Against all odds, and after becoming educated, trained, and established in an entirely different field, I became a floral design entrepreneur. As a child and young adult, I recall trying on an array of potential future careers, but none of them ever involved being in charge of something. My fantasy dalliances included the requisite teacher phase and ranged from newscaster (???) to architect. I eventually landed on social work and psychotherapy and enjoyed a very intense career in a helping profession before making this transition. Of course, “mother” was always a given, and at times, I considered whether I would want to be a full-time mommy, if presented with the resources and opportunity (I imagine I will exist in a permanent state of ambivalence about this, as do many women). Meanwhile, I can’t ever remember wanting to own or run a business. It never even occurred to me and---as stated above---even NEWSCASTER, occurred to me. Honestly, what did I think a newscaster does? In college, once I landed on social work, I set about paving the way for graduate school with clinical internships and the appropriate required courses. I dutifully took the GRE, applied to programs, and ultimately ended up returning to my hometown to get my MSW.
In my master’s program, there were two areas of specialization: clinical focus or administrative focus. Generally speaking, the people who chose clinical focus (I was among them) were seen as “softer,” empathic, interested in a wholly supportive role, and most often had the goal of working as a therapist. A great many of my peers in the clinical program wanted to work with children, to boot. The administrative folks (there were many fewer) were viewed as more hard-charging, technically savvy, and had the goal of running an agency, fundraising, or developing social policy. Three of the four (just four!) men in the program were on the administrative track. Even in social work school, people were pigeon-holed by their propensities and interests and gender stereotypic roles were firmly in place.
Although I have consistently seen myself as a team player and almost never want the responsibility of orchestrating, I tend to end up in a leadership role in almost every endeavor. Despite my internal sense of wanting to lay low and “just get through” it, I was compelled by the nagging voice that plagued me in most things---that I could do it better if I were in charge. Through group projects, seminar discussions, and clinical placements, I ended up the leader. Before I even understood what I was doing, people would acquiesce to me with a shrug, “Well, you have obviously thought this through and that seems like a good idea.”
I once had a research professor pull me aside after class and tell me that he was so impressed by my “terribly well-organized mind” that he wondered if I would consider moving into a doctoral program and teaching. I went home that night convinced there was no way I would make it through another semester, what with my being a total imposter. Afflicted with anxiety, I thought, ‘One day, they will find out I am an idiot and kick me out of this program.’
If you knew me academically or professionally at virtually any point in my life, you would think I was totally dialed in on every level. I “presented” well. Inside, of course, I was fraught by insecurity and a powerful need to be liked. My interpersonal relationships were characterized by dating all the wrong people (some with outrageously glaring problems, such as drug or alcohol abuse) and obsessing over friendships---all in an effort to avoid perceived abandonment.
In school and at work, I powered through. I ginned up a sense of bravado. I smiled broadly, put my nose to the grindstone and did exceptionally well. I moved through entry-level social service jobs to eventually running a homeless shelter in New York City with 25 employees in my charge. And if you think I slept well in that era . . .
When I started to consider a career shift from the thing in which I had been trained and licensed to this new, creative undertaking, I was nervous for all the reasons anyone would be. Chief among them, was that I still couldn’t see myself as an executive and a boss, despite all the years of actually doing it. I had internalized the pervasive rationales for why women aren’t supposed to be as good at this. I also knew that wrestling my inner turmoil to the ground could consume a lion’s share of energy. Still and all, I did it, and here are some highlights:
- I have executed on multiple seasons of floral events.
- I have landed famous corporate clients.
- I have been on blogs and in magazines.
- I won an award from one of those magazines.
- I have been mentioned in the NY Times.
- I have hired and fired both employees and clients.
- I have raised my prices.
- I have mixed and poured cement to construct the bases for a Chuppah, 8.5 months pregnant.
- I have felt like a total bad-ass doing all of the above.
Success, for me, has looked totally predictable from the outside and utterly bizarre from the inside. I have come to realize that I might never have the confidence to simply land a gig, know that I will make it happen, and then rock it out. I am far too tortured an individual for that. The spectacular news might just be that I don’t need to break the shackles of this neurotic predisposition. I have functioned and will continue to function, marching forward with my dissonance. The outside doesn’t square with the inside but somehow it all gets done anyway and nobody is the wiser (although anyone reading this is now the wiser?). Letting go of the pressure I put on myself to be more gentle on myself as I go about this work might be as good as it gets. Apparently, you can totally run a business this way.
Image by Garry Knight on Flickr