Jason Collins is a professional basketball player who just announced that he’s gay. It’s rare enough for a professional athlete to be openly gay that President Obama called him up to offer support, and former President Clinton tweeted his support, adding that he’s known Jason Collins since he was friends with Chelsea Clinton at Stanford.
Collins is a 12-year NBA veteran who has played for the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards and chose to come out in the new edition of Sports Illustrated . He says, “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay. I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation.”
It’s a great conversation to have, because we all do better in our careers if we are honest about who we are.
The research about the benefits of coming out at work is solid. Gay people get higher pay and have more stable careers if they come out at work. Because so much of career success is connecting with people, and secretive people are not likable. This is one of the reasons that I was so upset when I was coaching Cassie Boorn and she didn’t tell me she was gay: because the best career advice I could give anyone who is gay is to find a place for themselves in the workworld where they can be themselves.
You would not believe how many people I coach who are gay but don’t tell me until the last ten minutes of the call. It would be fine if being gay is irrelevant to their career, but it almost always comes up, in passing, because we have to talk about your personal life to build a career plan that supports your personal life.
So if you are systematically hiding that you’re gay, then it is highly probable that the core of your career problem is that you’re hiding. Because people who hide something that big from the world are usually hiding lots of other things as well. And the more you hide, the harder it is to find a job that’s right for you.
The story of Jason Collins is not just a story about being gay. It’s a story about how, to some degree, each and every one of us is scared to be ourself at work. Each of us has something we are scared to own about ourselves because we are scared people won’t like us. We’re scared the top people in our field won’t respect or like us. We each hide something that we think is particularly bad. And we all think, “Other people might not need to hide this, but for me, it’s different.”
But really, if there’s anyone who could say they have a special situation, it’s Collins. He’s in a field where he has to touch other men all the time. He’s in a profession that’s notoriously homophobic. And he is a national figure but he’s not used to dealing with the press in a personal way, so talking about all this publicly is out of his comfort zone.
I have been working in the tech industry for most of my career. As a serial entrepreneur I’ve had to figure out, each time, how much of myself to reveal to my co-founders, to my investors, to my employees. At one point, during my last startup, I was crying in the lobby of Chase Bank because we ran out of money and none of my employees would get paid and it was the week before Christmas.
Earlier in my career, I never would have written about that, because it’s very hard to get funding when you are crying and weak and desperate for money. No one wants to fund that kind of entrepreneur. But I wrote about it anyway, on my blog, and literally hundreds of entrepreneurs told me they had been there before, and they offered great ideas for getting through such a tough time. And my investors came through as well. Because what investors need, more than anything, is a founder who is dedicated and driven and genuine and honest.
That’s what the NBA needs from Collins: dedicated, driven, genuine, and honest.
And that’s what people need from you.
Some of you are still thinking you’re not going to really be who you are. You want to keep the parts of you that are fun and enchanting and easy, while making the other, worse parts of you go away. But the truth is that no one is enchanting if they are not whole. I realized, late in my career, that one of the biggest reasons that I looked scary to some people was that I was hiding some fundamental things about me: like that I was taken away from my parents for abuse. I wanted it to not matter. I wanted to be past that.
But everything matters. Everything is our lives is who we are. Jason Collins being gay will matter so little in two years. We’ll be past the hoopla. And so will he. It’ll just be a part of who he is.
Here’s how I know: I was coaching a guy. And we were talking about how he and his wife were going to move to the East coast, and he needed a career transition strategy. At the end of the call, he told me, “Hey, I have something to tell you.”
I said, “At the end of the call? You have something new to tell me now?”
He said, “Yeah. Well, I read how you said that so many people wait until the end of the call to tell you they’re gay.”
“Oh no. You’re gay? You’re going to tell me you’re gay?”
“No. I’m not gay. I’m a transexual.”
Silence. I was shocked.
Then I said, “Are you done? Like, is it that you were born a woman and now you’re a man?”
“Yeah. I went through all the operations and everything. No one would guess I’m a transexual. I just wanted to tell you.”
And we both laughed. Because it’s a funny riff on the constant problem of people being closeted and not telling me. But that’s all it is – funny. Because he’s fine with who he is, and he’s integrated his whole self into his life, and so it’s not possible for it to be a problem for his career.
I wish that peace for Jason Collins and I wish it for all of us. Let’s start today, being a little more honest about who we are. And bonus: We’ll make more money doing that. Really.