When I first read about Richard Branson and his ceremonial acts of burning suits of new hires on their first day working for Virgin or the cutting off ties of clients who have signed a life-changing contract to do business with Virgin, I found myself giggling. Oh how I love to shake things up and make people uncomfortable... In a way that only challenges their pre-conceived or programmed beliefs.
My friend Denise might remember this story… when I was barely 19 struggling to learn how to raise a teething baby, we took a short trip to Canada. It was one of those spur of the moment, “Hey, Denise, what are you doing this weekend?” kind of trips. “You want to go to Canada?” Of course, Denise would never say no to a question like that! Within two days we were off and on our way.
Now, there is much, much more to the Canada story that I won’t get into right now, but during our trip, we stopped at a local shopping mall. I wanted to start a collection – some type of thing I could buy at every new country I visisted. My folks collected playing cards from every new state or new vacation trip they took. I ended up with a hat... I was definitely a hat person and in fact, had a whole wall full of hats back home.
Now, you have to understand that I like to stand out. I like to be the one person in the room doing something no one else would think of or dare to do. So, this time, I didn’t just buy a hat, I bought a turban. And I didn’t just take it home and add it to my collection, I took it home and wore it.
Keep in mind, I was living in Tulsa, Oklahoma at the time. While there are some things I grew to love about Oklahoma, one thing was for sure was that they were operating about 20years behind the rest of the country, and I definitely didn’t fit it. I never considered myself so liberal and progressive as I did during the time I lived in Oklahoma.
The other thing you need to picture about this situation, is that it was probably only one year after the 9-1-1 attacks on New York and Washington. We were in the height of counter-terrorism mentality and the nation was struggling with anti-Muslim rhetoric. So, what else could I do… I wore my turban to work.
I got a lot of cross-eyed looks and double takes, a couple people might have questioned me about what I was wearing but my response was always, “a turban, do you like it?” My whole point was to shake people up and make them think twice about judging people based on the clothes they wore or what they looked like. I don’t know if it ever worked, but I like to think I atleast planted the seeds of open minded, changed perspectives in an extremely cautionary and conservative culture. They never pushed me out or asked me to change who I am, so I called it a success.
Looking back on this experience as I write about it, I am struck by how accepting my colleagues were in Tulsa, Oklahoma of all places. I can’t say my off-the-wall sense of fashion, or witty sarcasm was very well received in the bigger cities. Which is really odd, because you would think just the opposite. I remember being criticized for not dressing “professional enough” when working for a corporation in Dallas. When in fact, I thought I was dressing pretty snazzy with my version of professional hippy attire.
I think that write-up about my attire affected me for many years. It was probably at that point I started to get lost in ‘looking the part’ and the boring, monotonous lifestyle of yes-men and robotic, habit driven work life. It’s only now, twenty years later, that I am finding myself again.
My point is that we have gotten so engrained in this perception of what work life is supposed to look like, that we have lost the power of individuality and creativity that comes with varying personalities. I think it’s high time we bring life back into the workplace. And like Richard Branson says, “corporations and customers have much more of a sense of humor than we give them credit for.”