Have you ever felt weighed down by thoughts or doubts like these in your efforts to stand out?
“How can I start all over when I’ve invested so many years to get where I am in my career?”
“Can I ever do something different than what I went to school for?”
“I wasn’t raised to be a “quitter,” but I’m unfulfilled and disconnected from my journey right now.”
Me, too – that is how I felt staying up at night during my senior year of college, staring down a massive fork in the road.
I wanted to start my “own team” via entrepreneurship, but felt so much fear about crossing the bridge and leaving the rest behind.
When I was a college kid, I wanted to work in sports because it fell right smack dab in the middle of my comfort zone. I’d played on teams my whole life. Plus, I thought it would be fun.
Mixed with my passion for business, it seemed perfect: “sports business.” I loved the sound of it, and couldn’t have thought up a better blend to combine two of my passions… or so I thought.
As a major, this seemed like the perfect fit. As a career, it felt like the natural next step.
So, I went all in.
During college, I worked six different jobs in sports business.
- American University Athletic department
- IMG Georgia Sports
- Georgia Athletics Department
Just like the teams I played on in my childhood, being a teammate in these organizations felt easy and natural. I could latch onto something bigger than myself. I like to think I’m a solid team player, but the closer I got to the college finish line, the more unaligned I felt.
It all looked so good on my resume, and even better on my LinkedIn profile, maybe because everyone could see it:
- The titles
- The brands
- The accomplishments at a young age
I was always comparing myself to Ivy League students who start working at a big tech sexy company right out of college. Maybe some of them find themselves not fitting in either. Perhaps that’s even you. If it is, I’m glad you’re reading this because I have a better option: choosing to stand out.
Navigating Uncertainty Along the Path to Stand Out
As I prepared to graduate, I received two incredible job offers. One was a fulltime job as a ticket sales rep, and the other was at a big marketing agency in New York City.
On paper, they were great next steps for the career I’d started to build. Yet the whispers of uncertainty that lurked within me as I climbed every rung of the corporate ladder were too loud to ignore. I had all the tools I needed to start scaling the sheer rock face of this mountain, but I could already picture what awaited me at the peak.
I was constantly wondering:
- Is that the best role for me?
- How about this next one, with more responsibilities and a higher paycheck?
- What does life look like in a corner office as an executive in seven to ten years?
- Is this really my path?
Well, it would take a whole lot of guts and risk to find out.
As I envisioned my life 10 years out, what I saw left a bad taste in my mouth. I knew it wasn’t for me, not because it isn’t a great space or industry to work in. It is! To my core, the most honest part of me just knew that sports business wasn’t my mountain to ascend.
I couldn’t have explained why at the time. All I knew was that something was compelling me to step off the highway everyone else was headed down, and take a chance on a backroad. I didn’t even know where it would lead, but I wasn’t going to passively follow the directions of a generic GPS anymore.
The First Fork in the Road
As graduation approached, I couldn’t decide between the two offers. At the time, this was the scariest decision of my young life. Up until this critical moment, I had never questioned my path. More than that, I had never even considered that I could create a new one for myself.
“Something just feels off” didn’t sound like a very compelling reason, so telling my parents I was rejecting both offers was absolutely terrifying. How could I explain why I didn’t want to commit to these stable positions with a steady income and a clear path towards advancement?
I prepared a big presentation to explain my decision. Inside, I was trembling. I wanted their support so badly, and didn’t know if I was going to walk away with it.
I vividly remember laying up in bed at night, and that voice of uncertainty inside was screaming. It was a hard voice to listen to because it bypassed logic and reason.
Why wouldn’t I dive into these opportunities right at my fingertips Shouldn’t I be thrilled right now? Where was the excitement and pride I should feel facing the start of a stable career? Even then, I had to question: what’s so great about “stability,” anyways? Is a 9-5 even really that stable?
Why did it feel so off?
Back then, I didn’t have the words to describe this gut feeling, but now I know why.
In retrospect, it makes so much more sense.
It was because I didn’t understand myself.
I invested heavily in the process of self-discovery ever since college, and it’s been a continuous journey of self-improvement ever since.
If you’re ready to take on this task yourself, prepare to be in it for the long haul.This isn’t a one-and-done process; it’s a lifelong commitment to continuous improvement that yields new discoveries and rewards at every turn. It takes years of hard inner work and probing personal reflection to pave the road I want to pursue.
Discarding one Goal Opens Doorways to Stand Out and Excel Elsewhere
Figuring out what I didn’t want made me question what I did:
“What do I want for myself, and how do I go against the grain with no experience or roadmap for how to achieve it?”
This question hung around as I navigated the fear of coming to grips with carving my own back road.
Even though I was just a college kid with my first few job offers, the stakes felt impossibly high. Going my own way and trying to stand out marked the beginning of a shift in my entire worldview. It felt incredibly unnatural and scary, but I knew it was right. I was scared of the judgment that could come from people I cared about, and even from people I didn’t.
So many new doubts and questions emerged:
- What if the startup failed?
- Will my family support me?
- What if I lose all my money in my savings account? (which, spoiler alert, I did)
I knew what I had to do.
Throw the GPS out the Window and Follow Your Instincts
I discarded all my doubts when I decided to stand out, trust my gut, and fully bet on myself. It hasn’t gotten any easier in the countless times I’ve had to make this decision, but it has always been the right one for me. Every time, it becomes even more rewarding.
