A friend recently confessed the peace of mind she’s found from putting her own and her son’s needs above everyone else’s. She decided to make this change in priorities after an aha moment when she realized that some people, even close family members, will only love you if you fit inside the box of who they want you to be. Choosing not to cater to others’ expectations has given my friend great freedom. Nevertheless, some onlookers in her life have still questioned her judgment and worry that she’ll regret her decision. 

Her story reminded me of an experience I had many years ago. I was passed over for a job because I didn’t fit neatly in the box of that organization’s expectations and, ironically, because I was trying too hard to fit the expectations of our broader culture. I was in my thirties, and, like many women, I dyed my hair to hide the grey. I didn’t realize the color I was using gave my hair a reddish tint in certain lighting. After not getting the position I had applied for, a colleague who was part of the interview team revealed the reason: He said that, while I was highly qualified for the position, the all-male interview team didn’t see someone with such red hair fitting that role. 

We live in a world that influences what we should think and expect of ourselves and others. There is no end to our bombardment with messages on how to act, dress, groom, speak and conduct ourselves based on our age or our assigned sex. Every society, ethnic group, community and organization has role expectations, especially regarding gender. These gender roles can be very different from group to group, and they often evolve within the same group or culture over time. For example, according to the Smithsonian, pink used to be considered a masculine color in the U.S. while blue was considered feminine. With so many expectations, how can we possibly be expected to keep up?

Many people tell themselves that success is only attained by fitting society’s mold. They choose to conform in order to land a coveted job, earn a promotion, gain visibility, or get invited into some inner circle. While there are times when adapting is necessary, such as wearing formal business attire at certain levels of an organization’s leadership, knowing when and how to stay true to oneself is equally crucial. Star Cunningham, a retired IBM executive, entrepreneur and founder of 4D Healthcare, gave an example in her story for my book on remarkable women.

Star loves to ask people, “Who do you work for?” The response she consistently receives is typical: “I work for [company name.]” But that has never been Star’s answer to the question. From the time she was a college intern at British Petroleum (BP), she has always worked for Star Cunningham. After graduating college with a computer science degree, Star was ready to step into a paid position at BP, but the only openings were for a programmer or an analyst. Both roles would have her sitting at a desk staring at a computer all day, either coding or looking at data. Her response to this offer was, “I don't want to do either one of those.” Her superiors asked what she wanted to do. Star told them she wanted to walk around the company, find problems, and solve them with technology. From the beginning she had no interest in conforming to a pre-existing role. The hiring team was ready to oblige.

In Star’s view, she defined her own opportunity and thus shaped her own destiny. She believes that people know their stories and skillsets best and should not allow others to confine them. She also thinks that performance is not necessarily a predictor of potential because had she been placed in either of those two roles, she wouldn’t have had the chance to show what she was capable of. As we concluded the interview, Star said that “Every day is an opportunity to ask, ‘At the end of the day, what did I do for my company? What did I do for my brand? What did I do for me?’ Because if all you did was got up and went to work, you shortchanged yourself.” Her philosophy is that when you put yourself first, you make career and business choices that are more motivating and satisfying.

Unlike Star, not everyone is cut out to be an executive or entrepreneur, and many will not have the chance to tell an employer the type of work they will or won’t do. But every single person has the capacity to think entrepreneurially. Star believes wholeheartedly, as her parents taught her, that you should never put limitations on what you’re capable of and you should not be afraid to disappoint those who may have limited expectations of you. As my friend and her son discovered, the freedom this brings is worth it.