Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
This is absolutely not a political post, but it was inspired by some recent discussion around Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the high school she attended, and what that says (or doesn’t) about her “true” roots. In a nutshell, she was being criticized for not really being “from the Bronx” because she went to a fancy high school in Westchester. This got me thinking about the complexity of people, my own complex narrative, and how the complexity of one’s personal narrative is something to be celebrated and explored, not explained away.
My own story is complex. In some ways, the version of me you might know if you don’t know me well personally — me as “tech person” in various incarnations — started when I got to the Bay Area in 1998 at age 26. When I landed there back then, I didn’t really know anyone there. I didn’t have family money or family connections. I arrived in California hopeful and excited but nearly flat broke, with quite a bit of debt from “chasing my dreams” (an expensive and debt-ridden proposition if you weren’t born into money). California was to become a turning point in my life in a lot of ways and my time there laid the groundwork for so much to come. The people I met back then received me as I was at that moment — professionally accomplished for a 26-year-old and coming there for a cool job — but inside, I was a wide-eyed kid from North Carolina who never imagined he would visit California, much less live there. My time in California was a rebirth of sorts for me where I started to really build the life I always wanted. But the North Carolina kid remains to this day and shapes my world view considerably.
Much later, I learned via someone close to me in my time in the Bay Area that there was a perception that I was born into wealth! After all, I graduated from Duke, I studied Shakespeare, I had worked in senior positions at CNN, I was joining the company in a VP-level position. (And my name was Chad, a name that has since been become a meme identified with nothing good!) At a glance, I sounded like a well-heeled Southerner with life-long training for the big time. But that wasn’t really me.
This perception of growing up with wealth and privilege really surprised me because it was so different from how the person who told me about it eventually saw me as we got to know each other and it was also very different from how I saw myself given my lived experience. My family was never poor, but we certainly were not rich. My parents moved out of a mobile home park and into a house just before I was born. My mom named me Chad after Chad Everett, her favorite actor who played Dr. Joe Gannon on her favorite TV show, Medical Center. It was a big deal in my extended family to move from a trailer into a house like that. When I hear George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s song “Two Story House,” I still connect with that feeling expressed in the song in a visceral way many years after I got the two-story house myself:
We always wanted a big two story house
Back when we lived in that little two room shack
We wanted fame and fortune and we’d live life the way the rich folks do
We knew somehow we’d make it, together me and you
My maternal grandfather was an illiterate farmer and as a 5-year-old just learning to read in kindergarten, I was tasked with reading him his birthday cards because he couldn’t read them himself. I’ve done my share of manual labor in life and to this day love the feeling of doing hard physical labor and getting work done. I grew up Southern Baptist and the Bible and church hymns are burned into my psyche. My family was touched by extreme mental illness throughout my childhood and that created all kinds of intense and devastating disruptions in our lives.
It’s possible to be a person with all of these experiences at the same time. You can be a kid barely removed from a trailer park with an illiterate grandfather and disruptive mental illness in your family and go to Duke and study Shakespeare and build a successful career and eventually go to New York City and take a company public as a CEO. I actually think we would be better served if we had more people in leadership positions in public and private life who have known what it’s like to be broke, to see the tragedy of a grandfather reaching the end of his life not knowing how to read, to win admission to a fancy school and feel like you shouldn’t be there at first but then dig deep and carve out your place there and in the world beyond. Any leader of any organization of sufficient size will employ and work with a diverse group of people and having a diverse set of experiences can only help build empathy.
In my personal life, I get invited to fancy dinners and such. Sometimes when introducing themselves, people lay out their professional accomplishments and I find myself wanting to know the real person, not the LinkedIn profile. I’m wondering: what were your struggles? What were your parents like? When did you feel uncertain and how did you overcome it? How did you get here? I realize that no one is obligated to share those things with me and I never press. But some of my best conversations at those kinds of events have come when I’ve let my guard down and told the person beside me a little about my real not-LinkedIn-profile self. Quite often, that person opens up in some way. We laugh about the first time we went to a dinner like this and had to figure out how the place settings worked, or about how we felt when we interviewed for our first big job in a strange city. Or the person beside me might have grown up wealthy but suffered difficult challenges in life that wealth can’t address and overcame them (note that the ultimate message of George and Tammy’s “Two Story House” is that wealth and sadness can go hand-in-hand). Some of these conversations have become the basis for deep loving friendships that I treasure.
Maybe if we all gave each other the space to be complex people — not reduced to public perception, our professional bios, our LinkedIn profiles, others’ narratives of who we are — we might understand each other better and give ourselves the room to be messy but wondrous human beings. As Whitman wrote:
I am large, I contain multitudes.
We all contain multitudes. Or as George and Tammy sang together on “Two Story House”:
I’ve got my story [Tammy]
and I’ve got mine, too [George]
And so do you. We should all tell them proudly and in their full complexity.
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