Tania Katan, award-winning author, public speaker, playwright, and creativity expert, joins the program to discuss her diversity story and how it led her to value creativity in the workplace. Tania shares the story behind being the co-creator of the #ItWasNeverADress campaign, a social movement that has inspired over 50 million people worldwide to see, hear and celebrate women for the superheroes they are. She also reveals how to empower all people in the workplace to take creative risks and become innovative problem solvers.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Tania’s diversity story and what she learned about creativity from her mom (5:00)
- The story behind the #ItWasNeverADress campaign (11:00)
- How Tania dealt with rejection as an actress (16:00)
- The connection between gender constructs and creativity (33:00)
- The benefits of being an outsider (36:00)
- How to find creativity in “invisible spaces” (39:00)
- Exercises to increase your creativity (41:00)
- How and why to take creative risks (42:30)
- How to “come out” as creative in a rigid workplace structure (46:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Tania, welcome to The Will to Change.
TANIA KATAN: Thank you for having me, Jennifer.
JENNIFER BROWN: I have loved learning about you, watching you online. I’ve laughed. I have been inspired. I’m so delighted to have your voice with us and to introduce your work to our audience on The Will to Change.
You have an interesting and fascinating diversity story. I’m curious what you share in terms of what you consider to be your diversity story. There may be many, there probably are. We always talk about how those stories shape us and how we carry them into who we are today and how they inform us, often through perhaps scarcity or “outsiderness,” which is a common experience for all of us. We carry those forward and we do something with it. It makes us exponentially powerful if we’re lucky enough to have the sort of lives where that becomes the raw material of what we create in the world.
I am certain that is true for you. Let me hand it over to you and tell us a little bit about those early days and what you would consider to be your diversity story.
TANIA KATAN: Yeah. This is great. Of course, using diversity in its foundational form, which is being composed of different elements, I’d like to start with the elements that are my parents.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, yeah!
TANIA KATAN: I grew up with two parents – do you know the phrase “adult children”? Like adult children of alcoholics or adult children of abusive families or whatever? My parents were just adult children period. They were like two little kids who happened to shack up and have three little kids really fast. We were all forced to live in a tiny apartment and figure out how to grow up together.
Just to give you some context, my dad was a full-time cab driver in Manhattan and a part-time amateur gambler. So, there was that. He just went to the racetracks, unbeknownst to my mom.
My mom as an immigrant and not an American citizen for a long time, who was aspiring to be a social worker and in the meantime was inventing products that other people invented first.
So, she would come up with really great ideas. She’s, like, “Oh, Tania, I want to share with you this idea for the tuxedo T-shirt. It’s a T-shirt that looks like you’re wearing a tuxedo.” And I’m like, “Mom, they already came up with that.” She’s like, “Aww!”
So, my parents are just wild. And then they divorced really early on. So, my twin brother and I were like five years old and our little sister was three. And then my mom pretty much raised us. We lived below the poverty line. We were in Section 8 housing and all that kind of stuff. And so my mom taught us very early on how even though we were very poor and couldn’t afford to go to really anything, she would find free days at museums. She would find free arts and cultural festivals. And she took us to everything that started with “free” and ended in “arts and culture.”
Although we were poor economically, we were very rich in terms of art and theater and culture and exposure to those things that were important to my mom, and then became very important to us.
And my mom also taught us early on, because we didn’t have the means to pay someone to fix our apartment sink, she taught us about the barter system. So, she would barter her skills as a beautiful chef, a cook, and she’d cook a quiche for the guy who fixed our sink and trade.
And, in fact, when we were in grade school and in middle school, everybody was going to summer camp, all of our friends, and we couldn’t afford to. And so my mom bartered her art teaching skills as well as her cooking skills for us to attend this summer camp for a few years. So, she was the camp’s cook and she was also teaching art lessons and all that stuff so that we could attend.
My mom taught us really the idea and the practice that creativity is currency. And that is something that not only do I champion and live by, it’s something that I teach and understand the value in the real world. I thought, “That’s just kooky, nobody’s going to do something for a quiche.” Apparently, if it’s really good, they will.
JENNIFER BROWN: So eclectic. I can see the echoes of all of that in you today. I know as a teenager, you were sneaking out to do theater and comedy as well. How did you discover the theater, and what role did it play in your early life? I’m sure it contributed to all of this and more.
TANIA KATAN: I never get these questions, this is so good, Jennifer. The first thing that popped into mind is the fact that when I was in high school, I did not fit in at all. And all I wanted was to fit in, honestly. I will paint a picture of myself visually for the listeners.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you.
TANIA KATAN: I was very chubby, but all of my chubbiness was focused into my belly. So, it was like I had a beer gut at 13. And I wore eyeglasses, which I thought were super cool, but other people, apparently, thought were less cool.
My mom cut my hair in a style that can best be described as like the forerunner to the mullet. (Laughter.)
