One day while sharing lunch with colleagues, Amaly, one of the younger women asked me,

“Kathy, have you ever failed at anything?”

Surprised by the question, I paused to consider how to respond, when another colleague piped up, “No, Kathy, why don’t you tell us about some of your successes?”I thanked the colleague who wanted to re-direct the conversation in a positive direction, but declared that I wanted to follow up on the other conversation.

I apologized to Amaly first, for showing up in such a way that she thought I had never failed. I told her about the D in Organic Chemistry in University, how I considered the end of my marriage a failure in some ways, and jobs that I applied for and never got. I realized that I was in a pretty happy phase in life when our paths crossed, and most of what I shared made my life sound pretty charmed.

By not sharing any of my failures and struggles, I left my colleague with an incomplete understanding of who I was and the trajectory of my life.

In Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer says that we do young people a “disservice when we withhold the shadowy parts of our lives.” We all have experiences of both shadow and light, but when we speak only of the light, we make others who are living in the shadows think they are alone there.

We hide the fact that who we are emerges from the interaction of the shadow and the light. 

We receive messages from many parts of society encouraging us to do our best, to be our best. I appreciate the wisdom of Don Miguel Ruiz, and his four agreements, one of which is, “Always do your best,” recognizing that your best will change from day to day. A dear friend told me how much that helped her to press on each day at work when her mother was ill, and then later when she was grieving.

Taken too far, the admonition to always do your best, and be your best can be exhausting. Being my best self has typically involved a lot of striving: hard work, more education, more service, more effort, more commitments.

We live in an achievement-oriented world where we are often in competition for a job, rewards, praise, or an opportunity.

I have felt a lot of pressure, especially when in formal positions of leadership, to always get it right, make “the best” decisions, show no weakness, and to project complete competence and confidence.

Bringing my best to work often meant showing up as my polished, competent, put- together self, sharing my accomplishments, and the good things in my life, and emphasizing the things I did know and was good at. Over time, I came to value work relationships where I could be real about whether I was having a hard day, where we could share our questions and ideas, and together come up with a better solution.

Priya Parker builds on this concept in her insightful book, The Art of Gathering. She has a chapter titled Keep your Best Self Out of my Gathering. I have been so attuned to bringing my best self (appearance, credentials, achievements, position, etc.) to gatherings that at first, I was taken back by her thesis. As I read more, I admired her courage in facilitating gatherings that created safe spaces for people to be real, and tell stories of light and shadow in their lives.

She advocates for the use of pop-up rules, like not talking about your work, or instructing people to tell a story that no one would have heard before to change the dynamic. Having opened themselves up through story, the tone of the gathering became much more authentic and intimate, and changed the way people related to each other afterwards.

We have to be intentional about how we show up in order to create safe spaces.

In some places, people encourage you to ask questions and say that they are there to help. We test the truth of that through the nature of the response. As a young principal talking to a mentor about a sensitive student situation, she said, “what, you don’t know the number for children’s services?” How I was treated seemed to indicate that I was lacking because I didn’t know this specific piece of information, and made me reluctant to ask more questions.

Emerging from our studies and life experiences, we all have areas of strength and insight, weakness and gaps.

We need safe spaces where we can bring all of that to the table in community.

In teaching, utilizing “best practices” is an expectation. But best practices according to who? That serve whom? Under what conditions? I have come to prefer the term promising practices, because that seems less definitive, and restrictive. It seems to recognize the complexity of diverse contexts and learners and suggest that those practices may need to be adjusted for other settings. The term promising practices invites collaboration, and discussion, and negotiation in learning our way forward.

As this pandemic has stretched on, I long to gather in person again. I want to participate in gatherings where we can bring our authentic selves and leave our “best” selves in the closet, with our certificates and high heel shoes.

What I have found is that when I have been brave enough to share from a place of vulnerability, I give other people permission to do the same. When I offer grace, I receive it back. This is especially important when we gather with diverse people who live at the margins, and may have been oppressed because of their race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Belonging is for everyone.

What conditions allow us to show up authentically?

I have fallen in love with La Manzanilla, a small town in Mexico that functions as a vibrant community of interesting people. It is a place where people can “ask for what they need and offer what they can” (from The Seven Whispers, by Christina Baldwin). This is facilitated by an online message board, and by embracing diverse experiences, gifts and perspectives. When I am there, I feel free to be my authentic self, with nothing to prove and nothing to lose, because others are doing the same. It is a place where people donate and re-sell books to support education for local students, where others raise money to spay and neuter stray dogs, and where writers can share their words, and travelers can share their pictures. Artists, writers, chefs, yogis, mystics and dancers live together, sharing their talents, and giving back to the town.

I long to be a person who contributes to that kind of community wherever I am, showing up in humility, and kindness and grace, revealing both my light and my shadow. I want to live the questions that invite others to share their real stories and respond in ways that contribute to a caring community. I teach and lead in a way that opens space for all of us to identify gaps and work to fill them together through learning. I choose to pursue, inspire and nurture learning in myself and others, because there is still so much work to do to bring the light of justice and equity into the world.

How are you bringing your authentic self to shine in the world? Welcome to our community of light.