice inside my head that knows how much I don’t know. And I don’t feel as good when I’m sharing what I do know to be true when I’m not revealing what I don’t know to be true.
And so, it causes not only a disease - and disease comes from dis-ease - in myself, but it also creates a strange power relationship with other people. And I’ve found that it was oddly positioning me in some way above the other person. And when the other person - the message that they received from me was that I had the answers. And they feel like they don’t have the answers and I have the answers, so they look to me for the answers.
And as a consultant for six, seven years, that was something I was purposefully cultivating. I wanted to be seen as the person with the answers. But it never made me feel good, and I eventually learned that it’s because no one has the answers. And I certainly don’t. And I don’t like pretending like I do.
And I would much rather be in a power dynamic of equals where I have some answers, but they’re the answers for me. You have some answers, and they’re the answers for you. Maybe through my act of honesty and truth of admitting there are things I know and there are things I don’t know, and I certainly don’t know what’s right for you, I can encourage you and empower you to find the truth for yourself, to find your truth.
And that’s when I shifted from consulting to coaching. And that meeting of equals is so much more comfortable for me. I don’t get the butterflies the way I used to, the nerves going into a presentation where I felt like I had to convince them of something, like I had the answers and I want them to know, to believe what I know to be true. Now I’m just helping people to find their own answers. And there isn’t the same level of pressure in that, and it’s just a breath of fresh air.
You know, two things come to mind when you talk about not meeting your idols, because I’ve had a couple of experiences lately where I was thinking to myself, wow, I wish I’d never met this person.
Whitney: Yeah. Two brief stories. One, I was at an event where someone who I have long admired and who was one of the, if not the first, people that I read in this field that made me realize what I want to do with my life, happened to be at an event that I was at. And I was so nervous wanting to go in and present myself well so that if that person happened to be paying attention they’d leave with a good impression of me and all of these things.
And in the end I was so disappointed with how they presented themselves because they were very clearly out of their element in the community that they happened to be in. And rather than come with humility and vulnerability and say, “I’ve been in this game a long time, but what you all are doing is very different to me. I don’t fully understand it. I’m a little, you know, behind the curve on some of these things, or there’s a lot that I have to learn. Teach me.”
I think the crowd would have been so impressed that someone who we idolized so much was willing to be totally truthful, to reveal their truth, that a lot of progress could have been made together because that person does have a lot to offer. But instead they tried to prove just how important of a person they are and said a lot of things that might be true for them but were very much not true for many people in the audience.
And it was so uncomfortable because you’re hearing this person who you admire so much and who many people admire say a bunch of things that you know are not true. And as a result I wanted to say something because I happen to be the type of person who is a truth teller. I pride myself on that even when it gets me in trouble. And, trust me, it gets me in trouble all the time. I still feel the need to have the truth be told because I cannot live with myself if it isn’t.
A lot of other people in the audience who I knew were also struggling with what this person was saying were just kind of like, well, they are too above me. They are too important. I can’t contradict them publicly when these untruths were even more untrue for them than they were for me. And so, eventually I found a way to, as respectfully as I could, offer an alternative perspective to the audience without arguing back to that person as I may have in the past, but I’ve learned many lessons against doing that, so that at least, at the very least, other people in the audience who were feeling that those words were not true could feel some sense of peace within themselves rather than questioning their own truths. Does that make sense?
Paul: Yeah, that makes sense.
Whitney: I’m trying to be as abstract as possible because I don’t think that the person deserves to be called out.
Whitney: Because I know that they know they were telling falsehoods. I know that they know that because it is a rare occasion when someone tells a lie and they don’t know that they’re telling the lie.
Paul: Sure. You get that feeling. There’s a feeling when you’re telling a lie, and for me it manifests as kind of this - it’s coming in my throat, and just does not - it feels a little awkward. It’s not like I have something lodged in there but kind of similar to that idea. It’s noticeable when you’re not telling the truth.
And I think it comes across, and other people notice it, too. You know in what you just shared that this person was not telling the truth. And I had a situation at work maybe about, oh, three or four weeks ago, where someone asked me a question about a particular project or a client. I don’t recall the detail.
