Each of us in this room is running from something. And each of us in this room is chasing after something else. We run from our insecurities, our past failures, the weighty expectations of our colleagues and loved ones. Many of us run from the inescapable feeling that we shouldn’t be here at all.
But we also chase endlessly. We chase after cures for incurable diseases. We chase solutions to intractable global problems. Many of us, when confronted in private, will admit that we’re chasing after the feeling of writing our names on the pages of history.
And while tumbling through the intertia of setbacks and successes, it becomes easy to forget which way is up. Sometimes, we forget about our North Star. We forget what it was that drove us to begin our journeys in the first place.
Today, I’ve arrived at a place where I’ve managed to build a design brand that produces art and clothing of the highest aesthetics while still focusing on the mission of uplifting and celebrating the stories of marginalized people.
Too often when we flip through magazines, or turn on the television, we rarely see people that look or are like us. And when we do see them, particularly in the cases of people of color, they are rarely reflected as fleshed out nuanced characters. My goal, for the past several years, has been to create a company that offers beauty and confidence to men and women across the globe. Especially that have been ignored for so long. And to do so through the vehicle of clothing and storytelling.
But my focus hasn’t always been this clear. And I wasn’t always so self-assured about my purpose on this beautiful planet.
When discussing transitions, or “A-Ha” moments, I think that they are often described as these “struck by lightning” moments. Sudden epiphanies that occur to people in the shower, or sometimes during dramatic moments of stress. It’s true that for some of us, they do occur that way. Many of you will be familiar with the adage about the frog in the pot. So the story goes that if you place a frog in boiling water, it will jump out immediately, because it senses that something is wrong. But if you place a frog in tepid water, and slowly turn-up the temperature, it may boil. Because it doesn’t realize that things might be getting too hot for it to handle.
I think that for many of us, the process can be almost glacial. To borrow from the frog metaphor, our “A-Ha” moments occur when we realize that we’ve been sitting in that water for too long, and if we don’t get out…we might stop recognizing who we are.
About five years ago, I was sitting in a large office in a tall building. I was at a conference table surrounded by a group of corporate lawyers. They were my colleagues and we were, as usual, representing a client whose practices I fundamentally and morally disagreed with. Someone in the room cautioned that we should all be very discreet. Because if the information we had got out, it would be incredibly damaging to our client. And in the back of my head, I was thinking. “Yes! Good! Maybe someone SHOULD make the world a better place by damaging our client!” I realized that this was not an unusual sentiment for me. I was going in to work, with the frequent feeling that maybe, just maybe I was on the wrong side of things. It’s an insidious sensation; to know that your hard work and talent is being spent helping people who are on the wrong side of history.
As a lawyer, you’re expected to fight your client’s corner, regardless of your personal opinions about them. You’re expected to champion their story, no matter what. But for me, as a creative person with strong convictions. It was not a sustainable situation to remain in. And I knew that for my own well-being. I had to make a change. So I left.
I’m a firm believer in the notion that for each of us, there are things we can do. And we may do them very well. But there are also things, that we are made to do. And if you are one of the few people that has the rare fortune of discovering his or her true talent, you should do everything you reasonably can to see it through. Because we are all collectively better off, when each of us brings our best selves to the conversation.
And so, a few years later. Here I am. I find myself doing work that is now diametrically opposed to that of my previous career. Instead of protecting those who would silence the voices of others, I’m working to provide a creative spotlight for people who are not often heard.
But as everyone in this room is aware, having an epiphany doesn’t mean that your life suddenly becomes easier. If anything, it will likely make your life harder. Because it means that you’re making a deliberate choice to step away from a road that you’re familiar with, and try your hand at something more true to who you are.
So how do we persevere? As we all embark on the journey toward reinvention, it’s very important for us to hold on to the tiny victories. It’s important to focus on the larger mission, but it’s those small moments of vindication that get us of bed and keep us going. Whether they are small messages from people who tell you that your work is positively impacting their lives. Or whether it is confirmation from peers you respect. All of these things are the fuel we need to drive us toward our goal.
It’s also important to keep our small victories and minor failings in perspective. Just as we aren’t defined by our temporary short comings, we shouldn’t let ourselves be blinded by the momentary glare of our incremental wins. There will be good days and other days that are less so. But the work will always remain. And hopefully, if you’ve chosen the right path, the work will always find a way to sustain you.