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Why bring your “whole self” to work?

I had the pleasure of attending a Celebration of Life recently. As I listened to the memories and reflections shared by friends, family members, and colleagues, I was struck by how differently they had experienced the same person. The woman we were celebrating was remembered by some for her communication style, flexibility, and teamwork; by some for her discipline and soul; and by others for her love of children. In the reception that followed, I heard comments like “I didn’t know she was an accomplished musician”, “I didn’t know she played semi-pro ball”, and “I didn’t know she got her master’s degree in science at age 56!”

On the way home, I found myself thinking about these different facets of our personalities, and about how they impact our professional lives. Certainly having a variety of interests and hobbies is fun, but is there more to it than that? Is there real value in “bringing your whole self to work”?

Recently, I watched a friend who was trained in the social sciences make a successful pivot into a career in tech. He was able to demonstrate his technical skills through carefully-selected projects in his former job, supplemented with a few online programming courses — and those things got him in the door for a first-round interview. However, the qualifications that tipped the final hiring decision in his favor were very different: a conflict resolution certificate that he’d obtained to further a personal hobby, and a coaching certification he’d earned in a favorite sport. When he brought those facets of his personality into the discussion, his current company recognized that he was not only capable of doing the work, but would also bring valuable experience as a teacher and mediator to the team.

The value of bringing diverse interests into your professional life extends beyond the context of a formal interview. Over the course of my career, for example, I’ve had many opportunities to participate in networking events with senior executives — some of whom are laser-focused on their work, and some of whom are excited to discuss a range of topics related to current events, history, technology, and popular culture. I’ve always found it challenging to sustain a dialogue with a laser-focused, work-only executive; as a result, I spend less time with them, and develop a limited understanding of their challenges. On the other hand, it’s a pleasure for me to talk to someone with more diverse interests, particularly if they’re also an engaged listener and open to debating different points of view. I’ve developed lasting connections with many of these individuals, and our far-ranging discussions have enriched our business relationships.

Finally, by integrating different facets of your personality into your work, you’ll develop a more “open” professional network — one that places you at the intersection of many sub-networks based around your work, interests, and hobbies. Research has shown that people in open networks have a more accurate view of the world, along with an enhanced ability to innovate and apply solutions in new ways. I experienced the benefits of an open network when, through a recent professional development course, I connected with a fellow student from the financial technology industry. While we have very different personalities, experiences, and approaches (many drawn from our own smaller sub-networks), our networks overlap around an interest in coaching. We’ve since developed and co-taught a series of leadership courses, in which we draw on our diverse backgrounds to provide insight into the wide range of successful choices our students can make.

Does this mean you should share every facet of your personality at work? Not necessarily. Just as you might frame a scene in a landscape photograph, you can choose different elements and characteristics to highlight in different situations. The key is to keep an open mind about what you can and should bring to the foreground, because elements that aren’t core to your “professional” persona can still have a big impact on your professional success.

Next time you interact with someone in a professional setting, try thinking more broadly about how you can integrate the non-work facets of your life into the conversation. Is there a skill you’ve built in your personal life that would highlight the value you can contribute? Can you connect with someone over a shared hobby or interest? As you find more authentic, effective ways of bringing your whole self to work, I hope you’ll reach out to share your stories — I’d love to hear about the new opportunities you discover.

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