And when I was faced with that, one of the things that I would do in the past, I noticed, would fill the space. I would maybe ramble a little bit and say something because I felt so awkward and so down on myself for not knowing the answer to that that I would rather do that and make - not make up something. I wouldn’t fib. But I would say, well, I don’t know, but da-da-da, versus just saying I don’t know and leaving it there.
And what I’ve found in my own experience is that that’s something that I’ve seen other people do, and I greatly respect that. So, I have taken that and started to do that, too. If I don’t know the answer to something, I will just try to keep it as succinct as possible and say I don’t know. Or, if it’s something where I need to figure it out, I’ll say I don’t know, but let me go and I’ll figure that out now, later, whatever, if I need to do that type of thing.
One of the things that - and, by the way, before I get into this, one of the things that I think this shows is this idea that we know how we feel when we don’t tell the truth. We know that, right? You can feel it. And you think it, too, like your brain’s there as well. So, in contrast, when we tell something that we know is true, then it flows easily. There’s less hesitation. Well, we might stumble over the delivery, but it’s something that comes out. It may come out in a very passionate way. Like, when we’re talking about it we started to embody that quite a bit when it’s something that’s truthful.
Even if it is a stance of something that we did not start with, I did not know from the start that saying I don’t know was acceptable in a lot of cases. But I saw that, and I took it in and made it my own. And now that is the way that I do it, right? So, I absorbed that and made it mine. Now, I’m going to draw a parallel to the rock and roll music here. So, are you familiar with the band Spoon?
Whitney: Oh, yeah.
Paul: OK, great. Great band, right?
Paul: There is a podcast that I enjoy listening to sometimes called Song Exploder. And what they do is they take one song and they deconstruct it with the people who made it. They talk to either the producer or the artist, whoever was involved. And they do things like isolate the beats and talk about the origin. And it’s really fascinating. I find it primarily fascinating for songs that I know about versus ones that I don’t.
So, one of my favorite episodes then was with Spoon, and it was for their track “Inside Out,” which is on their latest album. And that’s a great track. And when I listened to this episode, a couple of things came through. It was this idea that when they were making the song, they went through obviously a number of different versions including one that was a little more acoustic.
But one of the things that they did was they would try to emulate other artists. So, they would say let’s do this song like Elvis Costello would do it. Let’s put beats on this track like Dr. Dre would put beats on a track. And I found that just incredibly fascinating because, A, it shows that they don’t have all the answers. They don’t know what sounds good, but they’re going to experiment.
And, B, it’s again that idea that they are taking things from others that they find work well, mixing that up and making something that comes out as their own unique thing and ultimately shows something that’s truer and closer to who they are as artists. And I think that’s a tremendous way to demonstrate that influence that others have on us just in our day to day.
Whitney: I love that example. And so, what was there to hide? Are they any less of musical icons today? Are they any less respected? No, probably more so.
Paul: Right, exactly. And that’s something that I think we hear - well, I don’t know if you do, but I hear that in music a lot. And in fact there was just a big court case about the song “Blurred Lines” and how that stole from Marvin Gaye, I think, right, a Marvin Gaye song?
Whitney: It was a Marvin Gaye song, and they insist they didn’t intend to steal his beat or his sound. But, I mean, Pharrell did say I wanted it to sound like soul songs of the 70s, which is his genre.
Paul: Right. And it’s funny because that Spoon track also had a Marvin Gaye influence, and they brought that up, too. But in those cases we hear people - you know, usually if people are slamming songs, right, they’ll say this sounds like X or this sounds like Y. This sounds exactly like that same artist.
But isn’t that really a way that we find out what our truth is? Don’t we, in addition to these personas that we put out there and try on, don’t we take in these things and see what really works well for us and really seems to help us identify who we are?
Whitney: Absolutely. I always say imitate, iterate, innovate.
Paul: Wow, that’s great.
Whitney: But it’s because you have to know what’s true for you first. So, when you’re imitating someone, you are basically speaking their truth. You’re living their truth. And then you’re able to experience internally whether that feels true for you.
And in that imitation you can feel if this feels fluid. You’re getting into the flow. It’s really energizing you. And yes, this is my truth, too. Or, if you’re coming up against a roadblock, then another roadblock and another roadblock and feels forced, it feels unnatural, then you know through the act of imitation that it isn’t you and so that isn’t your truth. And that’s the only way that I think we really learn. So, you have to start from somewhere.
