Jessica Kagansky (SVP, Risk Management at Crown Asset Management) once let work define her. Discover how her unexpected venture in improv acting helped her nurture her authentic self and find fulfillment outside of work.
Several years ago, I decided to become more focused on my personal development. At the time, I’d already built a solid career, but I knew there was room for improvement. I invested a lot of time and energy studying how to be a better leader and incorporating what I learned at work. I thought I was doing all the right things—I read a mountain of books, listened to endless hours of podcasts, took classes, attended workshops, and worked with a leadership coach. But I still felt something was missing.
Then I had an “ah-ha” moment.
During a leadership offsite, one of my colleagues mentioned an upcoming trip to Disney. I commented that Disney sounded like a horrific vacation. He smiled and said, “Happy people do what makes them happy.” His stunningly simple response stopped me dead in my tracks and then prompted me to ask everyone else what made each of them truly happy. This benign conversation quickly morphed into deeply impactful and emotional dialogue. In the following weeks, that simple phrase had taken up permanent residence in my mind: “Happy people do what makes them happy.”
As I pondered it, I realized I’d never made my own happiness a priority. For my entire adult life, I had been so hyper-focused on building my career that now my identity and self-worth were primarily derived from my professional accomplishments. Everything took a backseat to my career. I then began thinking about all my roles in life—manager, employee, colleague, wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, student, volunteer. When I stripped all those labels away, what was left was me—just me—and I had no idea who I was without them. I’d been so busy building a career that I nearly forgot to build a happy life.
It hit me that all the personal development work I’d done thus far was in the wrong context. I was focused on developing career skills, but I’d completely neglected to work on myself. Instead of focusing so heavily on being a better leader, I should have put energy into becoming a better version of myself. If I could do that, then the ripple effects would impact every aspect of my life. I realized I needed to truly redefine myself, and candidly, that scared the hell out of me. After much self-reflection, and despite all my fears, I got started.
Redefining yourself is not a quick and easy process. There’s no perfect guidebook or map. Along my journey, there were a few steps that were essential for me.
These might be helpful to you if you’re looking to redefine yourself:
Self-reflect, and then give yourself grace.Before you can redefine who you are, you must reconcile with your past, forgive yourself for your mistakes, and accept your flaws. Reflect on them, learn from them, and move on. More importantly, let go of the feeling that you are not enough. Society is really good at showing us an unrealistic ideal of what women are supposed to be rather than embracing us for who we actually are. Most women I know were raised to believe that to be a good woman is to be good for other people. So, if you’re a good mom, wife, sister, daughter, or friend, then you are good. The hard part about that is that your worth is wrapped up in someone else’s perception of you. There’s this idea that you must show up for other people and be perfect in every role you play, or you don’t have value. It’s impossible. Give yourself some grace; prioritize your own well-being. When I stopped killing myself trying to be who I was ’supposed’ to be, I found that who I already am is exactly enough.
Embrace vulnerability.For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a hard time trusting people. Somewhere along the way, I stopped trusting myself too. I constantly questioned my knowledge, skills, and abilities. Worse, I realized it was hypocritical of me to expect people to trust me when I didn’t fully trust them or me. For me to grow, I had to learn to open up fully about who I was, how I felt, and what I needed. I had to identify the things that brought me shame and deal with them. I had to allow myself room for failure and discomfort. Choosing to be vulnerable is a giant leap of faith. Yes, trusting people gives them the power to hurt you, but, for me, trusting and being vulnerable with others helped me learn about and accept myself. As I began to trust people more, my authentic self began to emerge.
Seek honest feedback.As a part of embracing my vulnerability, I asked for candid feedback from those around me. I wanted to be held accountable for my words and actions. I created an open, safe conversational space for others to tell me what they observed about me.
It’s one thing to be honest with yourself, but it’s quite another to proactively ask others to judge you. I spent a lot of time self-reflecting on their observations. Honest feedback, when negative, can sting, but it can also really surprise and inspire you. You can learn a lot about yourself when you learn how others see you.
Venture beyond the safety of your comfort zone.In speaking with one of my closest confidants about my lack of confidence and fear of failure, she recommended I take an acting class. This was not something I had ever considered. I’ve never wanted to be on a stage in front of anyone performing anything. I’ve never been a performer, and, like most people, public speaking intimidates me. So, an acting class? Nope. Absolutely not.
But…maybe the fact that it was so scary was the exact reason I should try it.
I reluctantly began researching improvisational theater (“improv”) and learned that many people take improv lessons to help them overcome the exact challenges I faced. So, I signed up for classes. As the first day of class approached, I nearly bowed out. Fears that routinely beat me down swirled in my head: What if I fail? What if I look foolish? What if people judge me? Somehow, I mustered the courage to show up despite the little devil on my shoulder trying to convince me not to. That decision quite literally changed my life.
Within the first few weeks, I’d cultivated a trusting relationship with 15 strangers. I began to celebrate failures and I no longer cared if I looked ridiculous. Soon, I began performing outside of the classroom. Learning and performing improv has been one of the best, most rewarding experiences of my life, and the lessons learned apply far beyond the stage. One of the lessons taught in improv is “follow the fear.” When I first followed the fear onto the stage, it truly changed me. Now, when I’m on stage and the idea of doing something scares me, I know that’s exactly what I should do, whether it’s speaking in a French accent, becoming a blender, or breakdancing. I don’t know how to do or be any of those things, but simply trying is succeeding in improv.
Accept failure.Improv is a wonderfully weird world that embraces and celebrates failure. That was the most enchanting part of improv. Failure is inevitable on stage, but if I fail, so what? It was probably funny.
With this new hobby, I walked straight out of my comfort zone onto a stage where I found an unafraid version of myself. When I have nights where I fall flat on my face on stage, it doesn’t destroy me. I learn from it. By teaching me to celebrate failures, improv has helped me develop confidence and creativity, and most importantly, it makes me happy.
Now, I’m not saying that to redefine yourself you need to take an improv class (though it’s an experience I’d highly recommend to virtually anyone). However, breaking free from the boundaries of your comfort zone in any way can help redefine you, because just beyond those boundaries is where the magic happens.
This redefining doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long process that takes self-awareness and tremendous amounts of work. Even after all the changes I’ve been through, I’m still a work in progress. For now, I’m working on inserting my authentic self into all the roles I play and nurturing my own happiness. I still have a long way to go, but perhaps for the first time in my life, I’m headed in exactly the right direction.
My challenge to you is to remember three things:
- Happy people do what makes them happy. Go discover what brings you joy.
- Follow the fear. Be courageous. Find the thing that scares the hell out of you, and then go do it.
- You are enough. Forgive yourself for not being perfect. Embrace and accept failure; it’s the richest soil for growth.
Crown Asset Management was a generous sponsor of Women in Consumer Finance 2023. They support the personal and professional development of women in financial services and beyond.