We should all have a friend like Luvvie Ajayi Jones: a woman who is joyously bold and doesn’t let us get away with thinking: Oh, that’s just the way she’s made. We could never be that bold.
In an exclusive conversation with the Conferences for Women this month, the two-time New York Times best-selling author of I’m Judging You and Professional Troublemaker reminds us: We all have the power to speak up in our own way.
The conversation, which appears below, has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: Your first book, I’m Judging You, was about inspiring people to leave the world better than they found it. Your new book, Professional Troublemaker, is about how to do that. But let’s start with why do we need more professional troublemakers, especially in business?
Because those are people who will speak up and say what needs to be said, even if it’s difficult, and because they are the people who will make sure we don’t create that public campaign that will cause a backlash. They are the ones who are going to call it out in a meeting and say we should rethink that. So I think we need to start encouraging people to challenge us to be the best versions of ourselves and do our best work.
Q: That sounds so great and fits well with someone with your character. But for people who don’t have that kind of courage, how do we get that?
Honestly, I don’t think courage is a character trait. I think it’s a habit. I think speaking up is a habit; truth-telling is a habit. And I think everyone can do it. You don’t have to be bold to speak up and challenge something. You can challenge something thoughtfully in your way. And you can do what is in your power in your way. I think it’s a habit for everyone who can make that decision: next time I feel compelled to speak up about something, I will push past the fear.
Q: Speaking of fear, you don’t believe in people becoming “fearless,” even though we see so many books about that. How would you characterize a healthy, realistic relationship to fear?
I think we are always going to have fear about something. That is a deeply human emotion. And instead of expecting ourselves to stop being afraid, we just need to accept that we are not going to do less because of our fear. You will do hard things and know you’re afraid, but you’re going to do it anyway. It’s not that it’s going to stop being an emotion you feel. I don’t care how bold you are, how audacious you are in this world; you are going to feel that. But what’s important is what you do with that fear. You move forward and do the thing any way that feels important, that feels necessary.
Q: There is much to fear in the world right now. We are all familiar with that dynamic. But you say that we also fear ourselves. What do you mean by that?
I think we fear the fullness of ourselves because we fear the judgment that comes with it. We’re afraid of people not liking us. We’re scared of being demonized and weaponized. And I think we shouldn’t be afraid of ourselves. We should be who we are, knowing that some people won’t like us. You will make mistakes. It’s part of the human experience. And if we are fighting against it, we are fighting against being a regular person navigating this world. So, doubling down on ourselves and our values is important because when we aren’t sure who we are, we can absorb all the things that people say we are.
Q: When you say it, it sounds like such common sense: not everybody will like you. But it’s so common. So why do we get caught up in what other people think?
I think there is power in knowing that not everybody will like you. You don’t even like everybody, so how is everybody going to like you? Instead of worrying about the people who don’t like you, worry about deepening connections with people who are your tribe. I think we spend a lot of time trying to win over the people who don’t like us. We weren’t put here to be liked by everybody. It’s just not possible. So, release yourself from the pressure.
Q: Let’s talk about speaking up. Many people in the workplace are concerned that if they speak up, they might put their jobs at risk. How do you evaluate whether to speak up in any given situation?
I think it is important to figure out: What is the worst-case scenario that you are afraid of? And then be logical about it. How likely is it that this worst-case scenario will happen if you say something that is thoughtful if you say something that honors your character? How likely is it you will get fired because you challenge someone in a meeting? How likely is it that if you get fired, you’ll get no other job? How likely is it that you’ll lose your home because you just can’t get any other job? I think what happens is we attach those hike stakes to every situation, and then we say I was afraid of speaking up. But a lot of us are walking around with a lot of power. So, if you’re the person who runs a department, your speaking up is not going to get you fired. If you’re the person who has been there for 20 years and has deep alliances in the company, there is very little at stake for you to challenge something that is happening that is not OK.
Q: Your mission is to empower a million people to fight their fear – because that will change the world. Given what we have all been through over the past few years, do you think women are now more or less ready to do that now?
I think women are more ready to do it. I think we’re tired of a world that is constantly telling us we’re not good enough, that we don’t have what it takes. I’m really encouraged by the fact that we are in this transition period where we are all starting to understand that there are absolutely systems that are working against us, but we also don’t have to make it easy for the system to cheat us. We don’t have to enable patriarchy. We don’t have to enable a lot of these things. We might still have to fight against this big machine. But we have power. And we have the power to fight in numbers. Women doubling down on connecting with each other is really important now, and the power that we can create by those numbers can actually shift a lot of things.