My Personal Development Journey as a Black Woman

My first encounter with personal development, or rather my severe lack of it, was a bad progress report in the second grade. Every six weeks, my math teacher, Mrs. Hill, would pass them out to the class with a blank expression. I’m sure her poker face was meant to ease our worries, but that never happened. Instead, we all sat straight up as she placed a white sheet of paper on our desks, face down.

When I turned mine over one afternoon, the results were just what I expected. There was a row of C’s for almost every assignment: multiplication speed tests, long-form division, word problems and basic fractions. Knowing what this meant, I flipped the report back over and quietly accepted my fate. By the time I got home, there would be no bike rides, no Nintendo 64 and, most dreadful, no gliding through the neighborhood in my pink skates.

But to make matters worse, you couldn’t just give your parents the report. Everything had to be discussed in a formal, anxiety-inducing parent-teacher conference. Mrs. Hill, my mom and I would sit down in the same classroom, which was eerily quiet without the other students, and talk about my grades. In one of those meetings, when my mom asked about my growing collection of C’s, Mrs. Hill turned the question back on me.

“Lydia, you know what happened,” she said. “Tell your mother what you do in the back of the class while I’m teaching.”

Slowly and quietly, I answered, “I draw pictures and tell jokes to my friends.”

“And what else?”

“We make origami. And we fold sheets of paper into rectangles, draw buttons on them, and pretend it’s a Game Boy.”

Obviously, my mom wasn’t happy. So over the next few weeks, my punishment was a huge lesson in personal development. I had to own up to my mistake by apologizing, as I had completely disrespected Mrs. Hill. I didn’t get to see my bike, my Nintendo 64 or my prized pink skates. And every day, my mom emphasized the fact that children who won’t try don’t just get bad grades—they grow up to be adults who have a hard time accomplishing anything.

These were hard lessons, but they introduced me to the idea of self-identity, and how I wanted to cultivate mine going forward.

***

I didn’t explicitly call this discovery “personal development” until I was hired to produce content for SUCCESS. In fact, at the time, I’d never read or heard the phrase spoken aloud.

But on my first day of work, I was quickly immersed in the culture of achievement. There were pitch meetings about how to make self-help experts shine in the magazine and on SUCCESS.com, as well as the publishing schedule of various inspirational blogs. As a new hire, my job was to upload all of this content to the website. In the process, I absorbed the philosophies of countless personal development gurus, including Tony Robbins, Jim Rohn, John C. Maxwell and Mel Robbins.

For a while, I was deeply inspired by these experts. I held their advice in high regard and shared articles they had written with friends and family. Because of their teachings, I wanted to increase my productivity, set big goals for myself, and wake up early to accomplish it all.

However, I never acted on those urges. Instead, I opted to keep everything—the lessons, the inspiration, the wisdom—safely tucked inside my head. If anyone asked how my job was affecting me, I would say it inspired me to think about how I could become my best self.

But inspiration only goes so far, and eventually, I ran out of it. My co-workers assured me it was normal. Still, I wondered what changed. How had I gone from mentally devouring motivational content to scoffing at once-cherished phrases like fail forward, which I read or heard at least three times each day?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but as for me, a Black woman, it ended up being the industry’s lack of representation. There were plenty of experts being celebrated in the media, but few of them looked like me.

Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together In the Cafeteria?, suggests that the desire to connect with like-minded people starts early. In her book, she explains that middle- to high-schoolers tend to cluster in homogeneous racial groups for that same reason. When children start to ponder their self-identity, they seek out other young people who can help them solve the mystery.

When it comes to Black identity, Tatum writes, “In adolescence, as race becomes personally salient for Black youth, finding the answer to questions such as, ‘What does it mean to be a young Black person? How should I act? What should I do?’ is particularly important.”

I can attest to asking those questions when I was younger. And now that I’ve gotten older, I can confidently answer the first. But the second and the third? Those are a work in progress, and I’m still wrestling with how I want to present myself in a white-centric world.