Now, plenty of people don’t, or at least they’re not doing it consciously. But I think it’s a much more honest story when you are true to yourself and you’re conscious of what you’re doing and you’re able to share that with everybody else because, like the example that you used of being willing to say I don’t know, honestly I don’t know, I’m going to go find out for you but I don’t know, you have without, you know, whether you realized it or not, allowed everyone who you’ve ever said it to to not know things themselves and to say that to somebody else.
You’ve started a chain reaction because a lot of people who pretend to know do so because the message that they received was you have to know all the answers all the time in order to be successful. And when we get these messages, you know, more recently about how good it is to fail, to your point, it’s all about business. But you don’t hear very many people saying my company succeeded and was acquired for a billion dollars, but I lost my marriage. I lost my kids. I lost my house, and I lost all my friends. You don’t hear that story because that story isn’t as shiny and exciting.
And what happens as a result is that as other people are pursuing business success and their personal lives are in shambles, they believe that it’s them, that it’s their own inadequacies, rather than having an awareness that everybody goes through this because not everybody is sharing it. And so, only part of the truth is told, part of the truth of what it takes to create business success as an example.
But the other part of the truth is you don’t have a life. And for people that are attempting to do both and not finding the same success in their business leads to a real diminished sense of self which then of course only perpetuates the lies because then they feel like they don’t want to be the one to admit their own failures, or they don’t want to be able to admit the less positive sides of themselves or sides of their experience.
And so, it’s really just - it’s an amazing thing that you can not only give to yourself but give to other people when you’re willing to share your vulnerabilities in order to tell the whole truth about yourself or what is wholly true to you regardless, whether it’s an opinion, whether it’s way things work, something that you see in the world. I really don’t even think the subject matter matters. It’s almost the act of doing it that really creates that positive chain reaction.
Paul: I think you’re right. And as you were saying that I was also thinking about the idea of, of course, work-life balance, right, which I don’t know if it really exists anymore. It’s just a matter of being able to do the things that are important to you, and however you do that. I’m not an expert on everybody. I don’t know how that works. Sorry, I’m not an expert.
But the idea that I was thinking about was, so basically if you get into some of these business environments where it is you’re going to work extremely long hours, that’s something that basically is setting the tone of your life for you. I’m not going to judge whether that is wholly good or bad for others. But I found through my own experience that that is not compatible with who I am and who I want to be.
I’ve definitely done the startup stuff. I’ve done the staying up all night coding and then presenting to the client at 8:00 the next morning type stuff. A, I was younger, so that’s one thing. I’m not saying it’s just a game for the young, but it is - it would be a lot harder now. I could do it if I had to. But I’m fortunate enough that I’m in a position where I don’t have to do that, and just getting to that point where I can understand that is a part of finding out who I am and discovering that - and it’s not something that is incredibly, arguably, incredibly deep.
I’m not going to say that that was necessarily life changing, or it didn’t feel life changing, right? It almost felt a little more cerebral in some ways. But what it comes down to is acknowledging that that is a limitation of me, and I am OK with that. That is part of who I am, who I identify as, and it’s also part of my truth as well.
Whitney: I don’t see that as a limitation of you at all. I see it as a strong principle of yours that you aren’t willing to put aside in order to get ahead. I think that you’re more interested in being true to yourself than you are in denying yourself and achieving something that society says you’re supposed to want.
Paul: That’s a good spin on it. I like that a little better. But I agree, and it pulls back to the whole idea of the old saw of compartmentalizing yourself, right? And that’s something - that’s kind of where we started the conversation as well is because even when I’m doing a client presentation or a conference presentation, even though I am putting my best put forward, my other foot is there with me.
So, all of those other parts, the parts that are nervous, the parts that are confident, the parts that are thinking, wow, I really don’t know this stuff, all those things that you mentioned as well, those go along for the ride. They are there with me. But it’s a matter of finding out what I need to call on in those moments when I am up there talking or when I’m on the phone talking with clients and what needs to happen and then being able to accommodate myself in that moment and be as true to myself as I can.
