reasons to be unknown

When I was 27 I went to New York City for the first time.  I was lucky enough to have a cousin who lived alone in Nolita with a willingness to host me - her younger, somewhat lost cousin,  recently recovering from a rough breakup.  When midwesterners travel to New York City, one of two things seems to happen.  They either scoff at the posturing, career obsessed New Yorkers while cursing street trash and eye-rolling their pizza, or they do what I did and they fall deep into big city induced euphoria.  Like any other honeymoon phase, I became immediately tireless.  I ran around the city all day and night on foot in high heels and jewlery I’d since only worn to weddings.  I functioned at a high level on consecutive nights of two hours of sleep.  The shift from being a sad breakup-ee on the couch, rattling off stories to friends about his new girlfriend, to a person making fast friends with strangers while wearing flashy vintage flea market jewelry was intoxicating.  I was probably annoying to everyone around me, but to me, the freedom of anonymity was so transformative that it seemed all of a sudden I had the courage to do things that Chicago me would never do.  I struck up conversations with men I found attractive, I danced with women in bars that I’d never met, I set up business meetings with people I met on the train.  I fell so in love with New York me that going back home to the person on the couch became dreadful.  And so I began a 3 year phase of my life that centered around going to New York City.  I went back many times per year, sometimes to escape unhealthy relationships, sometimes to visit friends and family, and eventually even to explore partnerships for my business.

One might say I was escaping my reality in Chicago, but looking back I know that what I was really doing was introducing myself to the version of me I’d forgotten existed.  Somewhere outside the narrative I’d been living at home were qualities that I actually liked about myself.

During one memorable trip to NYC, I found myself at a dinner with a group of women I didn’t particularly enjoy.  They were all in very high pressure careers and were so boisterous and so socially dominant that the conversation began to swallow me whole.  I sat in the corner feeling like everyone’s kid sister instead of the 30 year old business owner I was on paper.  I came back to my cousin’s apartment that night and called my then casual boyfriend, current live in boyfriend, to tell him about it. “I always think I’m confident and sure of myself until I’m around women like that.  They’re real career women and I feel like I’m just hobbling around trying to make business deals”.  “Do you like them?” he asked.  “Well, no not particularly.  But I wish I was that good at being assertive”.  “Well that’s the great thing about being an adult”, he said, “you can look around at the world and decide which parts you want to take with you and which parts you want to leave behind”.   It wasn’t until then that I began to learn that New York me wasn’t a different person, I just needed a new story about myself. It struck me that I’d been living in extremes - shifting between a static Chicago version of myself and a NYC version of myself with seemingly endless possibilities for growth.  It hadn’t crossed my mind that we get to choose the combination of traits we want to hold onto.

Eventually, I began using what I learned about myself in New York to inspire a grown up version of myself - one who’s not as afraid to talk to strangers, or make a fool of myself in front of new women I wanted to befriend, regardless of what city I happened to be in.  

It wasn’t long before that realization found its way into my headspace surrounding other types of travel.  These days, I view the opportunity to experience anonymity in any short trip to new place as a way to explore pieces of myself that may not yet fit so neatly into my Chicago person. Sometimes it’s as simple as learning for sure that I can’t pull off a cowboy hat, or that I can, indeed learn to drive a large SUV if they happen to be out of compact cars at the Hertz.  Sometimes it’s deep, reminding me to push myself to connect with people who are vastly different from me or that some friendships really are over, no matter how much you’d rather not accept it.

Last year I came up with a business idea to hold a series of pop-up weekends in other cities.  The choice was motivated partly by my desire to build relationships with schools I’d been courting in other cities, partly to gain exposure for Design Dance outside of our home city, and partly to prove to myself that I could build something small in a place where I knew no one.  Over the following several months, I questioned my choice a few hundred times.  Business consultants will tell you to do market research before spending money and manpower on anything and they’re right.  The deeper we got into a very difficult planning process, the more self-conscious I became about the whole thing.  Why was I spending staff time (including my own) on something that might never gain traction?  What if we showed up and no one wanted us there?  Is there any evidence that anyone in Austin or LA wants us to come there? Why was I bothering with this reckless business idea?

Through the process of planning, each member of our team had their own freak out about a different aspect of going to Austin.  For me it was: what if no one shows up?  For other staff members it was: what if we don’t have incentives for our guests?  For others it was: what if the kids don’t like the curriculum?  In responding to each of these anxieties, each of us began pushing ourselves in new ways.  We wrote and rewrote our curriculum plan and hustled to secure in-kind donors and community partners.  

If you follow us on social media, you know that our first weekend in Austin turned out to be nothing short of perfect.  On the final night, my team and I gathered for dinner at an Austin bar to share our favorite moments from the weekend.  We reflected on the number of times these kids made us cry, how much we valued bonding with each other over the experience, and the warmth we were shown by every single person we met in Austin.  I talked about the personal fear and vulnerability I felt around facilitating an event for other adults about self-acceptance and how empowering it was to overcome that in a new place.  Our conversation began shift to the work that went into planning this weekend - all of the cold emails we’d sent and the strategies we’d used to bring people in.  Eventually I couldn’t help but ask, why aren’t we employing these strategies at home?  ‘It was easier in a new place’ we all agreed. I was brought back to my time traveling to NYC and how easy it was explore the depths of who I could be when no one knew me and I realized that in business, it might be no different.  Like each of us, our business easily becomes defined by the narratives surrounding it, self-assigned or otherwise.  It’s easy to lose sight of who you might be if you weren’t as afraid of what others in your industry might think.  It’s easy to get comfortable with your audience and forget there might be an audience you’re missing, one that you might only become aware of when you’re starting from scratch somewhere new.  Of course I know now that we don’t have to leave Austin in Austin.  We get to decide which pieces we take with us, adding depth to the story of who we are as a company.