I take the microphone and sing my heart out.
It sounds awful.
A grandpa on the countryside of Vietnam – he is half my size – just invited me to his house for karaoke.
Only Vietnamese songs available.
I don’t know when to start singing, what is the required pitch, and how to pronounce the words.
Still, countryside grandpa tells me - via Google Translate – that I am a great singer.
His 5-year old grandchild is more honest: after 20 seconds of my performance she leaves the room with fingers in her ears.
I love the honesty of children.
A virtue we often lose as grown-ups.
Children are completely free.
They don’t worry what other people will think and simply express what is inside them.
Growing up, we are shaped by unwritten rules and social norms.
Sometimes these are helpful guidelines, but too often they are stories we make up in our head to protect our image.
We win our reputation. We lose our authenticity.
I see the same happening in corporate offices.
I have been guilty of this too.
A Paradoxical Path to Excellence
When I came out of university and started working I thought: OK, now the seriousness starts.
Multinationals, big brands, and knowledgeable people.
I wanted to come across as competent.
So I was hiding behind a ‘professional’ mask.
Swallowing a question because it could be a stupid one.
Not speaking up because I wasn’t sure.
Avoiding a personal story because it may not be suitable for the corporate world.
My thoughts, emotions and behavior were not congruent.
As a result, I wasn’t real.
I was striving for excellence.
But putting on the Professional Mask was not serving anyone.
Rather, in my striving to excellence, I needed to do the exact opposite.
I had to take off my Professional Mask for two reasons:
1) Business opportunities are revealed through exploration and risk taking
Innovation is founded on the unknown.
New ground is covered by high-quality questions.
Creativity is sparked by curiosity and not being afraid to pitch that ‘weird’ idea. It may just lead to a better one.
Business problems are an enormous puzzle, where no one has the box with the complete picture.
Everyone holds a few pieces of the puzzle in their hand, but no one knows what the other pieces look like.
If I think I need to know everything, I’m building a wall around me.
The wall prevents others from seeing that I
don't have all the pieces of the puzzle.
However, the wall blocks my own sight too.
This feels safe, but it prevents me from exploring.
I won’t take initiative and shy away from responsibility, because these risky actions lead to holes in my wall. All openings for blame in the future.
Putting on The Mask is not the right strategy.
Being comfortable with uncertainty and making mistakes is the only way to successfully complete the business puzzle.
2) The Mask breaks authenticity and connection
Even if the person on the other side of the table is the CEO or my biggest client, that person is a human too.
Just another human trying to live a good life.
Just another human with the same type of needs and emotions.
Just another human full of flaws and fears.
If I hide behind the Professional Mask, it’s easy to forget about that.
Putting on my mask keeps people on a distance.
It eliminates my self-expression and vulnerability; while both are crucial to connection.
The mask makes me move away from personal topics.
It pushes out the spontaneity.
It kills trust.
Showing my real face
I see a lot of Professional Masks in the corporate world.
I think everyone is guilty of it, every now and then.
And it’s perfectly fine not to be perfect.
If I increase my self-awareness I can make a different choice.
Then, when I see myself grabbing The Mask from my desk, I can ask myself:
Do I really want to do this?
I rather grab a Vietnamese microphone - choosing for self-expression.