And if I cannot address it, if I can’t address some parts in that moment, I will have to address them later. I will have to work with them later. But that’s also just a part of knowing who you are, I think.
Whitney: Yeah. I’m reminded of the Google CFO retirement announcement that was going around last week in which he says - what’s his name? Patrick Pichette. And he said that essentially he was retiring so that he could spend more time with his family and travel and do all the things that they’ve been wanting to do.
And while I am happy for him and good for him that he’s in a position financially where he can do that - I’m sure he’s made a boatload of money with Google, and I’m sure he’s worked his tail off more than any of us could possibly imagine, because being the CFO of Google cannot be easy - I feel like that truth would have been far more impactful had he shared that while continuing to work at Google, had he said, hey, I need more time with my family. We want to travel. We want to be lazy. We want to have no responsibilities for a while. How can we achieve that while I continue to work at this job?
And maybe it wouldn’t have led to retirement had he owned up to it sooner. This has probably been percolating for a very long time. I imagine that leaving CFO of Google is not a decision that you take lightly. And so it was probably a conversation that he was having with his family for at least a couple of years, and it was probably a conversation that he was having with himself for even long before that.
And so, what if in those first moments of acknowledging the truth that he didn’t want a life with his every waking moment was devoted to his employer but that he was able to find some balance between work and home? I prefer that over work-life balance because you should be living while you’re working. Maybe work and home is really the balance that we’re looking for.
Had he admitted that, someone of his high profile could have made a difference. Instead, it seems like the message is make a boatload of money, deny yourself, deny your family. And then, when you feel like you have enough invested that you can retire on safely, then quit. And that’s a luxury and a privilege that 99.99999 - go on forever - percent of the population will never have.
And so, it’s a little too much, too truthful too late, where, you know, perhaps more of a discussion could have been made and the impact felt when it was a man who was saying I’m looking for more time with my family and so, Google, we need to figure out a way to allow me that rather than the conversation always being about women who are looking to spend more time with their families.
Paul: Yeah. So, on the one hand I was very pleased, in a sense, to hear a man talking about that because, again, as you say, that has not been nearly as common. And it tended to be when men especially would say they’re going to go spend time with their families, that tended to be after something terrible happened at a job. It’s like, well, I’m going to go retire, and I’m done with public service or whatever.
Whitney: After they were caught cheating or stealing, yeah.
Paul: Exactly. So, it would have that negative thing about it. But you hit on a strong point there, that the idea is that you cannot have both of those things - things, boy, that’s a broad term. You can’t really have a strong family life and a strong professional life at the same time.
Whitney: That’s the truth. OK, people. That’s the - no, you can’t have everything at all times.
Paul: That’s true.
Whitney: You can have everything over the course of your life if you’re really, really lucky. But you can’t have everything all of the time. And that story that’s out in the world is a lie, and it perpetuates a lot of lies that we tell ourselves about what we really want, what we’re really doing, what we’re doing it for. So, those lies exist in society.
And people in positions of power continue to tell those lies. Even look at Sheryl Sandberg. Lean in. Be more assertive in the workplace and blah-blah-blah. I’m sorry. You cannot read a book and then suddenly change gender power dynamics in the workplace. That’s a lie. That’s a half-truth. There is a lot of valuable insight in there, but there’s also a lot of things that aren’t being talked about that need to be talked about, and we have to recognize that it’s multifaceted and there isn’t just one answer.
And when we act like there’s one answer, like women, you can have it all, or whatever the messages that are put out there, they’re dangerous because then for people who can’t figure out how to have it all, they think they’re doing something wrong. And then they start telling themselves the lie that they’re inadequate. And they aren’t. It’s just the lie that it’s possible.
Paul: That’s right. I agree. Well, Whitney, this has been a tremendous talk. Thank you so much for talking with me about the truth and everything that goes along with it.
Whitney: I’m so grateful to chat with you always, and I’m also grateful that you were truthful and up front and said that we lost the first one of these.
Paul: Hey, we’ve got to be truthful, right?
Whitney: Hopefully this one offers something just as much, and I certainly continue to learn from all of our conversations. So, thank you, Paul.
Paul: Thank you, Whitney. We’ll talk again soon.