Business is a Drag

By Jeremy M. of Startupright.org | @KantDoThat

“We’re born naked, and the rest is drag.”

– RuPaul, Lettin It All Hang Out: An Autobiography

This is not me. This is not me. What is this? This is not me.

I looked steadily at my inbox and those words kept going through my mind. How many lists had I subscribed to? How did I get here with the yellow highlighter and videos that play automatically, making you spend 30 minutes getting to the information you actually want?

Ugh, this isn’t me.

Sure, there were emails from people I resonate with and even wish I could emulate.

  • Danielle LaPorte writes with an electric beauty I want to bottle.
  • Jonathan Mead always finds a new angle that opens up vistas.
  • Seth Godin unexpectedly rang me like a bell with Icarus Deception.

Even so, they’re all terribly different from me, and sometimes that difference leads me to wonder if I can ever reach the level they’re on without “faking it.”

This is not me either, even though part of me wishes it were.

Even when I look at my own writing, I can’t help but think this is not me. Someone who knew me from my writing once told me I looked much different than she pictured. “Your teeth aren‘t as sharp as I thought they would be” she said.

So much gets left out, and I wonder what sort of distorted image a reader gets of me. Writing, doing business, and socializing online can’t help but create inaccurate impressions.

Ashley Ambirge powerfully pointed out what a disservice we do to ourselves by not realizing the complexity – good, bad, and ugly – of the lives we all lead, including people we admire.

Everyone is a mess at some point. Even purple cows make cow patties (little purple ones, probably). But often we never see that in others, and try to prevent others from seeing it in us.

How can you remain fully authentic and still do business while staying true to your own depth and complexity?

Real authenticity means recognizing that you’re always presenting a “mask” to the world–so you had better make it a “true” mask, and make it a good one.

Of course, this begs the question: who could possibly be so paradoxically authentic yet superficial?

The answer may surprise (and offend) you…

This Is How You “Work It”

When it comes to presenting a good mask, there are few people better to learn from than drag queens.

Before you turn the page or close out your browser, hang tight for just one second so I can explain.

Drag is about much more than men putting on women’s clothes. The iconic movie Paris is Burning shows a vibrant subculture created by people who felt alone and left out from the rest of the world. Drag shows became a way to see themselves and each other in the best possible light.

In other words, “drag” is whatever costume you put on when you want to show your ideal self to the world.

If you want to be the CEO having a power lunch and wheeling deals, then, as the announcer for a drag show would say, “Category is … Executive Realness!”

Pick the mask you want to project and then find a way to make it real.

Drag queens understand the gap between what’s on the inside and what gets presented.  They understand the person with the mask, and the person without the mask – and they understand the two can coexist.

But that’s not all drag queens can teach us about business.

Here are 5 lessons on authenticity entrepreneurs can learn from drag queens:

1. Own It

Here’s the open secret about drag: everyone knows that’s a man.

But he gets up there and sells the shit out of his look, all the time winking at the audience and never hiding his Adam’s apple. He gives good “face” and works it like a supermodel.

Business is no different.

Call it a “brand” if you insist on Marketing Realness. Whatever you call it, make your public “face” an authentic extension of your heart. Make it bigger and better than you feel.

You’ll grow into it and live up to it.

Admit, though, that it’s a “face” and never back down from your complexity. Own up to using concealer and contouring your cheeks for the lights.

For the record though, there are circumstances when the right thing to do is drop the “face” completely. Show that your brand bleeds red too. You’ll know when the time is right. Seeing someone make that transformation can be incredibly powerful.

Once you have your face, you’re ready to step out.

2. Screw It

At some level, if you’re a guy doing drag, you have to not give a f***!

Perhaps it’s only not caring about the people who would call you “deviant” or “abominable.” Or perhaps, in an abstract way, it’s about ignoring convention. Either way, it takes balls to tuck them.

The magic word is nevertheless.

“I haven’t made six figures.  Nevertheless, I’ll share valuable, business altering counsel to my clients.”

“My art isn’t acclaimed by art galleries.  Nevertheless, I’m going to create it.”

“My book wasn’t picked by a publishing house. Nevertheless, I will write it and share it with the world.”

You don’t even have to think specifically about why the critic is wrong, just follow it up with “nevertheless” and move forward.

The same brash forwardness that drag queens use to present a dazzling face to the world can also push your business forward.

This step can be the toughest one of all to take. It involves owning up to yourself in the mirror and finding the strength to step out, being completely honest about who you are, where you’re coming from, and that you’re still only presenting part of your image.

It feels like jumping off a high dive. Halfway down, you want to claw your way back up.

