Back in grade school, the teacher sent us home one day with an assignment: Talk to our parents and find out where our ancestors came from. In short, what was our family’s nationality (or nationalities)?
If you’re one of my international readers, you should know that this is a fairly common question in the United States. We’re still a relatively young 243 years old after all. So with the exception of those descended from a Native American tribe, it’s safe to say that none of us is actually from here.
Anyway, so I did as the teacher said, and asked my mother, and this is what she told me: “You are part German, part Polish, and part Hillbilly.”
She wasn’t quite being serious, of course. But she wasn’t kidding either. Her mother’s side of the family did indeed hail from the hills of Kentucky. And again, for those of you not familiar with our geography, here’s a quick primer …
The eastern half of Kentucky is part of what’s known as the “Appalachia” region of the U.S., so named for the mountain range, and stretches from New York to Mississippi. Historically, many inhabitants of this region have been poor, white, and disconnected from the rest of society, and over a century ago were given the moniker of “hillbilly.” Depending on who you ask, that’s either A) a negative term denoting violent and backward people who drink moonshine whiskey, or B) a positive one describing independent yet good-natured people who are content to live a more simple life, or C) some combination of the two.
I’m not at liberty to divulge any stories about our Kentucky kin that my mother has shared with me over the years. But let’s just say one involved a certain wife hitting a certain husband over the head with a certain cast iron frying pan one time (maybe more than once) and leave it at that.
Fast forward a few decades after that homework assignment, and after the birth of The Internet and a handy site called Ancestry.com, and I came to learn that my mother wasn’t too far off the mark. With a name like “Heller,” I wasn’t terribly surprised to confirm my German heritage. And sure enough, there were some Polish branches on the tree as well.
Yet when I tried to determine where in the world all of those hillbillies had originally come from, I hit a dead end. It seemed no matter which line I followed or how far back I went, everybody was either from Kentucky, Tennessee, or North Carolina–all of them Appalachian states.
The furthest back I could go was a William Yorke, born 1725 in North Carolina (the hilly western part). And other trails ended in Kentucky in the mid-1700s. Which meant my mother’s mother’s side of the family were truly hillbillies for as far back as half a century before we won the Revolutionary War.
So kudos to my mother for nailing that one. What she missed, of course, were the British and Irish branches of the tree on my father’s mother’s side. And the fact that, according to the history books, most of those hillbillies were also probably Protestant Irish, Scots-Irish, and Northern English. So really, it’s more like, “part German, part British, part Polish, part Hillbilly.”
After all of my research, I was left with a singular feeling: That from an ancestral standpoint, I was something of a mutt. It explained why, unlike other people I knew who embraced their Italian or Irish or Chinese heritage, I had never actually identified strongly with any particular nationality. And my parents’ divorce and subsequent remarriages only reinforced this feeling for me. I have one full sibling and three half-siblings, and a step-family that, while they were always nice to me, never fully embraced me as a member of the tribe.
From a psychological standpoint then, it’s perhaps no small wonder that I’ve always had a hard time feeling as if I “belonged” to any company for which I’ve worked over the years. Time and again, I’ve heard people talk about their “work family,” and whenever I do, the concept sounds just as alien to me as a family reunion or feeling strongly connected to a certain nationality.
It’s not that I’ve never gotten along with, bonded with, or become friends with coworkers before. Because I certainly have. But always in limited doses. More often than not, when I worked in an office, I arrived at work ready to do work, not to socialize. I’m not saying that was a healthy way to go about things, but it’s how I was wired. Some part of me didn’t want to fit in, if for no other reason than I didn’t actually know how to do it.
This pattern of maintaining distance between myself and coworkers was only reinforced when I started to work remotely about 90% of the time at my last job. The decision was rationalized by the 2-hour commute, but the truth of the matter was that it was the only way I could justify continuing to work for a company that I no longer felt connected to. I was going through the motions, and that was easier to do if I didn’t have to look anybody in the face while I did it.
Another key aspect of what has made me feel like a bit of a mutt in the workplace are my credentials. As I’ve discussed in previous articles, I arrived at web development by rather a twisty path: coding in high school, going to an engineering college, dropping out to become an English major, getting both a BA and an MA in Writing, then essentially teaching myself web design, graphic design, programming, and marketing, and making that my career for 25 years.
The end result is that like many other people, I’ve got some massive “impostor syndrome” issues. In a room full of people who actually went to school for design or programming or marketing, I often feel like an outsider. And for the record, it’s not a matter of ability. I have full confidence that my strength lies in the fact that I am knowledgeable in many areas, and that I am capable of learning things quickly. It’s more a matter of not having a “career nationality” so to speak–not feeling as if I actually belong to any of those groups.
Because what is a mutt but a dog constantly suffering from impostor syndrome?
This is why my decision last year to step away not only from my corporate job but from returning to any corporate job was critical. It allowed me to embrace my mutt-ness (mutt-itude? mutt-acity?) in a way that I hadn’t really felt comfortable doing before. Because even though I’ve “gone freelance” at several other points in my life, I can honestly say that I never fully committed to the idea. Inevitably, it was just something I did to fill in a gap between corporate gigs, and once the right job offer came along, I dropped it like a hot potato.
What I’ve learned in the year since is that most entrepreneurs, particularly solo-preneurs, are mutts of a sort. They wear many hats in an attempt to get their business off the ground, and rarely have the luxury of committing to one “breed” or “nationality” for very long.
As a solo operation, one day I am a writer, and the next I might be a marketer, salesperson, accountant, or the IT guy. Eventually, of course, I’d love to be able to grow my business enough to farm out all of the non-writing duties to others. But for now, it’s all just me. I am my business and my business is me. And that’s okay. It feels right. It feels … honest.
In my personal life, the friends I’ve made have always felt more like family to me than my actual family does. And now as an entrepreneur, I find that my clients and the people I choose to network with (here on LinkedIn, for instance) feel more like family than most of my corporate coworkers ever did.
In my heart of hearts, I guess I will always be part hillbilly. I will always live a little bit on the fringe, metaphorically speaking, and never quite trust corporate City Folk and their suit-wearing, high-falootin’ ways.
I suspect that from here on out, I will also always remain leery of being caged in by somebody else’s vision of what I should be working on or how I should spend my time … reluctant to commit to pursuing anybody’s goals other than my own … obstinately determined to choose my own path.
In short, I suspect I’ll always be a bit of a business mutt.
And that’s also okay. Because I have a feeling I’m not alone.