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, the ’80s! ’80s? ’90s? Yeah.
TANIA KATAN: You know, it sister.
JENNIFER BROWN: Been there!
TANIA KATAN: And the thing was, we were really poor. I didn’t have a lot of clothing options, and clothes were like – you know, you either had cool ones or you didn’t and people made fun of you. I wore the same pair of pants a few times a week and there was somebody who was keeping tabs. And she’s like, “I noticed you wear the same pair of pants.” And I’m like, “Oh, my God,” in parentheses, I’m poor. And then out loud I just ran. It was terrifying.
What I realized early on was if I found ways to perform, for example, there was Halloween, and that was very big in high school. And I made myself this chubby, mullet-wearing, pre-lesbian, before I even knew it, with very few friends, I made myself a cheerleader for Halloween.
JENNIFER BROWN: My goodness, the irony. (Laughter.)
TANIA KATAN: I understood the irony because I was like – probably part of me was like I want to be that, and the other part was like, “Oh, my gosh, that’s such an exaggerated performance that these young women who are keeping me out are engaged in, and I want to show them.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Show them what it really should look like. How did you experience your gender identity? How did you want to express your gender? Do you have any memories of like, wow, this is also different about me? What are your earliest memories of that?
TANIA KATAN: Well, my earliest actually, and maybe I’ll send you a photograph, is for the first grade, you have picture day for the first time. Your photograph is taken both individually and as a student body.
I’m like, “Mom, I want to wear a tie because my brother’s wearing a tie, so I want a tie.” And my mom was awesome. And she’s like, “That makes perfect sense, yes, let’s hook you up, Tania.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Of course. Love it.
TANIA KATAN: And so there are pictures of me, I look really cute, I’m not going to lie, with like a tie and a little sweater vest looking like Alex P. Keaton.
JENNIFER BROWN: Totally!
TANIA KATAN: Yes. So, I didn’t have parents who were restrictive or specific around notions of gender. Therefore, I could express myself in whatever way felt comfortable and made me feel confident. I loved wearing clothes that were, quote/unquote, “boy” clothes. So, I did, like my entire life, until there as a moment where I maybe in junior high was like, “You have to wear a dress to the dance.”
You know, I didn’t think of it as, “Uck,” or I didn’t have that much connection to the sartorial element at that time, but I did know that I felt more comfortable when I chose to wear T-shirts and shorts and top-siders and clothes that were traditionally boy clothing.
JENNIFER BROWN: Which is an interesting backdrop, isn’t it, to what you helped create with the It was Never a Dress campaign, right? I mean, I think it takes somebody who, perhaps, hasn’t lived their life in a dress to see something different in that image.
TANIA KATAN: Yes. That’s absolutely true. When we created this campaign when I was working at a company called AxoSoft, I mean, the whole intention of it was the issue in April 2015 and still is today, was a lack of women in technology fields. And there are lots of reasons that that exists having to do with pipeline issues, having to do with seeing people in those positions that may not represent you, and how do you be what you can’t see, as Kimberly Bryant once aptly said.
The problem we were trying to solve was, how do we see women so we can invite them into the tech space if we’re not seeing them in the first place?
Yeah, my boss at the time, Lawdan Shojaee, tasked my colleague Sarah and I to come up with an idea to address women in the tech space, or the lack thereof.
Sarah and I brainstormed it out and came up with nothing. I went for a walk and started thinking about women in the tech space. And then women in theater, women in lots of spaces and lots of fields and how often we’re not seen, heard, or celebrated for the superheroes we are.
And then a symbol popped into my mind’s eye, and it was the women’s bathroom symbol. I brought it back to Sarah and I’m like, “I’ve got this symbol.” And Sarah’s like, “Awesome.” And then we said, “What’s next?” I just kept obsessing about the shape of her dress because it’s triangle and other things are made or comprised of triangles, not just the women’s bathroom vector.
And then I’m like, “Oh, that triangle looks like a cape. What if she was wearing a cape?” And I couldn’t get it out of my craw. So, I printed it out, I made a few lines and I’m like, “She was wearing a cape.” And I showed her to Sarah, who exclaimed, “It was never a dress.” And I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, here we go, we have it.”
JENNIFER BROWN: So good!
TANIA KATAN: Yeah. It was this delightful, spontaneous collaboration to address – to me, the big problem is the fact that we don’t see women in spaces. It’s really foundational. Yes, anyway, that was how we offered a visual representation of women being in the world, that women can be superheroes, they can be judges, they can be anything they want – scientists. And we offered up on the website, we offered up a blank image of the bathroom vector so that people could fill in their own ideas and ideals for being a woman in the world. And they did. They put judges’ robes and caps and gowns and all these things. That was the inciting incident.
JENNIFER BROWN: So cool. And how many views? It went viral. I saw something like 18 million views or something? What was the reach of it?
