When Dushka Zapata first discovered Quora on June 30, 2015, she had no idea that her life was actively in the throes of transformation. Nor did the people who began to follow her answers on the site.
Her plan, originally, was to share some knowledge about working in public relations, gained over 20 years in the industry, including stints as executive vice president at powerhouse agencies Ogilvy & Mather, Edelman, and in her current role as VP of Communications at Zendesk. That day, she answered the following question: “Is international public relations a reliable career?”
That was fine, but it wasn’t as interesting as other questions people were asking, like: “How can you be sure the person you’re going to marry is the one?”
“I got wildly distracted by questions about love, life, relationships and other shenanigans I’ve gotten myself into,” she said. “I was somewhat surprised to learn I’d picked up a trick or two in my struggle to be ferociously happy. I decided that sharing this would perhaps be more interesting, at least to me.”
So began a habit of answering up to 4 questions a day on the site and growing, unintentionally, a follower base of more than 200,000 readers in less than 3 years—leading to surreal moments where she’s been recognized by readers on the street and even once in a stairwell at work.
Following your passion leads to passionate followers
While the acclaim is nice—and the likes and upvotes, however fickle and erratic they may be—Zapata has always been a writer. Her career was built on helping clients develop messaging and sharing their brand stories with the media, but along the way she’s always written for herself, posting first on a blog and over social media before moving to Quora, which became both a source of inspiration and a receptacle for her personal writing. “The right question tugs at me. I read it and instantly know that I want to answer it,” she explained.
The answers are a different beast, though. They require time and thought. Zapata often ruminates on them on the bus ride to and from work, over lunch, and even overnight. She gauges her answers not by how her followers might respond, but by how she feels about the final product. “What motivates me is my love for writing,” she said. “Do I think it’s good? Do I think it’s worthy of offering up for someone to read? Might it flick on a light in someone’s despair or darkness?”
"Do I think it's good? Do I think it's worthy of offering up for someone to read? Might it flick on a light in someone's despair or darkness?" - Dushka Zapata
The likes and upvotes are often a sign that her work is resonating, and that’s likely because her passages are short, direct, specific, and often intensely personal. The more of herself she puts on paper, voicing fears and desires that most of us are too afraid to admit in our own lives, the more her writing speaks to the universal human experience..
In other words, Zapata has found and honed her voice, and this unexpectedly led to the creation of six books—something she never imagined for herself. At her readers’ request, Zapata has collected her writings by theme, including these two most recent: Someone Destroyed by Rocket Ship: and other havoc I have witnessed at the office and How to Build a Pillow Fort and Other Valuable Life Lessons, both released in 2018. The excerpt below, from Someone Destroyed by Rocket Ship, speaks directly to how she lives her life.
Under The Lamppost
A drunk loses the keys to his house and is looking for them under a lamppost. A policeman comes over and asks what he’s doing.
“I’m looking for my keys” he says. “I lost them over there.”
The policeman looks puzzled. “Then why are you looking for them all the way over here?”
“Because the light here is so much better.”
We look for things where the light is better, rather than where we’re more likely to find them.
I try not to see anything for myself down the line. Instead I try to be receptive to the opportunities life presents to me.
To open my eyes. Say yes more often.
I try not to wear blinders on my only adventure.
A business borne from the search for meaning
It’s a courageous thing to follow one’s passions and to be vulnerable—in creative endeavors, but also in business. Zapata isn’t alone in believing that one’s personal and professional lives inevitably influence who we are and what we’re capable of.
Entrepreneur Tara-Nicholle Nelson, founder and CEO of Transformational Consumer Insights and former VP of Marketing at MyFitnessPal, launched her newest venture, SoulTour, as a formal business in 2018. She describes the startup as “a personal growth school that focuses on unlocking inner wellbeing by helping people build the practices, skills, and rituals of spiritual self-care.”
Though the business may be new, it feels like a culmination of everything she’s ever worked toward. “I’ve always worked on transformational brands and businesses and content and products,” she explained. “But I realized about 2 years ago that I had sort of been a fraud: I’d been working on issues like weight loss and real estate because those are pivotal times of transformation in people’s lives. And I’d been using those jobs to get at the root causes of so many of the frustrations and symptoms of modern life, but secretly, ‘Like, ok, you want to lose weight. We’ll work on that. But we’re going to also deliver all these messages about how deeply worthy of love you are, and about radical self-acceptance.’”
So she decided to pivot—in the direction of delivering the very messaging that was being tucked away in her previous ventures.