Because of that, I’m acutely aware of my existence in public. I pay special attention to the way my voice carries, especially in offices. I think of how it sounds to others, and whether my southern drawl, if I let it take shape, diminishes how I’ll be seen that day. I think of my big, natural hair, the golden brown hue of my skin, and how my quiet demeanor hides these private concerns from others. At former office jobs, I’d think of these things during the smallest of routines: getting up from my chair (Is my frizzy hair presentable?), disagreeing with a white co-worker (Do I sound aggressively angry?), or walking past Black co-workers in the hallway (In an office where there’s maybe three of us, do we share the same thoughts on being underrepresented?). These musings are a tiny nuisance in the grand scheme of my life, but over time, they take a toll on my mental energy.

I don’t work at SUCCESS anymore—I left in 2019 to pursue a freelance career. But when I did, that was the type of situational nuance I wished I could absorb from more self-help leaders.

I could read a dozen articles on how to be more confident and self-assured, but I always wondered what that information would look like coming from another person of color, if encouraged to speak freely. Would they expand the topic to reflect the realities of today’s world outside of general perspectives? And at any point, would they address personal development through the lens of race, a topic that’s extremely relevant to my life?

***

Back in 2017, a roundtable discussion at SUCCESS influenced my views on how and where to consume advice. The Q&A, which we called “Ask a Millennial,” was about how millennials learn and grow from other successful people, as compared to the generations before them. Members of our editorial team were asked to join the discussion and share their opinions on the timely topic.

The discussion began with a brief overview of SUCCESS magazine and how it historically championed the advice of people like Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill and Zig Ziglar. This was an older group of personal development experts, but their wisdom had stood the test of time. Their traditional advice consisted of broad, generic steps anyone could follow. But things were changing. Millennials didn’t want generic advice; they wanted experiential stories from real people they could relate to, not figures from the past. So how, as millennial SUCCESS staffers, did we feel about that?

Most of us agreed with the experiential story route, and we expressed that in so many words. But it was the words of Garrett Hughes, then our social media manager, that resonated most with me.

When asked what it takes for him to value someone’s advice, he said, “For me, they pretty much need to have been there and done it. Their own story has to very much be in line with mine, as an individual—where I’m coming from, what I’ve experienced—because otherwise some of the things they’ve faced in their day or through their background might not apply to me in the same way.”

During that meeting, I kept coming back to certain phrases in his answer. I replayed them in my head, weighing the heaviness of what he said. Where I’m coming from. What I’ve experienced. Their background might not apply to me.

I realized that I agreed with him, so I started adding my own personal meaning to a newfound concept. For me, “where I’m coming from” would be Oak Cliff, a neighborhood in Southern Dallas. “What I’ve experienced” would be a lot of challenges, some because of my race, and some not. “Their background might not apply to me” illustrated the fact that well, most of the time, it didn’t—especially the prominent, white gurus.

Chasing a goal can be different for a Black person, or any person of color, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the personal development industry addressing that. But to share those stories, gatekeepers in the industry would have to open their doors to a wider range of voices and topics.

***

To be fair, there are self-help experts of color with huge acclaim, and they’re not hard to find. There’s Marie Kondo, Jay Shetty, Les Brown, Trent Shelton, Gloria Mayfield Banks, Daymond John, Oprah Winfrey, Simon T. Bailey and many others. But in magazines and digital publications, I’m accustomed to seeing far less of them than their white counterparts.

Of those names, I’ve personally had the pleasure of working with Simon T. Bailey, a brilliant author, speaker and entrepreneur. Now and then, he’d fly to the SUCCESS headquarters in Plano, Texas, to help the digital team record short motivational videos. We’d do things rapid-fire Q&A style, where I’d ask questions off-camera and Simon would answer on-camera. That led to a series of advice-driven social media clips on topics like getting unstuck and how to stay motivated.

What inspired me most about Simon was that no matter what I asked him, he had an answer fairly quickly. The same was true when I called him about this article, seeking his thoughts on race, personal development and the state of it all.

On our call, Bailey told me that, yes, personal development enthusiasts of color can benefit from seeing accomplished leaders who look like them. He himself had been inspired by Dr. Dennis Kimbro, a professor at Clark Atlanta University’s school of business administration.

“He really influenced me in his book Think and Grow Rich: A Black Choice because it gave me examples and models of successful Black entrepreneurs and what I could be one day if I began to understand their lessons,” Bailey says.

Bailey has accomplished many things as an entrepreneur—he’s helped 1,800 clients (and counting) harness their brilliance and reach their full potential—so to me, that was a full-circle moment.

