Life can be funny. You can walk around as an esteemed and successful adult, yet still view yourself as a teenage misfit with a chip on your shoulder. As I read Brené Brown’s book, Braving the Wilderness, I realized that I still suffered a bit from this syndrome.

When I was 10 years old, I was captain of a play day team, and picked all the class misfits, including the awkward and unpopular kids who didn’t look the least bit athletic. We surprised everyone by winning. I knew at that moment that I saw things differently than others. Soon thereafter I started winning tennis tournaments and teaching other children how to play tennis. I enjoyed identifying one aspect for them to focus on to improve their game.

As I grew into adolescence, my height kept inching towards 6 feet, my pretty blonde hair became a thick frizzy horse’s tail, welt-size acne popped up on my face, and—if that wasn’t bad enough—braces were added for the final touch by age 15! My response to all this was to withdraw, play a lot of tennis, and overdose on acne medication and hair products. Underneath my awkwardness was a big ambition which I was too afraid to share: to be a professional tennis player. At the time, my parents were overwhelmed with five children, including one with special needs, and my father was a busy doctor who was never around, so there was little understanding for me at home. I chose to act out in anger and rage.

When I was old enough, I left most everything I grew up with—the Catholic Church, the suburbs of Maryland, life in a large family—and moved to New York City by myself, not knowing anyone. I wanted to be challenged in a crazy, noisy big city where I could be anonymous. I wanted to figure out who I was.

What helped me get through a difficult childhood and teenage awkwardness was my fighter mentality—attack first and ask questions later. It helped my tennis, too. I knew how to find my opponent’s weaknesses, exploit them, and win matches. I knew how to be intimidating—run to the net a lot and shock them with fearless aggression. Of course, underneath it all was a scared little girl.

That old chip on my shoulder has been knocked off many times. My passion has always been being a change agent—beginning with encouraging others to play tennis, which lead to influencing professionals to lead more effectively. My assertive approach helped me get good jobs at Goldman Sachs and Deloitte. But what really helped me succeed was tough feedback from bosses who helped me break out of the win/lose mentality and develop a more generous spirit.

My first boss sent me to what I called “Nice Camp,” to learn how to get along with others. This was a week-long, leaderless, group-style therapy where I made at least one guy cry, and received some heartfelt feedback. I gained empathy for myself and others—and became a little nicer.

My next boss recommended that I go to Clown Camp to lighten up. I was struggling to influence senior leaders at an accounting firm, and pushing way too hard. This boss had been a former clown at Ringling Brothers during college.  Clown Camp began with walking down a runway to determine our clown personality. The idea was to learn what idiosyncratic movements were part of our natural walking pattern and use that as the basis for a clown persona. Thanks to two years of The Alexander Technique therapy—a postural education process I used to resolve my tennis injuries, my walk was “perfect”. Because of that, I nearly flunked out of clown school for not being funny.

Luckily, I tripped at the end of that long runway. That little trip helped me to create “Sassy the Clown,” a perfect walker with an occasional trip! I returned from Clown Camp a little lighter, armed with my red nose and scarfs, which I attempted to juggle (rather badly).

My next boss encouraged me to slow down and become more organizationally savvy. I read the book Political Savvy by Joel DeLuca, and took the seminar. This led to an Aha! moment about why I have always struggled to influence beyond my charm (which can only take you so far). I realized that I was trying to win the war, and but losing too many battles.

With this confidence, came another Eureka Moment: to follow my passion and write books based on a few ideas that had been floating around in my head. My clown boss had been encouraging me to leave the corporate world as he said my biggest asset was my creativity.  I began to accept my own uniqueness. I left the corporate world and have been out on my own for the past 15 years.

The real Aha! from reading Braving the Wilderness is to embrace and accept myself. The wilderness is okay—it’s your home. One thing Brené said really touched me:

“Stop walking through the world looking for confirmation that you don’t belong. You will always find it because you’ve made that your mission. Our call to courage is to protect our wild heart against constant evaluation, especially our own. No one belongs here more than you.”

That reminded me of my final conversation with my dying mother. I told her about my latest book idea about risk-taking for perfectionist types. She said that given the current world, the book is important and I should pursue it. My mother was always ahead of her time and I trusted her guidance. It has almost been two years since her passing. The grief has taken time to work through, but I am starting to get re-energized. It’s time to brave the wilderness and go for it.

Recently, I led an informal talk on my first book, Collaborative Competition: A Woman’s Guide to Succeeding by Competing which was published in 2009, and seems to be experiencing a resurgence. A woman in the group asked how she could work with a colleague who was not practicing healthy competition. I shared a story of a young woman I had coached who overcame a boss who threw her under the bus and succeeded—using strategies from my book. I realized in that moment—as the woman in the audience and others thanked me for my book talk—that there is room for those who think differently. We are needed. We are valuable.

If you are struggling this holiday season, feeling alone or misunderstood.  Do something that energizes your spirit – be it volunteer, reach out to another who is a fellow traveler, or engage in an activity that you enjoy.  One of my favorite holiday activities is to spend time with my college mentee who showed up wearing a lot of glitter and is open and appreciative to my offerings and generosity.  Realize that you are always welcome and have a home.


One Response to Braving the Holidays as a Misfit!

  1. Katherine, as always, your writing captures a universal theme that is not only women centric, it is human centric.
    Your writing serves a purposeful need for all