From Conforming to Storming
How I learned to dance to the beat of my own drum
I discovered that the word “bold” does not translate easily into French when I had my first book, Growing Bold, translated. A few weeks ago, I was reminded of this challenge as my translator, and I worked to figure out a French title for my second book, Live a Bold Life.
To choose the best French title, I shared a few options with a French friend, telling him the English title: Live a Bold Life: Your 30-day Mission to a Fearless Future to give him some context. He asked me the meaning of the word bold, so I looked it up for him on my English to French app and showed him the definitions.
The first entry stated audacieux (daring in English). This is what I typically think about when I talk about growing bold or living a bold life. But the last definition, “en gras,” described how some written text is rendered to make it stand out.
Suddenly I saw boldness in a new light. Instead of seeing it from the vantage point of the person making courageous decisions or taking extraordinary actions, I saw it from the perspective of a person who was watching the bold soul do his or her thing. I was no longer solely focused on what the brave person had to muster up in terms of strength, courage, or self-belief. Instead, I saw how different the bold soul appeared to be to onlookers, how much the audacious person stood out, and apart from everyone else, like bolded letters on a printed page.
This new perspective took me back to my five-year old self, and I understood why I’d spent so many years trying to blend in and why so many people still do.
One day, when I was in kindergarten, my teacher read the racially controversial book Little Black Sambo to the class. That evening I went home and told my mother, a black teacher who grew up in the United States in the fifties and sixties, that I wanted a copy of the book for myself, unaware of the racist overtones contained in it.
“She read you WHAT?” my mom responded with anger in her voice, rage in her eyes.
“Little Black Sambo,” I whispered as softly as I could in an attempt not to upset her further.
At five years of age, I wanted only to please my mom. But I knew that she had not liked what I had said. I thought she was angry with me. I wanted her to love me and continue to care for me as she’d always done. But her comportment, which changed in a flash from soft and loving to belligerent and forceful, scared me. On an instinctual level, my survival was at risk.
Conforming is something we learn to do at a young age. It’s a survival instinct. There is safety in numbers, and being part of a tribe provides those numbers, but at what price?
When we are children, perhaps this threat is more significant, more real. It was this Little Black Sambo incident that started me down the path of blending in, of conforming. As adults, though, how real is the threat to our survival if we do what, in our hearts, feels authentic and right, even if it means standing out?
Up until that incident, I did not feel different. But my mom made a big deal about the book. My parents discussed the inappropriateness of such material and how racism was still alive and well in the early seventies. The following day she had conversations with the school principal and my kindergarten teacher to express her unhappiness with the teacher’s choice of reading material.
My mother’s response alerted me to the obvious: my skin was brown, and I, the only black student in my class, was different, and not in a positive way. I had upset my mom. My teacher might have gotten into trouble. And I believed, as a kindergartner, that it was all because the color of my skin made me stand out, made me different, made me bad.
This was a new revelation for me. The fact that my complexion was different from the other children’s had not posed an issue for me previously, because I had never been exposed to a racial incident before.
I didn’t want to be different so I found ways to conform. I stopped speaking up in class. If people didn’t hear me, I thought, then perhaps they wouldn’t see me either. This was the beginning. Then I intentionally stopped applying myself to my studies; I didn’t want to excel in class because that would bring me recognition, and that would make me stand out too. I strove to be average, flying underneath the radar. I aimed not to rock the boat with my parents, not questioning what they wanted for me, what they thought was best for me. I conformed to their wishes, and I survived.
This lesson of conformity, that I’d learned as a child, might have seemed to protect me then, but later in life it constricted me and it repressed my true identity and potential. I got along and had success in my career, but I was not happy. I didn’t know who I was, what I wanted in life, and I felt I’d sold myself out.
When my parents died, I was heartbroken. That first year without either of them in my life was tough. But I proved that I could manage on my own. This initial success strengthened my desire to find out what I wanted to experience in life.
My parents were no longer here so I didn’t feel obligated to gain their approval. I started doing things I wanted, and that were outside of my comfort zone without thought of what my parents would think. I traveled alone. I started speaking up more at work. I created a blog on which I shared personal stories. Losing my parents was difficult; however, years later, I see how their loss helped me break free from conforming.
Bolstered from and also curious by my newfound freedom to be, I started on a journey of self-reflection to understand how I was able to do things that before I would not have dared attempt. I wanted to know how I had grown bold. This work resulted in the “3 Catalysts for Cultivating Courage” and my first book, Growing Bold: How to Overcome Fear, Build Confidence, and Love the Life You Live.
Being bold and standing out is a way of life for me now, even though I still struggle with this sometimes. The feeling of accomplishment and freedom I experience in having quit my job and moved to France is indescribable. It is a feeling that only someone who has figured out what they must experience in life and who has taken the steps to increase their faith and fortify their will in order to live it, can know.
I can tell you this from my experience: standing out by being my authentic self and doing what I feel called to do is liberating. And while it still is scary at times, the sense of freedom I feel makes it well worth facing my fears head on and being true to myself anyway.