Jay Shetty, author, former monk and podcast host, had a similar experience. Growing up in Britain and of Indian descent, he also looked to influential people of color from America, such as Winfrey, Will Smith, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Martin Luther King, Jr. They entertainingly shared their knowledge, which Shetty believes is the key to making wisdom go viral. In his own life, he’s managed to accomplish that same goal with over 400 viral video blogs, 7.5 billion views and more than 37 million followers globally. That earned him a spot on the cover of SUCCESS earlier this year.

When I asked him what he thought of representation in general, he shared a quote from civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

“I believe it’s always empowering to see people who look and sound like you and come from a similar background represented in all careers,” he says. “Personal growth is an aspiration for all humanity, no matter your background or skin color. Everyone can’t relate to the same person, and therefore, representation matters.”

Even still, Shetty recommends learning from everyone; every lesson doesn’t have to come from people who look like you. But when it comes to niche conversations, such as racial injustice, he says shining a light on leading voices of color is important.

“For example, managing your mental health during a protest is different from managing your mental health when there isn’t one, but the right and powerful thing to do is to collaborate with others that have more experience or insight about relevant issues,” he says.

***

I used to think that I could translate any piece of general advice into something that fit my background. But it’s not that simple. My background is complex and filled with systemic challenges that I don’t have the privilege of ignoring. Being Black in America is a heavy thing to bear without a strategy, so I had to try something different.

What finally worked for me was looking beyond mainstream media. I eventually found comfort in podcasts, and they introduced me to a network of Black professionals who preach personal growth with humor, realness and racial context.

The first podcast I connected with was The Friend Zone, hosted by Dustin Ross, Assante Smith and Francheska Medina. These three friends discuss everything from music to TV, but their mental health segments are what help me the most. From them, I learned about the importance of self-care as a daily action, and what Medina calls “ninja training.” It’s the idea of shifting your perspective after a setback, and every time I’m microaggressed in public, it’s the only thing that keeps me from lashing out and ruining my peace.

Through an advertisement on The Friend Zone, I discovered the Gettin’ Grown podcast. Every week, the two co-hosts, Jade Verette and Tykeia Robinson, Ph.D., discuss the ups and downs of adulthood in today’s busy world. Most of their advice is geared toward Black women, and they bring guests onto the show to share career advancement strategies, such as authentic networking, finding a mentor and successful job hunting. The best nugget of wisdom I’ve mined from their show is how to be a Black professional at work—one who doesn’t second-guess their every move in majority-white offices.

I also discovered Tiffany “The Budgetnista” Aliche while listening to The Friend Zone. In an episode titled “Make Money Moves,” the personal finance expert appeared as a guest to talk about money management. Before listening to that episode, I was most familiar with Jim Rohn’s philosophy: Live on 70% of your after-tax income, then allocate the rest to savings, charity and investments.

But that’s a lofty goal for me, and I never got started because of how intimidating it seemed. Luckily, Aliche’s budgeting tips helped me break my finances down. She recommends that everyone should store their money in separate accounts to better see and manage their wealth through the years. After that episode, I opened three new accounts: one for taxes, one for emergencies and one for savings.

Now that I’ve found my tribe, I’m slowly learning how to project my identity to the world. I can only hope that in the future, people like me don’t have to search so hard.

It took me a while to realize it, but mainstream personal development has never served me to the fullest extent. Popular gurus have always inspired me, but I’ve actually applied advice when it came from people I could relate to. Leaders who understand me culturally and speak my language. They are bold, successful, and they provide the blueprint for how I want to show up in the world as a Black woman.


Photo by @sashapritchard/Twenty20.com

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Lydia Sweatt is a freelance writer, bookworm, and bass guitar enthusiast. When she goes outside, a bicycle goes with her.

2 Comments

  1. Avatar G King on July 6, 2020 at 9:18 pm

    Agreed. An on time message. I I admire many self development folk, but I identify and resonate with those that can speak life to the black experience.

  2. Avatar Babit Kumar on July 21, 2020 at 2:40 am

    Hi Lydia,

    Thanks for this motivational article, Life is uncertain that we know, but Yes if we got brave heart like you, we can easily fight with society;s bad terms… You are such a inspirational writer. Keep it up with your writing.

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