What is your context?Sep 10, 2019
Written by Roxanne Brown
In work, I often feel pressure to offer others a perspective or something else that may be valuable within just one conversation. That means giving something without attachment to whether or not it’s received as I intend. I recognize the limitations of that because I can’t fully know their context. I can only try to get a glimpse in that one moment.
The pressure I feel is self-imposed. It’s based on my interest to try to alleviate the pain, self-doubt, and confusion people feel when working together. I try to give others new words, a new concept, a new frame that comes from my belief that people are generally good at their core. I believe people want to do work that’s meaningful in some way, however small.
This personal interest began with a childhood decision. At a very early age, I remember very clearly that I made a conscious decision to work, to have a career, so I could be independent. I had a fierce independent streak that was not particularly welcomed in the oldest, female child in a blue-collar rural Connecticut family and community. Yes, I was expected to work hard but know my place. Like others, I got those messages all the time.
I could see as a female the culture’s preferred choice for me was to get married, have a family, take care of the home and contribute to the finances by working, maybe as a receptionist somewhere or maybe a bank teller or doing the books for a family friend’s business. It might have been a great life. I might have signed up for it too had it not been for the harsh reality I was facing because of the suffocating dependence I witnessed in the women that were part of it. It’s subtle, unseen, and real. I was lucky, I was born at a time when I could break out. For many reasons, the women in my family before me did not have that choice.
So it’s with that grounding experience and constant reminder I decided that I was going to work my whole life to secure my independence. I had a huge desire to learn things and think things and imagine things with others. This set me on a path to imagine what work could be like. I thought if I’m going to work for the majority of my life what do I want it to be like? What would I choose it to be? How would I choose it to feel and be about?
I’ve always worked hard. I’ve always been determined. When I say to others, “first imagine what it could be like then make it happen,” that’s because that strategy has worked for me over and over again. My life as a child looks completely different from my life now and that’s largely because I imagined it and then made it happen while filtering the messages I received from my environment. Over the years, I had a lot of self-doubts and often wondered if there was any point to my persistence. I did not spend much time thinking about fairness or disadvantages because that would have spiraled me down and out. I had to constantly remind myself to stay in my belief that life could be better. The battle with myself to stay on course seemed much more productive than a battle with others. There are definitely lower points to my life but in work, it constantly improved.
What’s on my LinkedIn profile is a curated recent history. It’s the result of learning over and over again what the world of work values “on paper”. What’s not on my resume is my first official job working summers in the tobacco fields of Connecticut so I could afford to get my hair cut and buy clothes for school. What’s not on there is my next job which was scooping ice cream at Friendly’s. I remember what a luxury that job felt like because there was air conditioning and relief from the harsh physical toll of farm work. Right there, work improved for me. This is just the beginning. I worked for the Sheraton as a waitress and then became a ticket agent for Eastern Airlines just before they went bankrupt (what a crazy experience that was!). Those two jobs I held at the same time which helped me fund classes at a community college an hour away. I worked all the time and I was tired but I mostly loved it.
There are so many other improvements I made to my working conditions out of sheer determination. I never took a job that would put me in danger. I never took a job that would compromise my integrity. At 16 years old, I walked out of a retail store after filling out a job application in their stock room when I became insulted by its line of questioning. It was assuming the wrong thing about people like they couldn’t be trusted. It made me imagine what it would be like to work there, how I might be treated. At 28, in a job interview for a prominent corporation, I was being questioned about whether or not I lied about never taking drugs. The line of questioning went something like, “Everyone has done drugs of some kind. Are you sure you don’t want to change your answer?” It was manipulative and insulting. They did not know me. They did not know my background. I was not interested in a company that valued this interview technique (which it turns out they were notorious for) no matter what that opportunity meant for my career. Both the retail store and corporation pursued me afterward and I turned them both down. I always believed I had choices even if no one else did.
As a young girl with limited education and a shaky family foundation, I was an easy, vulnerable target. I knew that. I knew what it meant to be taken advantage of so it was through this lens that I constantly assessed the risks to my mental and physical well-being. People do this all the time.
There is so much more to my story, but that’s true for everyone. Everyone has so much more to their story than we can know. People are amazing when you think about it. All of this is the source of my drive to improve my daily life at work. For all the disadvantages, I know I’ve had many privileges too. I’m truly grateful for all of it. The unique contribution I can make is based on experiencing the good and the bad, and knowing what’s possible.
This is what I carry with me every day and connects me to my purpose. This is my context.