Here a few facts about me: I am incredibly hard working, but when I burn the midnight oil (and especially when folks I supervise have to do so) I always try to keep my sense of humor. I really care about the issues on which I focus and view every delay as a delay in justice. I firmly believe that everything you need to know about fundraising can be learned from This is Spinal Tap. I look terrible in a black pantsuit.

I like all of these above characteristics about me. I think that they are the reasons that people enjoy working with me, and why I have been successful in my career. When I have not stayed true to the above is when I have gotten in trouble, pushing my project, my team, and my own goals way off track. In particular, I’ve gotten in the most trouble when I try to “act professional.”

What is really meant by this advice is “get people to respect you.” And yes, some people will respect you if you wear a nice dress rather than adding your yoga pants into your career wardrobe, but that respect is going to come from the confidence you project.

Any time someone asks you to be someone other than who you are, it’s bad advice. Any time someone focuses more on your appearance than your substance–you are screwed.

I have tried to wear make-up and nice Calvin Klein sheaths and use an even tone of voice and try not to laugh too much or crack jokes in meetings. And I have felt like an imposter. Because of that, I wasn’t effective. Instead of seeing brash, witty, passionate ME, folks saw a scared little girl playing dress-up. No one respected me because I didn’t respect myself in this drag. What a loss for both sides!

And also, let’s face it, “professional” is a word used against many of us in the workforce as an excuse for why we aren’t getting paid or promoted equally. Sodreadlocks and natural hair on African-Americans isn’t “professional” and ladies need to wear pantyhose and recent immigrants are told to smooth out their accents (unless they are British or Australian or “white”). Our behavior is read differently—we are uppity or strident or whiny or lazy no matter how our coworkers act. In cases like this, “be more professional” is an accusation, a way of undermining your confidence so that no one will ever respect you.

So here’s my advice for the ill-advised, for when someone suggests that you act more professionally:

  • Ask for more detail. If they mean “show up on time” or “shower before you get to work,” I’m gonna be on their side for this one. If they don’t offer you any details, that tells you that they are feeding you a line.
  • Ponder on whether they are right. If your boss or mentor suggests that you fly off the handle easily, ask for examples and think about them. Just to yourself. Can you see how the situation could have been misread and how you could have acted differently and seen a better outcome? Or do you think they are misreading the situations? Consult with friends and family on this, folks who love you but will call you on your crap.
  • Decide whether you care. This is the thing—you don’t have to care. If you don’t, you may not to work in this position or with this organization any more. However, this will tell you what kind of position you want as you look. That might be somewhere that will not bug you about your tattoo, that appreciates outbursts of emotion, or where you can bring your dog to the office every day.
  • Do something. If you have determined that you want to make changes to how others perceive you, work with a coach or very honest friends to make it happen. If you have determined that you need to change where you are working, start looking. Either way, don’t rest in the judgment that you can be more professional—it will only erode your confidence.

The best thing you can do for your career and your life is to be fully present. Don’t waste your time worrying about being professional and instead focus on doing your job to the best of your ability. If you are sure of yourself, you will establish what professional is, like this:


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