My fifth grade student council president campaign speech, where I rallied a hundred of my other tween-peers, went like this:
“Don’t be fooled by a decoy, vote for the real McCoy,” I challenged my classmates from behind my laminated-wood desk, and the room broke out in hollers and applause. They were excited! They liked it! Unfortunately, that energy didn’t carry over to the elementary polls, and as happens so often, the guy in the race won. But, the fantastic thing about fifth grade is that if you’re the runner up as president, you automatically become VP. Second place was enough to keep my spirits high.
Being bold came about as naturally as did having an audience. I loved that feeling of bringing together a whole room of people around a common goal or cause. It was around this time I started telling people I wanted to be a public speaker. Not that I had anything particular to say (yet), but that cocktail of talents and desire has served me ever since. It would take over a decade to realize feminism, not elementary school politics, is what I’d like to fill my mic with.
See, your talents and your skills are two very different things. The latter are abilities you develop over time to achieve a certain outcome. The former requires you to do a deep dive into what actually gives you energy when you’re doing it. Modern work culture has become so achievement-oriented and outcome-obsessed that it’s often really hard to separate what feels good while you’re doing it from what “looks good” when it’s done. We’re rewarded for developing the skills to get somewhere and ignoring how we feel while we’re using them.
I’ve conflated the two often. My earliest wake-up call to this was when I pursued a career in sports broadcasting as on-air talent in my early twenties. It didn’t take long before I realized that showing up (albeit for a few brief minutes) on a nationally-known sports network wasn’t enough to compensate for the fact that I was genuinely drained by the day-to-day needs of progressing in that industry. Turns out, I just didn’t care enough about sports. It was that epiphany that led me to pursue writing again. I found a night course on book proposal writing, decided to write about what I cared about (women’s leadership), and after reading my sample pages, a classmate pointed me to a new company focused on elevating young women’s careers. She thought I should reach out to the founders. I did. That single choice buckled me onto a rocket ship, one from which I’ve never looked back. One that put me on the path of building communities for women and facilitating stories for a living, on stages and on paper. I’d re-discovered the motions that had always lit me up.
Over the last five years, I’ve built a business and published my book You’re Not Lost, both of which had this advice at their core: take the small steps that light you up in the moment, which will give you the direction you’re seeking. If you do that over and over, you’ll build the deep sense of self belief needed to keep moving in the face of the unknown. It’s what allows you to attract and pursue opportunities you never had in your ten-year plan. They’ll feel right. Because you’ll realize “arriving at the destination” doesn’t follow through on the fulfillment promise. It never does. The journey has to work, because reaching the desired destination is never enough — you’ll always find a way to set a new and better destination you want once you’re there.
I took my own advice last year and did something that was nowhere in my “plan.” I joined The Riveter team full time to oversee the ways our women and allies were coming together offline in our nine coworking and gathering spaces. Alongside this brilliant team, I architected the thing I’d been trying to solve on my own for years: the power of consistent, ritualized experiences in deepening community and providing support for working women at scale. The 10-person programming team threw their heart and soul into bringing these big ideas to life. It was working. It was blossoming. And then the pandemic hit.
Like everyone and every business, in March, our company had to prioritize different things. There were many hard moments in that shift, countless actually, but there was also the bright spot of being able to bring scaled digital programming online in a similarly-consistent way. But as I began the motions of running this digital community and programming team, as offline events were off the table, I could feel the hints of a drain that was two parts pandemic and three parts something else. The “something else” part would take me weeks to put my finger on. I knew I was feeling wildly grateful for the work in front of me, but frustrated all the time, which was confusing because the ultimate north star of supporting working women and being instrumental in how we build a better future for them, for us, when it was never really working to begin with…that’s my jam. My life’s jam, actually. When I sat with my feelings during long walks in the morning, the word that kept coming up for me was: misaligned.
As our team meetings went on, new things were made, digital programming was launched, the community was coming alive, zoom calls were clocked, and our whole company continued to inspire me day-by-day with the resiliency, kindness, and commitment to the purpose … I, weirdly, felt myself experiencing less and less positivity.
What I was feeling wasn’t about the mission. Or our vibrant community. Or about the people. Rather, my negativity was about the motions of my work. About my day-to-day. I was spending a lot of my time in meetings project-managing rather than being creative and facilitating stories, which is my bliss. That “misaligned” word that kept coming up wasn’t about a purpose, a vision, a mission, or even a person. It was that what I needed to do in the role I was in, during this period, tapped into skills I’d built up over the years, but not my true talents. None of what was being required of me was in my talent treasure chest. Which explained the drain, because when we’re operating the majority of time outside of our talents, we feel stressed and depleted (in non-pandemic times, which is obviously exacerbated now).
I could make the argument that “feeling motivated” and “exercising your talents” and “enjoying your motions” is completely irrelevant right now, when 22 million people are unemployed, front line workers are sacrificing everything, and thousands are dying daily. If you want to sit in that place, then by all means, be my guest and exit out. What I believe even more honestly, though, is that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Both realities can exist. I know that getting to make this kind of choice is an immense privilege, much less having it to begin with. While all advice doesn’t apply to all people, getting closer to alignment for the moments of your days matters. It doesn’t have to mean you quit your job, or that you change roles. It can simply mean you examine your time, your actions, and your attention to see if you can integrate actions that involve your talents. Because when we chase that, integrate that, and pursue that, we give birth to great solutions, changemakers, advocacy, policy, companies and ideas – from people doing what they’re best at and because they‘re energized by doing it. It makes all that is hard, especially right now, so very worth it.
When that clicked for me, I realized I’d have to relearn my own lesson. Which meant I’d have to take my own book’s advice and do something about it, no matter how small. Because that small step would lead to a bigger step, which would put me on the path to direction. To alignment. When I asked myself what I encourage others to ask themselves when they don’t know “what’s next” or they’re “feeling lost” … which is, “What’s the absolute smallest thing I can do here?” The answer was clear. Be honest. Talk to your leaders and your team. Address the problem and have a solution in mind.
Which, because of the brilliant humans I work with every day, is exactly what we did. This essay is the beginning. Now, instead of operating day-to-day, I’m creating day-to-day. We made changes, reoriented the team, and refocused my energy. A new series will be launching soon where I deep dive into skills, topics, and ideas that we’re all itching to learn right now. Curiosity is my favorite state of mind, so Maxie Learns will give you all the benefits of that effort to seek that which can inform a better tomorrow. For all of us.
Remember, when you can … go after what lights you up. Pay attention to the motions of your day. It matters so much that they’re ones that you’re aligned with. And as 5th-grade podium-chanting Maxie might say, Don’t be fooled by a decoy, take small steps that you enjoy.
Maxie McCoy is a facilitator of women’s stories. She’s the author of You’re Not Lost: An Inspired Action Plan for Finding Your Own Way, which Refinery29 has called one of the top career books for women. Committed to the global rise of women, Maxie specializes in creating meaningful content and programming experiences for The Riveter. Her work has been featured on Good Morning America, TheSkimm, Forbes, Fortune, INC, Bustle, Business Insider, MyDomaine, Women’s Health, Marie Claire, Billboard, CNN and many more as an expert in women’s leadership.