My eyes darted around the busy restaurant, looking for my business associate with whom I had a meeting scheduled. It was an upscale restaurant in Petionville, a town distinctive throughout all of Haiti. The gated and privately guarded neighborhoods resemble a Haitian version of Beverly Hills, but with barbed wire. The community is stable, and business conducted with an appearance of western normality, in striking contrast to many other parts of greater Port-au-Prince.
My cell phone chirped. My associate was stuck in traffic along busy Autoroute de Delmas. She was running late, but on her way.
Accompanying me to the meeting was one of my brightest college students. Standing at 6’2, he was an articulate, thoughtful 28-year-old in a neatly pressed dress shirt and tie. He was studying Business Administration through an online university partner, and my role as Executive Director was to give students the opportunity to shadow me and see what a real-life business meeting was like. We settled into a corner table while a dark-skinned waitress, her eyes averted, timidly took our drink orders and left a bowl of pistach on the table.
We exchanged some small talk as we waited. He seemed distracted. Then, he started breaking out in a cold sweat, his hands trembling. I called him by name, but he did not look in my eyes. I asked him if he was feeling unwell.
“Mrs. Kristen, I do not belong here.”
At first, I was incredulous. “Why wouldn’t you belong here? Of course, you belong here!”
“Madam, please look around us. These are all important businessmen. They are all white and mulattoes. Or foreigners working for big companies and organizations. They can tell I am NOT one of them.”
I looked around. The restaurant was literally filled with every shade of skin color, but not a single dark-skinned Haitian other than the waitress standing in the corner, trying so hard to look invisible.
“Do you honestly think that you have something written across your forehead that says that you are less than these people? You have a higher IQ than most people in this room, and you have overcome more adversity in your life than many. You belong here.” I said. We both were a little teary-eyed.
He nodded thoughtfully, then excused himself to the restroom to collect himself. He returned a little more confident and collected than before, and he even contributed to the meeting.
I marveled for many years at our exchange, and just how powerful our own “head chatter” can be based on our personal and sometimes cultural history. Haiti’s has a powerful social class structure that groups people according to wealth, income, education, type of occupation, and membership to a specific subculture or social network. Since colonial years, race has played an important factor in determining social class.
Years of negative head chatter, combined with powerful cultural expectations and norms not only can sway an impressionable college student in a developing country. Negative mindsets can try to strangle all of us from our God-given potential and desire for success.
I found myself in a “head chatter” situation recently. Ironically, I have been an executive in several higher education institutions, but my strength has not been found in traditional academia personally. Diagnosed with learning disabilities at an early age, I forced myself to excel in the things that I came easier for me, in order to hide my learning challenges.
This year, I was accepted into Harvard University: Division of Continuing Education’s professional development program in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was thrilled and nervous. Over the years, I had become quite comfortable being the “teacher”, It has been a long time since I was a student myself.
Arriving at Harvard University, I could see that I was surrounded by greatness. My class was filled with 40 professionals from over 15 countries. Executives from companies such as Visa, Starbucks, Hyundai, international companies, banks, and foreign high-ranking government officials were my classmates. As mandatory introductions began, I was mentally preparing for what I would say when it was my turn. Internally, I panicked.
I do not belong here.
I remembered the exchange with my Haitian college student, years earlier and wondered what these executives would see written across my forehead. Would they see a crestfallen teenager who struggled to take her written driver’s license test seven times because of my learning disabilities? Did they know that my high school guidance counselor told me once that, with luck, I would probably end up working at McDonald’s?
“My name is Kristen Hertzog. I am an entrepreneur and own a bed-and-breakfast, event venue, and spa cottage in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. I am also a performance coach and motivational speaker. I am here to learn all I can about leadership coaching from all of you and our professors here at Harvard.”
“I am here to learn too, maybe we can help each other, yes? We all have much to learn, Kristen. After all, why are we here?” said a stocky man in a well-dressed suit next to me. His name was Aqeel, Director of Finance and Treasury of the Capital Markets Authority of Kuwait.
I did belong there! So did Aqeel! So do all of us! It was a great reminder to me that we all have head chatter that does not serve us for our advancement. We can be our own greatest enemy of our success. We are responsible to fight our own negative chatter daily and fill our thoughts with our dreams and vision for our own future and how we will get there. We belong anywhere we want to be.
Kristen Hertzog is an entrepreneur, international performance coach and award-winning speaker with a certificate in Leadership Coaching Strategies from Harvard University: Division of Continuing Education.www.facebook.com/yourperformancecoach/