Like most recent grads, all I wanted to do when I graduated from college is to find a job. It doesn’t matter where, nor what the job entailed; I just wanted to start somewhere. So in order to get a position, I felt that I had to transform completely. I couldn’t continue acting like the college kid I had been in the last four years before graduation. I had to evolve into a professional. A different kind of person, I thought.
I headed over to the salon, gym and mall to prettify, tone and shop to attain my goal. Shopping (what could be a better excuse to shop than convincing yourself you’re an adult and you can?) now felt more like an urgent necessity as I bought suits, formal attire, skirts that tapered at the knee and made you walk like a pigeon, expensive fabrics that made you look like you’re playing dress up with mom’s clothes… although at first it was a test of flexibility as I endured awkward writhing to get myself in these clothes and shoes, when I wore them, I felt like a grown up. I had successfully convinced myself that the way to feel like a grown up is to dress like one.
In theory, this might be substantiated. Constructing an image of you and carrying yourself a certain way is part of how you communicate to the world and it’s contributes to how others perceive you. You have some say in how others see you– it’s in the way you act and present yourself.
Yet the big fat truth was right around the corner, threatening to unstrip and unravel every last thread in my wardrobe of adult clothes: I was not yet a full-fledged grown up. The clothes hid my age, but my thoughts and actions revealed it like a featured marquee in Times Square.
Evolving into an adult, I soon found, takes more than just changing your clothes and look. It’s also a transformation in thinking, doing and accountability.
Since then, I’ve evolved into a professional who is also an adult, and not just a doe-eyed recent grad who compensates for her lack of experience by donning clothes that maximizes her age. Working in corporate environments, no matter what industry, helps in that transition. Admiring powerful women business leaders influences you to emulate their style, hence, you start sharing your mom’s accessories and wardrobe. After having worked in finance and research, my repertoire of fashion items consist of business clothes, and I wore so much of them that I started looking like I still went to work on the weekends. Even when I was doing freelance writing, I made sure to dress myself like I were to go to an office somewhere in downtown Los Angeles, when I was really spending the whole day working at home, the library or a coffee shop nearby. All of these were good experiences and taught me how to dress the part and look formal, presentable, and put-together.
So when I came to the advertising world that nurtured being creative– the more outrageous you are, the better– I was at a loss. Where I work, there are graffiti graphics on the wall, scooters, whiteboards, bocce ball, hopscotch, etc., giving employees the space to relax, which are conducive to creative thinking and productivity. Employees seem more themselves, more at home. Heck, there’s even beer on tap, a world of difference from finance where employees stash whiskey bottles in their bottom drawers. My manager wears purple shoes. My AD wore sneakers. At first I thought, where in the world am I and how the heck should I act in this different land? I felt like I was always on the fringes, and not just because I’m new, but also because I dressed differently. In my mind during the first few weeks, going to work means being a professional which equal to wearing business casual. What a limited view of the working world!
When someone in adland talks to somebody else about a personal situation or event that happened recently in their lives outside of work, they wouldn’t be categorized as unprofessional just as they could easily be in other stricter, rigid corporate environments.
So what’s a motivated girl who takes work seriously have to do?
I discovered that how you present yourself depends on the work environment. You want to show you can adapt to the culture by adhering to certain work policies like formal clothes, but you also want to stand out in certain areas to differentiate yourself.
Also, I’ve realized that it’s okay to let your guard down a bit and be yourself at work. People take you more seriously that way, because you’re not presenting a constructed version of you, but you’re expressing your natural thoughts and mannerisms. These make us human. These make us memorable. And with every human connection, being memorable is important. At the end of the day, people will choose who they see regularly, familiar with, and are connected with the most. Most of all, they will naturally pick who is genuine and real.
There will always be some people who are sticklers for certain ways of presentation and communication, believing that there’s one path to success– to be the suit-wearing, aggressive, power employee positioned to scale corporate heights and reach the upper echelon. This may be true for certain positions, but it is not the only way. There are many different faces of success. Even in industries where conformity rules, there is always a space to stand out positively. Look around. Even if you get the evil stare when you express your personality with a colorful scarf on top of your Brooks Brothers suit, or wear pearls with those jeans, it is important to go through even your busiest workdays aligned with your truth, and always donning your personality.