A Face in the Crowd
I have pretty weird hobbies for an introvert.
I write for an audience. I create music that people seem all too happy to hear and watch me perform.
And I spent eight years as a professional event planner.
So, let’s talk about introversion then for a second, because I definitely know what the term means, but it sounds like it doesn’t mean what I think it means.
People that know me know that I laugh with my whole body. I can get very animated when talking through ideas. I could stay up until sunrise talking with people (if they’re willing to stay up) about whatever fascinates or motivates them in life. I enjoy being at ease with people and making other people feel at ease.
But I live on Earth with other human beings, and not everyone is going to pick up what you’re throwing down.
I used to fret constantly about people taking something I said the wrong way or not liking me. (see my previous blog post about the glass blower when I was a teen). It didn’t occur to me then that you are only ever going to attract people that are attracted to your energy. The rest you will repel.
As I grew over I developed a mantra around this idea “Fuck ‘em if they don’t feel you.”
Much easier said than done, to be sure. But critically important to the next insight that was just around the corner: “Feel yourself”
The two insights are fundamental to developing a healthy self-esteem.
But I had to quit my job to truly achieve clarity on those insights.
Now please understand, I was a really fucking good program manager.
This isn’t my ego. It was reflected in the customer satisfaction scores. It was reflected in praise from notoriously demanding faculty. It was reflected in being chosen for projects to advocate as representative for our team. I did my thing.
The thing is, we all did. The program manager group was an incredibly competent group of people that were all aligned on goals and very closely coordinated what my colleague used to refer to as “dog and pony shows” with grace and class.
We all set a high bar and then we cleared and reset the bar higher. It was dope.
And interestingly enough, many of my colleagues were much stronger introverts even than I am.
I actually worried about how effective I could be as a program manager. I had then what I now know is social anxiety, and a strong helping of imposter syndrome mixed in, but at the time I called it introversion.
Sure, part of it was worrying about how I generally am myself, and how hosts/event planners have to serve everyone, including those that don’t care for you or your style. I would need to address complaints, maybe even complaints about me, and handle them with aplomb and class. I wasn’t always successful at pulling that part off. No one was.
(Side Note: I think anyone who has ever worked customer service can tell me their story about a customer that almost makes you vaguely impressed at what ridiculous fuckery humanity is capable of as a species. Near the top was the customer who thought himself a prince, as he literally checked out of his room and hopped on a plane with all his bags still fully unpacked in one of our guest rooms and a hastily handwritten note with his credit card number and address to ship his things...)
All that said, I also have this stubborn tendency to directly confront things I’m not good at. So I jumped into the program manager role and I engaged it with the same energy I would in solving any problem.
The first year validated every anxiety I had.
I learn fast, and I did my best not to let mistakes define me, but when it came to our clientele all our clients were VIP clients, so it’s a steep learning curve in an environment where mistakes are barely tolerated.
And we all make mistakes.
The second year I began to hit my stride.
The third year I began feeling comfortable enough being an informal mentor/training resource for some of the incoming program managers. By year four or five I could do the job in my sleep.
I was there for eight years all told.
Hosting 20-50 people for a week is very taxing. Part of the job is the delicate balancing act of knowing and executing the plan, but preparing for when the plan goes sideways and flawlessly executing the backup plan(s). Part of it is the people you interact with are all exacting and have high standards, and delivering on those standards is an art in itself. And I worked with an amazing team that got things done.
The part that took me most by surprise though, was the feeling of jealousy. People I worked with loved their jobs and were driven. Our customers were passionate about the ideas they came to absorb, and they were all absolutely crushing it in their careers.
I loved meeting people and having them be fully comfortable and focused on the week of learning and networking. I loved when faculty members could walk in, pop the lavalier mic on, and trust that I had their backs for their detailed breakout exercise or their fun surprise gift. I loved surprising people with information they needed right as they realized they needed it. I met a standard that accommodated everyone from pastors to company presidents.
I began taking this standard for granted.
Walking through the halls of an executive training center should have made me feel proud to be in service of something so grand.
But all I felt was inadequate.
On my path to level up in my career and lean into these professional challenges, I realized that my current goals had no purpose. I was facing my fears but to what end? And at what cost? To my energy, to my mental health? I made almost no music in my tenure as program manager. I sat in congenial company sipping a cocktail and socializing and realizing that I didn’t have what most of the people surrounding me had. Passion. Purpose.
Everyone around me knew, or at least had become experts at pretending to know what they were about and what drove them.
It was what motivated me to start some music therapy and begin producing, which led to the Daywalkerz project. The Daywalkerz project emboldened me to begin sharing my music with clients and coworkers. It helped me to bring myself to work in ways I hadn’t thought possible.
I’d spent too much time “faking it til I made it” that it didn’t occur to me “you can make it anywhere you set your mind and effort” is also a true thing. I made it, but to where?
I was no longer content being the guy behind the scenes, because part of my passion is the stage. I was no longer content feeling like a face in the crowd, another NPC* in the game of life, I wanted my turn.
*(NPC means non-playing-character and it’s a term popularized by role-playing games. Typically it is a character intended more as background scenery or expository plot development. You don’t fight them, they don’t really do anything but maybe provide a tip to the next cave. Ideally you don’t want to feel like an NPC in your own life is kind of the point….)
I was no longer content short-changing my creative energy or trading it off for some near-meaningless ‘professional development’.
I was even compelled to tell my manager this. She took it so much better than you would expect a manager to take it. (tangentially related, I am no longer her employee…)
That was essentially the first off-boarding conversation I initiated.
It was terrifying. It is terrifying, even a year away from that role.
But it was honest. And resigning from that role was more gratifying than any promotion or special accolade or successful program execution.
(which sounds mean in hindsight because I truly miss most of the people I worked with DEEPLY, and I’m still bummed I wasn’t able to properly roam the halls and say goodbye to folks I’d worked with for over a decade due to Covid quarantines…)
I am now off the wandering path and have begun finding direction. I’m forever grateful for the confluence of factors that have led me to actually begin “feeling myself” more fully.
Therapy helped. So did an incredible support network. And the world grinding to a halt during all this somehow worked in my favor...
I will continue leaning into things that scare me. The new challenge is sharing my voice in different media. Six months in.
The other big challenge is including cannabis into my professional story, an exercise that has been enormously validating and hopefully solidifies into an official step on my new path (hire me cannabis recruiters!)
I look forward to being as confident in those spaces as I am on the microphone.
As always, thanks for sharing your time with me, dear reader.
I hope you enjoy my birthday week as much as I will!
Jonathan “Doc Wattson” The Native Stranger