We are highlighting a previous episode of the ¿Quién Tú Eres? podcast, where we explore the conflict we often face between "professionalism" & being our authentic selves.
AJ Polanco’s greatest value is designing better ways to serve people. He possesses 15 years of experience in User Experience and Product Management. AJ Polanco founded and leads a design practice which has delivered over $400 million USD in value across an end-user base of more than 35 million customers. Recently, AJ passed his doctoral preliminary exam and was bestowed the status of Doctor of Design (ABD) at North Carolina State University. His academic focus is on Digital Accessibility, and his research is on improving equity for Deaf and Hard of Hearing students in the United States. He loves mentoring and has a passion for teaching. At Rutgers University, he led a Masters of Business and Science degree concentration in User Experience. On the fun side of things, he also has a black belt in Taekwondo and is a World Taekwondo Federation recognized referee.
In this conversation, AJ Polanco takes us on a journey through his experience between professionalism and authenticity.
These are some of the episode highlights:
“The expectation to make things better, especially coming from a family that migrated to the United States. The narrative played out that “AJ will be the first to attend college and make things better.”I didn’t want to put myself out there and damage the image that was being cultivated for me.” -AJ Polanco
For many first-generation children, it is expected that they make something of themselves to improve their family’s socioeconomic status, so it isn’t uncommon to experience what AJ did. To be the “chosen one.” The one that will obtain a great education to then serve as a provider and role model. In our Latinx cultures, many of us don’t have a choice. We’re assigned this task and as obedient children we do as expected not to disappoint or bring dishonor to our families. We are fully aware of the sacrifices that were made on our behalf and thus feel guilty going against our parents wishes.
“About a year or two ago, I found out that I have an audio and processing disability. I was having anxiety episodes; shortness of breath, couldn’t get the words out, tears were coming out and I couldn’t even control it…it was work, stress I put on myself trying to do my own doctorate. If you don’t talk about it, it just keeps building up and building up. I was trying to be that rock. I was trying to be that role model.” -AJ Polanco
Serving as a role model and rock can take its toll physically and emotionally, especially within a culture where the discussion of mental health is nearly taboo. Topics like anxiety and depression are masked, downplayed, or not discussed at all. The idea of meeting with a therapist or even bringing the topic up within the Latinx household can be daunting because no one feels comfortable admitting or sharing that there may be something wrong. In fact, some of us may not even know there’s something wrong because it’s built into our DNA hence normal to us. Within the Latinx household, the elephant can be sitting on your lap and the family would prefer to make the elephant disappear with alcohol and/or other substances than admit that there’s an elephant in the room.
“That’s another moment of just owning who I am. Like I said, authenticity is a spectrum of who you want to be at that time. When people ask why I act this way, it’s because I want to be passionate about a cause/subject at that time. -AJ Polanco
Like AJ, I feel that being authentic means we get to be exactly who we want to be at any given period in our lives. We are multifaceted and versatile human beings and so, we often need to switch it up especially when a certain aspect of our lives calls for it. I agree with AJ when he says we are not who we were ten years ago because the more we learn and evolve, the more we have to continue readjusting or rebranding, if you will. Being authentic, in a sense, is a form of practicing creativity because when you get to be who you are, you can be anything as long as you remain true to yourself. As long as you’re able to feel and show up confident as that person. As long as you leave the house feeling like you own your world and your person.
“I got confidence by receiving positive affirmations plus, plus. I was told by several people on previous teams that I was the best manager because I was listening to them. I would ask where they wanted to be and help create a path to get them there. The confidence came from people telling me that what I was doing was life changing.”-AJ Polanco
One never really knows the impact they make in the world unless someone else mentions it or thanks you for doing something so innately natural that it changes their lives. I believe we are all born with gifts that can help others. We all have one or several things that make us unique when that uniqueness is put to use it has the potential to benefit others. We can feel confident in our natural abilities. Sometimes we’re oblivious to our own gifts and discount it because we have yet to see it for ourselves. Active listening is a powerful tool because it gives you the opportunity to listen intently or to listen to what isn’t being said. When you pick up on that which was not said you have the opportunity to serve the individual in a way that could greatly benefit them.
Helping others explore and tap into their own unique abilities can help them achieve confidence within themselves. For many years, I didn’t know that writing was my gift, it came naturally so I didn’t see it or my potential until it was seen and nurtured by others. In turn, the more I wrote, the more confident I became and the more opportunities I felt confident saying yes to. As a result of this, it allowed me to show up more authentically that I ever have in the past.
“I feel that the work that I am doing is valuable. I am proud that I am able to reach some semblance of that role model… I am inspired by the fact that others are willing to have this conversation with me. You don’t know what people are going through so if they share that with you that’s some vulnerability and if you don’t other them or make them feel ostracized, you just built a connection that will grow between you and anyone else who sees that.” -AJ Polanco
Any work that raises awareness, raises empathy, raises compassion, raises vibrations is valuable. Any work that helps others is valuable especially within the Latinx culture because It feels like ignorance in America is at an all time high these days and the more we do educate and empower the better off we are at repairing our society. Anyone willing to be transparent and vulnerable about their internal struggles, their disabilities, their conditions have the power to make an impact. Has the potential to change one life with the hopes that that person pays it forward and helps someone else.
AJ Polanco is helping to change the narrative of professionalism.
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