Once you’re out there, though, and doing your business thing, you have to set all that aside and stomp the runway.

3. Walk It, Work It, Sell It

When you’re on the runway, you have to sell whatever it is you’re wearing.

It could be a dress made from a curtain, but you have to stomp like its Givenchy. If your feather boa starts shedding, laugh and wrap it around the neck of the loudest critic. If your heel breaks, take off the other one and snap that heel off too.

No matter what happens, it’s exactly what you wanted and you’re going to “make it work” like a contestant from Project Runway.

If every sling and arrow of committing to a business choice makes you rethink everything down to the core, you’ll never grow. Yes, pivot. Yes, continually improve. But you have to do that while keeping up the forward motion.

For the entrepreneur, the worst thing you can do is stop midstride. [click to tweet]

Once you’ve gotten past the not-giving-a-f*** stage, suspend your own disbelief and walk like there’s nothing else. Get your internal critic sloppy drunk and send it home in a cab. Commit to your “mask” and its cracks. This is when you live up to your “mask” and show off every beautiful angle.

This is the power of full commitment to an idea.  It’s invincible.

4. Read It, Hear It

The runway is only part of the world, though. There are also the seats around it … and people do talk.

Some people will be “reading your beads” from the word go. They’ll tell you everything that’s wrong with you and your little dog too.

This is the problem with the truth: sometimes it’s just that, the truth. It takes a thick skin to be able to be read and grow from it, but it’s necessary.

“It’s not personal, it’s drag” – the same is true of business.

Even though you’re putting your heart and soul out there, you have to have the strength to stand by it even if it gets criticized.

Sometimes the critic is throwing cover, using truth as a weapon to cut. But sometimes the truth is coming from a kind heart and is there to help you grow.

Knowing the difference between fruitless truth and the constructive truth you need to hear is crucial. Find whatever the truth is behind the criticism and consider whether it’s relevant. It may or may not be. Consider the source and sort out, as best you can, whether the criticism is from a good or bad place.

When in doubt, ask yourself: does this truth serve me (my product, or my service).

Likewise, know the truth when you’re reading someone.

If you’re just playing, let it come across that way. We all need to cut loose, and campy wit is half of the fun. Learn to read people like Oscar Wilde could and they’ll come back for seconds. But if you’re serious, make sure they can hear it. It starts with you knowing which one you’re doing, and communicating that to the person you’re reading.

One of the best business skills you can develop is the ability to speak a harsh truth gently.

5. Be It

You’ve done your turn. You’ve worked it, and it has worked you.

Now who are you when you take off the makeup?

Drag queens take names and sometimes belong to “houses.” These houses form a lineage of mentoring that can replace biological families that have abused or forsaken many people in the drag world. Paris is Burning showed the depth and complexity of a world that few people knew about, even in the 80s.

Importantly, this world held together both on and off the runway, in daylight as well as in the spotlight. The same 80s also gave us Donald Trump and the worship of the CEO as Superhero. This is hardly a coincidence.

On the runway, you can be Executive Realness or whatever other nickname you want to give yourself. But whoever you are “out there,” you are also the person who wipes off the makeup afterward.

You can be so many things:

  • The dazzling “lifestyle entrepreneur” who gallivants to Bali and Patagonia drinking red wines.
  • The holistic healer who has a balanced and meaningful life.
  • The harried mother who is facing increasingly difficult demands as children age into teenagers
  • The man who skirts around the edge of depression and focuses on business opportunities to distract himself from the yawning void of hopelessness.

You can have a candy-coated outside and a mushy inside. Drag or business, you have to be both people. You contain multitudes, and no single face captures all of it.

But never forget that you are both – masked and mask-less. You are all of it, the whole package.

Put on Your Mask

Stepping out in business is no simple task.

Just Do It” is an easy poster masking a complex reality.

For me, beginning this entrepreneurial journey has required me to rethink my image of myself as “bad with business,” and “not so good with practical details, the poor dear.”

I’ve discovered that Four Hour Drag doesn’t quite work for me, nor does Warrior Forum Realness. Perhaps I could be in the House of LaPorte someday, but I still have to find the right voice. I can’t be Danielle, or Jonathan, or Seth.

And I certainly won’t be That Guy Who Uses Yellow Highlighter.

But for heaven’s sake, I’m damn well going to be the best of me that I can get out there – cracks, mask and all.

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jeremy mJeremy M. is a voracious reader who falls in love with Big Ideas. He followed them through a doctorate in ethics, a law degree, legal practice, and two decades teaching (in various forms). Now he helps people who feel lost find their True North.