CAREER ADVICE – To Thine Own Self Be True: Navigating Identity and the Professional World



“This above all: to thine own self be true, / And it must follow, as the night the day, / Thou canst not then be false to any man.” ~ Hamlet, (1.3.77-79)

Since childhood, most have been taught the age old adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”—meaning, outward appearances can be deceiving.

However, the world is not made up of happy endings and Prince Charmings like the fairytales from our youthful memories. Appearance is a useful way to express your individuality, and personality. As college progresses, however, internships begin to roll in, and the reality sets in that adulthood is crawling its way into our lives; the freedom we gained is about to be taken away. This newfound restriction has a name: dress codes. Most professional settings have them in some way, shape, or form; some are lax, and some are stringent. No matter what kinds of rules there are at your various placements, you do not have to sacrifice your personal fashion sense to the corporate gods in order to ensure a solid career. All you need to learn to do is balance, and play a game of give and take.

I have lost count of the amount of times I have been met with dumbfounded stares and jaw drops when someone hears I am going to law school. “You? With the red pixie cut, lip-ring, and combat boots?” Then comes the inevitable, “Well, you know, you’re not going to be able to dress like that when you’re a lawyer, right?” Thanks, I know. It is fairly common knowledge that lawyers fall into the category of stringent dress codes. What many do not realize is that identity is not necessarily analogous with expression; yes, people utilize expression as a way to outwardly display their identity (not to brag, but, I am pretty hardcore, thanks very much). As I stated earlier, it is a game of give and take. Obviously, you have to abide by the dress code of the establishment you are working in—obviously, my internship at the District Attorney would not be too pleased if I came in sporting my lip-ring, and Ramones t-shirt. However, I can strategically place little hints about how I am outside of this professional setting. For example, I like to play this game every morning called “Find the hidden skull;” it is similar to finding the hidden Mickey in Disney movies. Basically, I dress very professional (dress pants, nice blouse, etc.) and then add an accessory that is a little edgier. Even as I write this, I am in high heels that have studs with a pencil skirt, button down white blouse and little skull earrings. Is it professional? Yes. Do I feel more comfortable knowing I can still represent my personal style? Of course. This brings us to the common policy of Casual Fridays. Despite its name, it is not a license to run wild and wear what you would wear to a club or bar, or even what you would normally wear to class. This is personal advice, and probably varies from company to company, but I highly suggest still looking somewhat sleek and professional. My go-to option is dark wash jeans with a nice top. Again, I have some more liberty to appear a little edgier, but I would never sport my normal garb.
When it comes to professional clothing, it boils down to a trading game. Sacrifices will have to be made (RIP hot pink hair, April 2014 – August 2014) but there are ways to incorporate your personal style into your everyday professional garb. And when in doubt, ask a professor or supervisor their opinion—they want to watch you succeed! Most importantly remember this: clothing is merely a mode of expression, and does not define who you are. I will never deny that clothes are comforting and important when it comes to identity, because they are, but your identity is who you are on the inside. It is your personality, the way you speak, solve problems, communicate and connect with others that truly make up your identity. Your clothes become irrelevant after a certain point and your identity becomes reliant upon who you believe you are as a person. Just because you may have to adjust your personal style, does not mean you have to give up who you are as an individual.

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