It’s no secret that I entered the corporate world many years ago as a means to an end. I gave up my dreams of becoming an artist in exchange for access to health benefits and a decent living. And I don’t regret it. I have met wonderful people I never would have known if I continued my myopic existence. Many of my colleagues are decent, intelligent and ambitious people with a set of values that closely resemble my own. In my many years as a member of corporate America, I have made friends for life. I also learned what it means to succeed by mainstream standards – something I never thought I could attain. Learning that I can function in the fast-paced world of ladder climbers has been an ego boost. And I’ll always be thankful for that.
But even though I don’t regret my years as a willing participant in the rat race, I do regret that I couldn’t pursue my passions as an artist. Not a day or a minute goes by when I don’t feel a sense of loss over what I was forced to give up. It’s a sadness that hovers over me and follows me wherever I go.
A few weeks ago, I attended a new kind of corporate workshop. Some folks in my office building decided to bring a group of people together to watch Ted Talks, with the hope that some employees might be inspired to present our own homemade version of a Ted Talk. I really didn’t know much about the purpose of this meeting but, being a storyteller, I was naturally intrigued. I jumped at the chance to head to the auditorium over my lunch break and participate in a dialogue about someone else’s story.
The Ted Talk we watched was one by Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at Harvard. In the Ted Talk, Ms. Cuddy described how certain nonverbal postures and in particular, certain “power poses,” can actually impact our physiology and chance of success. Here’s a link to that Ted Talk: Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.
During her Ted Talk, Ms. Cuddy told a story about what it was like to lose her identity after a car accident that caused brain damage. Upon recovery, she was told that her ability to learn and process information would be permanently damaged and that she shouldn’t expect to complete college. In fact, Ms. Cuddy withdrew from her college courses after the accident. Ms. Cuddy eventually returned to school and proved her doctors wrong. She not only completed her undergraduate degree, but went on to finish a PhD at an ivy league school. She reclaimed her identity as a smart, ambitious and successful person.
Ms. Cuddy talked about how she felt about herself when she started her tenure in graduate school. She nearly dropped out, stating that she didn’t belong there. Her mentor instructed her to simply play the part until she actually became the part, and that’s what she did. This prompted Ms. Cuddy to conduct research that, according to her, proves that our posture can actually alter our hormone levels and clear the way for us to manifest the behavior of a successful person.
As I was sitting among some of my colleagues and listening to this Ted Talk, the sadness that hovers over me consumed me just a bit. I know what it’s like to lose my identity. I went through that at the age of 26, when I developed debilitating health problems that still confound my medical team. At that time I was dating a record producer and working on a demo of my original songs. But my constant stomach upset, joint and muscle pains, skin rashes, allergies and, what I later learned to be endometriosis, made it impossible for me to function normally. I couldn’t even play the guitar without being thwarted by pain in my hands and in my shoulder, loud music caused my ears to ring and I could no longer go to concerts because I couldn’t stand up for more than ten minutes without experiencing incapacitating pain in my lower back.
I initially thought my problems might have just been caused by stress so I left my job and enrolled in graduate school. I also gave up my apartment and moved back in with my parents. But all of those efforts didn’t help. My health continued to degenerate until I stood at 5’5 and weighed in at 92 pounds.
Over time, I nursed myself back to a place where I could navigate through life. I achieved this after trying many different lifestyle regimens and undergoing my first two of four abdominal surgeries. (I’m still convinced that one of those surgeries was the result of a misdiagnosis). I was vegan. I became gluten free. I cut out dairy and refined sugar. The dietary changes were radical but despite all of the limitations, I actually gained weight. My health seemed to stabilize just enough to get back to this thing we call life.
When I completed my MA in Media Studies I needed a job. University health benefits were no longer an option for me, nor were the student loans that served as my only source of income for the years I stayed in school. I needed to find another way, and I needed to find it quickly.
That’s when I entered the corporate world. I found myself looking for a job that had flexible hours, in the event that I wasn’t feeling well and needed to start the day later or leave a bit earlier. My family suggested that I go into field sales due to the flexible nature of outside sales jobs. After much consideration, we decided that I might be a natural fit as a pharmaceutical sales rep given the profound knowledge of medicine I accumulated after advocating for myself and bringing myself back from the brink.
I was hired by a pharmaceutical company just a couple of months later, before I had even turned in my final thesis at school. I was sent all kind of materials to help me prepare for two months of training, during which time I was sent to live in a hotel with nearly 40 other sales rep wannabes. Those two months had to be one of the worst periods of my life.
As I watched the recording of Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk, her description of how she felt when she started graduate school reminded me so much of how I felt when I started sales rep boot camp. I didn’t have any trouble with the material and I passed all of the tests with flying colors. My issue was that I didn’t feel as though I fit in with the 40 or so corporate types in my training class. “If they only knew my real story, “ I thought to myself. I was convinced that everyone looked at me and just knew there was something wrong. I reacted by telling everyone about how sick I had been, thinking it would deflect any unwanted criticism of how odd I seemed. It did the opposite. My revelations only sabotaged my experience further. I was always the person sitting alone at lunch, eating her tofu and steamed vegetables. While my colleagues partied at night, I isolated myself in my room and cried. Those two months felt like middle school all over again.
My experience as a drug rep got off to a rocky start. I fought with the old boys network that was my assigned team, and they responded by trying to get me fired. In the end, I won the battle. I moved up in the company and these guys were forced out. If they knew what I had endured just to become their peer, they never would have thought a little intimidation could do me in.
I ended up becoming a very effective representative. After a lecture program I once sponsored, the speaker approached me and told me that I had made a lot of friends. He claimed that he had never been to a pharmaceutical program where the representative managed to create such a cordial environment. It was the highest praise I ever received in my years as a rep. I relished the observation that the physicians who were my customers came to value me as a friend and colleague. It was everything I wanted when I joined the industry. I heard through the grapevine that most of those 40 reps in my training class didn’t have that experience. In fact, most were forced out of the company during subsequent downsizing. I always managed to make it through.
I ultimately traded in my sample bag for a shot at a position in headquarters, which is where I was when I watched the Ted Talk. I don’t agree with everything Amy Cuddy said. In fact, during her talk she stated that the weakest posture is one where someone has a hand on his neck. As I watched her make this statement on camera I realized that my hand was literally on my neck. But it wasn’t because I was insecure, and I was irritated by the suggestion that my posture was delivering that message. It’s because I have terrible muscle pain and my neck was in a spasm. Sometimes, there aren’t hidden messages in postures. If I rub my neck it’s not because I’m sending a nonverbal signal that I’m ashamed of myself. It’s because I’m in pain.
Ms. Cuddy was lucky that she was able to reclaim her identity. But that is not the case for everyone who has experienced a major setback in life. I don’t agree that standing in a victory pose will magically restore all of the losses that accompany chronic illness. But I do appreciate Ms. Cuddy’s underlying premise. I constantly endure many degrees of discomfort and pain, but I have learned that those differences don’t make me any lesser of a person. If anything, overcoming those challenges has become a source of pride.
I do know that I belong here, however I also think it’s OK to mourn over the things I will never again be. Standing up straighter won’t change my circumstances as far as that is concerned. Life just isn’t that cut and dry. But I have learned that there’s nothing to be gained from broadcasting our challenges. If you fake it ’til you make it, chances are higher that you will indeed become the person you are pretending to be. Ms. Cuddy and I agree about that.