I Should Be the President of IBMKathleen Byars | November 20, 2016
I should be the President of IBM. No offense, Ginni Rometty, but that’s what my mom said.
It all started innocently enough. At the tender age of three, I was riding in the front seat (!!) of mom’s bright-turquoise Oldsmobile Plymouth bored out of my mind. I was too little to see out of the window, too little to read a book, and the iPad had yet to be invented. As I slipped and slid all over the turquoise, vinyl bench seat, I discovered a row of turquoise colored buttons along the door. They didn’t have a purpose other than to add a touch of decor – and to stimulate the mind of a bored little girl. As I sized up those tiny little buttons, I discovered something that would change the course of my life.
Three plus four equals seven.
I told mom about my discovery and she nearly drove off the road. Apparently it’s a pretty rare thing for a three year old to understand math. The next thing I know my parents are announcing my genius to the world. By age six I’ve had my IQ tested and that unleashes years of debate as my parents anguish over whether to skip me a grade ahead in school or keep me with my age-level peers.
All I really cared about was soccer and Barbie dolls.
I was growing up in the 1970s and back then women didn’t hold many high level positions. My mom had a short-lived career as a bookkeeper, which was pretty outrageous for her day. Upon marrying my dad she quit her job, of course, to keep house.
Mom never went to college, and despite the fact she was incredibly intelligent, she always regretted her lack of education. In mom’s mind she was less important than those who were college educated.
It was a sign of the times and mom wore her insecurity on her sleeve.
Thus it is no wonder that mom always told me:
“Honey, you can do anything you want when you grow up…someday, you’ll be the President of IBM.”
If I had a dime for every time I heard mom say those words to me…well, you know what I mean. I heard those words A LOT.
And growing up in an era where women were transitioning from 1950s stepford wives to 1970s bra-burning feminists made it pretty clear to me I was supposed to be SOMEBODY SUCCESSFUL.
I can’t say I grew up inspired by feminists, but I do remember my mother impressing upon my sister and I that we were NOT to grow up to become housewives. Instead, we were to set our aspirations higher and become independent women capable of taking care of ourselves and standing on our own two feet.
I grew up thinking I would someday become a business executive. In fact, I don’t remember ever thinking I could do anything else.
Have you ever felt the same way?
In college, all of my friends knew exactly what they wanted to do. Doctors, lawyers, software engineers. I just wanted to be a business person. In my mind, the only way to have a good life was to succeed in business. Make my bosses proud. Make sacrifices for my company. Demonstrate my loyalty and do the right thing.
And I did exactly that. I got a great job, worked extremely hard, and climbed the corporate ladder. Until one day, I looked around and realized something poignant.
I had climbed the corporate ladder, but instead of arriving at a place of freedom and success, I had climbed inside a gilt-edged box; trapped by the comforts of my life and exhausted by the pace – and lack of control — that went along with it.
Yet, dammit, I was supposed to be a corporate executive. It was the only destiny I had ever known. How do you quit the only world that is familiar to you? Deep in the recesses of my mind, I was scared to leave my glamorous, gilded cage. Leaving it, ultimately meant I had failed. I was walking away from a good life and that meant I was ungrateful. I couldn’t cut it. I wasn’t strong enough.
And I would never become the President of IBM.
That reality took a long time for me to come to terms with. I mean, you gotta admit Ginni Rometty, is pretty dang important. And her job is powerful. And prestigious.
As I wrestled with my ego, it occurred to me that maybe I was valuing myself all wrong. Maybe I was valuable – and worthy of love – not because of WHAT I do, but because of WHO I am.
Sounds pretty basic, right?
Yet how many times in life are we rewarded for WHO we are? We get praised for bringing home an A+ in school. We are deemed to be extra-special if we get into an Ivy League university. We earn promotions and salary increases based on the results we produce at work.
Is it any wonder that it’s difficult to change course in life and step down from a successful life that most would envy for a more unconventional path that potentially goes against the grain?
But what if this alternate life give us unique opportunities to strengthen family bonds or even seek out new relationships? What if it gives us the opportunity to immerse ourselves inside a creative, fulfilling, passionate career wrought at our own hands? What if we can throw away the alarm clocks and meeting schedules and replace those with a fluid schedule whereby we work, eat, play, love, and have fun each and every day at our own chosen pace? And what if we can do all that and still be financially comfortable?
I don’t know about you, but when I think about life in this less conventional way, my ego lessens its grip just enough that the thought of becoming the President of IBM is a tad less appealing. And as I searched for the answers to build that unconventional life – a life on my own terms – one thing because amazingly clear.
Corporations don’t create gilded cages. They simply serve as a willing machine for those of us willing to be the cogs. Although I ultimately left the corporate world, I took my corporate mindset and frenetic habits with me. I may have been living on the beach, but I was still driving myself crazy jumping through impossible hoops in a never-ending attempt to fill a hole inside me.
And it wasn’t until I learned to fill that hole with a whole new way of thinking – and behaving – that I finally found the freedom that had alluded me for so long.
Ego is a crazy thing. And feeling important – and successful – feels good. Yet, I have to say that feeling free – well, it feels even better.
I believe we all have a bit of trailblazer inside us, don’t you? It’s my passion to help others create change. I’ve always found that disrupting the status quo leads to an amazing life where nothing is impossible.
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