“I saw the shame spirals and stuckness and scarcity thinking and just brilliant souls who were not able to fully put themselves out there in the world, or make the changes they wanted to make,” she said. “We have to bring 100% of ourselves to work: our best, inspired ideas, without hesitating or holding back or dialing ourselves down out of the fear our ideas won’t be liked or that we’ll be disapproved of. We have to learn to turn off our Inner Critics and Inner Judges and dive in, enthusiastically, to do the work we’re inspired to do.”
"We have to bring 100% of ourselves to work: our best, inspired ideas' without hesitating or holding back or dialing ourselves down out of the fear our ideas won't be liked or that we'll be disapproved of." - Tara-Nicholle Nelson
Nelson is passionate and spiritual, but there’s no personal agenda here—SoulTour is about listening to where and how people get stuck accomplishing the things that matter most to them, whether it’s writing a book or building a new product. But that doesn’t mean the work isn’t personal. Nelson applies instructional and science-based behavioral strategy, and storytelling, but she also puts herself out there, sharing weekly thoughts about what motivates her, what makes her afraid, and what—importantly—she feels good about. Undoubtedly, this is part of what attracts the tens of thousands of people who have engaged in her 10- and 30-day writing challenges over the past two years.
Bring your radical, authentic self to your career
It’s only when we bring our whole selves to the table that the magic happens. If this sounds hokey or like it doesn’t apply to everyone, sit tight. We can all bring our best selves, and our whole selves, to work—but it’s a job we each ultimately have to do on our own.
Mykel Dixon, recently named Australia’s ‘Breakthrough Speaker of the Year’ in 2018, is another bold leader who believes in making business personal. Dixon’s keynotes center around “artisan thinking” and the importance of bringing our individual strengths, experiences, and perspectives to our work. As he put it, his “The Art of You” keynote is “an invitation to reawaken your innate creativity, redefine your unique value, and reimagine your impact on the world by serving your clients, colleagues, and company through your natural self-expression.”
He reasons, this is how we remain relevant in an age of smart machines. It’s how we build technology, products, and customer experiences that are distinctly human. But it’s also about personal growth. “When you find the courage to bring your authentic self to work, you’ll do more of what you love and get more of what you want by being all of who you are,” he said.
As with Nelson and Zapata, this has held true in Dixon’s career, too. Following his desires, he said, has led him to the work he’s doing now—the most “meaningful, sustainable, and profitable” of his life. But it’s also something that didn’t happen overnight. Dixon is a speaker (whose engagements often involve a one of a kind musical performance), business coach, musician, author, and vlogger, and he attributes his current success to a “culmination of decades of difficult choices.” It’s difficult, he admits, to follow what feels right versus what appears or seems “right” by logic or convention.
“It’s hard cognitive work to consistently listen for, engage with, and act on one’s desires,” he said. Doing so requires breaking convention and eschewing the status quo—both of which he recommends whenever possible.
Why? Though Dixon is fond of using the language of outlaws, he’s not about breaking rules for the sake of it. Instead, he challenges professionals and leaders to lean into who they are and what they want in service of creativity and better outcomes. “Nothing new, nothing great, and nothing beautiful has ever been made by playing it safe, following the rules, or doing what we’ve always done,” he said.
"Nothing new, nothing great, and nothing beautiful has ever been made by playing it safe, following the rules, or doing what we’ve always done," - Mykel Dixon
“By definition we’re all born misfits and mavericks. By design, we’re all outliers and originals. But we’re also all casualties of an institutionalized education system that taught us to conform, to be risk-averse, to aim for the middle,” he explained. “So you could say we’re all recovering rebels and renegades. I use this language to speak to the flame of individuality that still flickers within us all.”
We can each only make beautiful things by getting to know, and being, ourselves. The process begins and ends with self-awareness, Dixon said. You have to know what’s important to you and what you personally value. For Dixon, as with Nelson and Zapata, writing is a key tool he uses to get into a flow state and work out what’s really going on inside. Regardless of your method, the first step to being authentic at home and work is to find small ways to know yourself better. For some that might be meditation or running or journaling—anything that allows you to more clearly hear and identify your thoughts and feel your feelings.
At the end of the day, as Dixon said, “If you don’t believe you are ‘worthy’ of a following, you won’t create content that speaks effectively to one. If you don’t believe you could really do something you love and get paid for it, you never will. If you can’t imagine a work life that is effortless and economically rewarding, it will always feel hard, like a struggle. The choices you make and the value you put on your work—the way you show up in the world—all comes down to the way you feel about you and what you’re worth.”