At the same time, only a limited number of people in my network fully understood me for who I was. Standing out and feeling understood fully became even harder. But it was better than conforming and fitting in down a path others were working.
When I leaped out into the unknown for the first time, I realized I needed the right support network if I was going to be successful. I started building relationships in the local startup and entrepreneurial communities within Athens and Atlanta, Georgia.
How do you walk away from something that you’ve invested years of your life and poured so much of yourself into? For me, it came down to one thing.
I wanted to be fully in control of my own life – not let others decide my own finish line.
My 5 Steps to Standing out Fully as Yourself
Here’s what my roadmap looked like to find the right route and get more in tune with myself to reach where I am today:
1. Self-Discovery: In therapy, I started to get really clear on who I was and what I wanted. I worked with Dr. Neal Bowes to navigate life more clearly. I continued self-discovery through exercises with Simon Sineck’s Start With Why, and Rich Keller’s SCORE put me on the right path. I’ve learned self-discovery is a constantly evolving process of reflection and progression.
2. Tribe Finding: I went full-throttle on community building in my local communities, finding resources I needed, and using online platforms starting with LinkedIn to meet the people who could help me in different areas. Once I had a better sense of who I was and where I was going, I started to pursue more interests that helped me forge new connections based on shared values. The best connections you’ll make are founded on similar interests and self-exploration.
3. Reflection on Past Failures: Even when my first startup failed [my first attempt to stand out fully], I didn’t give up. I reflected hard, picked up the toolbelt to get it right, and conducted a fearless and unflinchingly honest autopsy, and excavated the bones of what went right and wrong to build a better business this time around with BW Missions. Within just one year, the results exceeded anything I could have imagined.
4. Understanding the Strengths of Those Around You: I realized it’s not all about myself, either. I can’t do it all on my own. I’m constantly tuning into the strengths I can distill from the amazing people in my network and finding people who can help. Tribefinding helps you stand out, and reinforces you by connecting you with the right people you need around you.
5. Resiliency and Leadership: And through my experiences, I am working to build a company that helps others fully stand out with their work and have a sense of belonging that’s genuine, fulfilling, and real. All of these lessons I’ve learned along the way have helped me become a more resilient leader, something I first learned from my mother. Most importantly, I can use all this to both navigate and overcome unforeseen, massive challenges life throws my way and help my clients do the same.
Sometimes I envy people who can rely on a steady paycheck coming in. To me, it seems like they have stability that I don’t. This journey has felt more difficult than I imagine the sales job would have been, but I’ll never really know. I’ve never worked a full-time traditional 9-5 besides summers as a college kid or part-time, so I don’t understand the unique challenges of that path – and that’s ok, because I’ve gotten to a point where I don’t look back anymore.
Even when this envy lurks, I have no regrets. I feel truly liberated to make decisions that propel me forward and build my box and focus on the personal checklist of what’s important to me.
Standing out is a Continuous Commitment
There are many ways to stand out besides starting a business. I’m not here to say being a business owner makes me better than someone with a different career; what I want to accomplish with this article is to inspire you to pursue a path that genuinely feels like you.
Here’s my challenge to you:
- Take that risk that resonates right now.
- Stop letting fear or conventional thought hold you back.
- Start making the decisions that you know in your heart are right for you.
No one else can know what that will be, and you might not even truly know yourself if you haven’t put the time and effort into attaining self-knowledge and finding your tribe.
I didn’t get into entrepreneurship to call myself a business owner. I do it because it allows me to feel in alignment with who I am and what matters to me.
During my self-discovery process, I defined what really matters to me: I want to empower others to discover and express who they are so they can connect with others in a meaningful way.
Doing those two things creates ample opportunities to stand out around what is important to you – whether that is starting a business, a family, or helping a village in South America.
Choose to be Brave
Realizing you’re heading in the wrong direction or feeling like you’ve wasted years of your life in the wrong career can hit you like a ton of breaks. Here’s the silver lining: those years of unhappiness and feeling unfulfilled can end now. Sometimes, you have to get pretty far down the wrong path to see the right one.
I was never the smartest kid in school, but I always committed to staying after class to learn. I always put in the effort to outwork the person next to me. I literally had to beg my way into college by writing special letters to admissions to let me in. I like to think that innovative streak set me apart and helped me gain an in-state scholarship to the University of Georgia.
Once you know what really matters to you, and can vividly image the future you want to live, you can carve out a unique path to get there. No matter how long and arduous it feels, if you put in the work from the ground up, this path will bring you the fulfillment you’ve always wanted.
You Don’t Have to be Stuck Forever
Once you’ve discovered yourself, you can start working on your goals instead of chasing someone else’s dream.
A lot of people who stand out are overcoming very personal aspects of their pas.. Overcoming uncertainty means being comfortable in the unknown.
It’s incredibly hard to walk across that bridge and leave the feelings of insecurity or unworthiness you’ve internalized from everyone who doubted you behind.
Your own fear and doubts can be equally hard to face. Here’s the most important thing to remember: If it doesn’t work the first time, you can always reconfigure.
All you have to do is never give up.
If nothing else, remember this: It’s never too late to reroute. The journey becomes much faster and easier with the right people by your side once you’ve put the work into tribefinding, too. I can tell you better than anyone that nothing comes easy. Finding the courage to stand out is what makes it matter.