Everyone has faced some kind of stereotype at some point. For example, as a 23-year-old black man, I’ve gotten pulled over, even though I wasn’t breaking any laws. I've been questioned by the officer about why I was driving a lighter-skinned passenger.
I’ve seen an older white woman get off the sidewalk and walk in the street, just to avoid walking past me. As a young kid, I remember walking into stores and becoming uncomfortable because I could feel the owner's gaze following me everywhere I went, as if to be sure I didn't steal.
I’ve even gotten flak from other black people. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve overheard conversations from the older generation about how all the “good black men are being taken away” and sometimes my girlfriend and I get death stares from older black women; I assume they're upset because I’m not with “a good black woman.” (My girlfriend is Mexican-American.) It’s crazy to think that even my relationship is being affected by stereotypes.
As a black man, I’m also disheartened by the statistics:
- I have a 33% chance of going to prison.
- I have a 3% chance of ever making over $100,000 a year, while white workers have an 11% chance.
- I have a 32% chance of my marriage ending in divorce, compared to 22% of white couples, and 23% of Hispanic couples.
- I have 19% chance of getting a bachelor’s degree, compared to 33% of white people.
So basically, if we combine all these stereotypes and statistics, my future doesn't look too bright, does it?
When I first started my blog, the biggest obstacle wasn’t finding readers, or becoming a better writer, or any of the thousands of things that vex new bloggers. You know what my biggest obstacle was?
It was myself.
How often do you see black self-help bloggers? Let alone at 23 years old. I felt like people wouldn’t take me seriously. I didn’t know any black men who were doing that. When I looked at other people succeeding in this field, none of them looked like me. None of them came from my background.
I came from a single-parent household. I became a father at 16. Virtually no one in my family ever attended college, let alone finish with a degree. We were never on food stamps, but there was never an excess of food or money, either.
And even more importantly, I didn’t know ANYONE who had a career they actually enjoyed. The most important thing was being able to pay the bills, keep the lights on and provide a roof over our heads. But following a career path because you were “passionate” about it? The idea was laughable.
So how could I, this young black kid from a background unconventional for the self-help world, with the weight of these negative stereotypes on my shoulders, ever succeed at helping other people live better lives? Would people from other races accept me? Would they accept my message? Would they see me for who I really am, or would they just see the image that’s been hyped up by the news, movies, television and music industries?
Please understand, in no way am I blaming anyone else for my challenges. My point is that many of us have felt boxed in by extrinsic factors. And what’s even worse is that sometimes, we actually accept these perceived limitations.
Maybe you’re a woman who was told you’re not strong enough. Maybe you’re a man who has been told you’re too emotional. Or you were raised in a home where you were told that being a doctor was the only acceptable career path. This list goes on.
For example, I know someone who just graduated with a bachelor's, and she landed a great gig with one of the biggest companies in her industry. She comes from a traditional Persian family, where titles are very important. She was pushed to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or to at least get her PhD.
You know the first thing her father told her after she graduated? "When are you getting your masters?” Here she is, fresh out of college with an amazing career ahead of her, and she’s being pressured to go back and get a degree she doesn’t even need. Talk about feeling “boxed in.”
Maybe you can relate? Perhaps people have told you that you’re too old, too young, too smart, too dumb, too blond, too this or too that. But none of these ideas are a true reflection of what you’re capable of achieving.
It's something I have to remind myself all the time. I second-guess my ability to achieve because it’s uncharacteristic of what most people like me have achieved.
And a recent study from NYU shows that I'm not alone: it revealed that people who were asked to perform tasks after being subjected to stereotypes about themselves not only underperformed, but also showed a decrease in self-discipline, focus, and decision-making, while showing an increase in aggression, and indulgence in unhealthy foods.
The same was true when college students who attended underperforming high schools were reminded of where they went to school: they fared worse on tests than those who weren't reminded of their past schooling.
My point is that we're all being affected in a very real way by what others think and by what we presume they think.
You know what finally gave me the courage to give follow my heart? I realized that if I wanted to succeed in the self-help business, I had to get over my fears that people wouldn’t accept me. I also had some revelations that I hope can help you if you're similarly doubting yourself:
First, most people’s opinions don’t matter. If you’re not someone who’s close to me, or you’re not someone whose opinion I value, then what you think of my career choices has no affect on how I live my life, or how I view myself.
That small shift in my perception opened up so many doors, because I no longer felt shackled by worrying about others' opinions. Second, I realized that even though we all start in different places, the ability to succeed depends far more on the individual than upon any other extrinsic factors. There are no laws that say people who look like me, or grew up where I did, or grew up how I did, can't become self-help bloggers.
I’m truly the only person in charge of my success. As long as I work like crazy, continue to educate myself, and learn from my mistakes, I’m capable of whatever I set my mind to. I can have a successful marriage. I can have a six, seven, or eight-figure business. I can become a respected figure in the self-help world. I can become someone that people look up to, and respect, and whose work they appreciate.
If you're in a similar situation, feeling like you can't achieve your goals because of your age, your weight, your religion, your sexual orientation, your race, your background, or some other factor that doesn't define you, I want you to remember: You get to define your own path. You are only limited by the dreams you’re brave enough to dream, and the actions you’re bold enough to take.
So follow whatever path you feel is right for you, throw caution to the wind, don’t be afraid to fail, and live your life how only you can live it.
To help get you started, you can pick up a free copy of my e-book, Goal Domination: The 5 Step Game Plan for Setting and Achieving Your Goals.