Fun fact: if you dance in a fast-moving elevator on its way down, you get the sensation of being incredibly light, like a butterfly in ballet slippers skipping across the top of a cloud. (Not so, as it happens, in an up-going elevator. Then you feel more like an elephant in workboots trying to squish a bug.)
Another little-known fact: many large buildings install security cameras in their elevators.
Unfortunately, I discovered these facts in that order.
Yes, hello, it’s me, coming to you live from corporate America! I have the great privilege to spend the summer interning for a large corporation in my first “big-girl job” after college. I work on the top floor of the tallest skyscraper in the skyline, so I have a hawk’s eye view of my native city. (Seriously though, I see hawks hovering outside the window all the time and it’s pretty epic being on their level.) Sometimes I go up to the observation windows around 4:30pm so I can check out the traffic on the highway I take home. Not because knowing there’s bad traffic makes sitting in it any more bearable; I just do it because I can.
My job involves lots of meetings, official-sounding acronyms, and clicking around in high heels for 9 hours a day. I do have the good sense to change in and out of said high heels for my walk to and from my car—I park six blocks away to save money, which is fine, but my feet certainly wouldn’t last if I tried to hike a mile a day in my patent leather pumps.
As of this evening, I’m officially 3.5 weeks into my 12-week job, and so far, so good. The first few days though, I was ridiculously nervous. I felt like a little fish in a really, really big pond. I pretty much decided I was a backwards nobody from a tiny unknown college and that the only reason I was in this giant building with all these professionals was that I had somehow slipped through the cracks in the application process and it was all a big mistake. It didn’t help that my second day in the company I somehow ended up with a small, handpicked group of employees at lunch with the CEO and had to introduce myself. I felt like Mia from Princess Diaries in her disastrous debate class scene. I just wanted to turn invisible.
I’ve adjusted though, and have pretty much convinced my colleagues I’m somewhat normal. Except I always wonder if Steve from a few cubicles over judges me for walking past his door on my way to the coffee pot 11 times a day. And I did accidentally let it slip in staff meeting that I’m a huge nerd—someone wondered aloud how long airplanes have been around and I blurted out the date of the Wright Brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk, which made them all gawk and ask me why I just knew that off the top of my head. Aaaaand I did get caught walking a mile to the library on my lunch break this week. “The library?” one of my coworkers commented, “Oh my gosh you’re so boring!” Note to self: do not reveal the information that I can name all the presidents of the USA in order, frontwards and backwards, or that I know the Gettysburg address by heart. So yeah, other than that, they think I’m normal.
But really though, is that so important?
I have a confession: I rarely keep birthday cards. (I’m sorry. I know they’re heartfelt and expensive, but I’m just not sentimental enough to save them all forever. I also don’t have enough drawers.) But there is one birthday card I refuse to throw away. It’s been hanging in my room for years and years and I doubt I’ll ever part with it. It features an ostrich, a close-up, crazy eyed, gawking-mouthed ostrich, wearing a scarf with pink fringe. This adorably awkward bird is accompanied by this quote from Coco Chanel: “To be irreplaceable, one must always be different.” The card is signed by my whole family… I guess it reminded them of me? (Not sure if I’m offended by that or not to be honest.)
I think of that ostrich a lot. She kind of inspires me, odd as it is. I’d like to attempt to make a point here without reverting into the vague, cliché, and Disney Channel-saturated message of “just be yourself.” Although being yourself is a good thing to be, it’s been said a hundred million times by writers far better than I am. My favorite takes on it are Oscar Wilde’s: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken,” and Dr. Seuss’s: “Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive that is youer than you.”
But what I was thinking about today is why people need so much encouragement to be themselves. Why do we have an annoying tendency to pretend we’re something different than we are? Is it just to conform? To gain the approval of other people? Are you really willing to sacrifice your genuine likes and interests—on the belief that the opinions of a stranger are more valuable than your genuine enjoyment of your own personality? Regardless of how petty that is, I also think that it’s based on a false assumption. I don’t think other people are all that judgmental of someone else’s likes and interests and quirks. Chances are, they’re pretty quirky themselves.
Let me tell you a story. Today I was toodling along in traffic after work, per the norm. Usually when I’m driving I’m doing one of three things: making up character dialogues for my stories, listening to audiobooks, or jamming out to awesome tunes. Today it was the latter. I was really rockin’ along with Keith Harkin’s “Keep on Rolling” (if you don’t know Keith, look him up on YouTube!) And when I say rockin’, I mean really rockin’. I was bouncing along, shoulders all a-shimmy, head in full doggie-on-a-dashboard mode, and the steering wheel was my personal drum set. I had noticed a car up in front of me because I could see someone in a giant straw hat in the backseat and I love straw hats. Anyway, when I passed that car, I caught the guy in the front passenger seat watching me, and he was grinning. I was a little sheepish, but decided you know what, this is my dance party and I don’t care if he thinks I’m a weirdo. Well, traffic was stop and go, so I ended up passing that car about four times, and he kept watching. At one point, I even drove beside him, keeping pace and still belting my song—I did theatre in college and there’s still enough of a performer in me to do something like that. He was having a great time, laughing at me and I was laughing at him. I actually waved to him at one point. And when I got off on my exit, I glanced back up at the highway and he was still looking out his window, watching me rockin’ and rollin’ off into the sunset.
I’m pretty sure I made his day. And if I didn’t, who cares! I made mine.
Now, just a disclaimer, I realize there’s a hundred million ways to take this whole “do what makes you happy and don’t worry about what other people think” idea way too far. But in general, I get the idea that we worry so much about the impressions that we make on other people that we end up shortchanging ourselves. We try so hard to send the right signals that we forget what it is we actually enjoy doing. Seriously—I pretended to like the Beatles for four years because I thought my friends would abandon me if they knew I couldn’t stand even one of their songs. Who does that?
There’s a passage from The Screwtape Letters that captures this concept really well. Due to the reverse psychology used throughout that book, it’s hard to quote Screwtape directly without sounding like a psychopath. But the basic idea is that the demons want the human they’re tempting to “abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favor of the ‘best’ people, the ‘right’ food,’ the ‘important’ books.” Because “the man who truly…enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without caring two-pence what other people say about it,” is enjoying something about his own personality, which was given to him by God, regardless of the pressures put on him by society and those around him.
So here’s my challenge: the next time you feel like you should suppress something you genuinely enjoy about yourself, stop and ask why you feel that way. Is it because you think others will think less of you for it? Who cares? You’ve only got one personality. Don’t squish it into a mold so you can look like everybody else. Is it really the end of the world if somebody thinks you’re a nerd? Nah. Be the best nerd you can be. And be happy.
And if your goofy ostrich personality causes you to dance in elevators, just know that somewhere, a poor bored security guard monitoring the elevator cameras was having a really dull day until you came along.