TANIA KATAN: Yeah, we launched the campaign at the Girls in Tech Catalyst Conference in Phoenix, and I gave a talk about gender equity and It Was Never a Dress, and by that, I mean when you launch something, we weren’t anticipating it to go viral, we just wanted it to be in the world. Somebody posted the image on social media, and within 24 hours, there were over 18 million organic engagements and impressions and all of that. So, it went wild. It just basically said that people were hungry for something that represented them in the world. Yeah, it was really exciting.
JENNIFER BROWN: That is really cool. Back to your theater time, I know I read that you said you became a writer and were a writer from a really young age and observing the world and writing in yourself where you didn’t see yourself, thinking about what’s missing.
I’m sure in the theater, I know because I was always case as the ingenue, which is definitely not what you were cast as.
TANIA KATAN: What do you mean? (Laughter.)
JENNIFER BROWN: Are you offended? (Laughter.)
TANIA KATAN: No.
JENNIFER BROWN: Believe me, you know this, they’re the most boring roles in the world, and part of the reason why I couldn’t wait to get out of theater is that you and I present our gender very differently, right? I walk on the stage and they say, “Oh, of course, Sandy in Grease.” And I’m like, “No, I want to be a dramatic coloratura.”
TANIA KATAN: Oh, my God.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right? I was like, I’m so complex, I can be dark, I wanted a real acting challenge that was juicy. I was never typecast in those roles, and I would imagine you were only typecast in the kinds of roles that I would have only been able to dream about, which is very interesting.
Tell us about theater, what it unleashed in you, how you were becoming incredibly creative as a writer. And I know with all the things that theater training gave me that I still carry into my life today, but what would you describe that as?
TANIA KATAN: First of all, Jennifer, your optimism that I might get any role is a dream. (Laughter.)
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, stop it.
TANIA KATAN: Not only did I not get the ingenue roles, I neve got any roles, period.
JENNIFER BROWN: Come on, I don’t believe that.
TANIA KATAN: Hey, don’t cry for me, Argentina, I did just fine in my life. And what I realized is that I could create my own big breaks. Being kept out of situations, I’m not saying it’s awesome, what it does teach you or what it taught me is how to find a new way in, or how to create my own.
Eventually, I stopped auditioning for traditional plays and I started writing my own plays. That’s when I got into playwriting. Also, I wrote a book early on and adapted it into a one-woman show. I got to be the lead in it. Guess what?
I realized that that would be really important later in life when I found myself in really traditional roles or positions in work culture. I could actually create my own innovation labs within my rigid work life.
Theater is the foundation for everything I do in the world. What we learn to do early on is a couple of things. One, we learn to see the audience. We can learn to listen to the audience, and we learn to gather feedback and incorporate it into our performance. Right?
This is something that I worked in technology for a little while, and I learned about Agile software development, and my eyes glazed over. I’m like, “Holy shit, what have I signed up for?” B2B, Agile – I don’t even know what any of this stuff is.
And I didn’t have a background in any technology. They were explaining to me the process. And they’re like, “Well, you beta test stuff, then you get feedback from the intended users, then you incorporate that feedback to make the software better, and then you iterate.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Sounds familiar.
TANIA KATAN: So, transferable skills, you know it, sister. We have a dress rehearsal. Guess what? We invite our intended audience. Guess what? They laugh at some stuff that was supposed to be serious. We make changes, it’s called a draft, not an iteration. We test, we beta test it, and we offer it up.
To me, having the foundation of theater has prepared me for every job I’ve ever had in the world. That’s really exciting.
Another thing, you know the foundation for theater is suspension of disbelief. And we agree collectively to let go of our perceptions and assumptions about the world and take a huge leap of faith together. That, to me, is entering into any job. It’s working, it’s consulting, as you know, it’s working with really challenging groups. It’s like as long as we all agree that we are co-creating a world together, we’re going to be fine. That was something that’s been really helpful for me in the real world from theater, for sure.
One last thing I’m thinking about, we consider entrances just as important as exits, right? In work culture, I talk about this a lot in my book. Leave a creative legacy. How do you leave something or people or processes in better shape than when you arrived at the job? Don’t just consider, oh, my gosh, my first day, I’m going to give them all I got, and then by the end of your job I’m like, “I hate them, they didn’t give me resources, why did I sign the contract? I’m going to leave dirty dishes in the shared sink. That’s my legacy.”
With AxoSoft, it was never addressed.
JENNIFER BROWN: Look at that.
TANIA KATAN: So, considering that exits are just as important and vital as entrances is something I also learned from theater that applies.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that analogy. That’s so good. I thought you were going to say – because I enter the stage and I create that creative disconnect, I guess you could call it.
TANIA KATAN: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Particularly, A, I play opera singing as I walk on and people think it’s this ambient hold music and they’re look around, they’re like, “What’s going on?” And then I literally say, “The voice that you just heard was mine,” and I take a bow and people start to clap. And I feel like it’s an entrance of sorts, right? It hearkens back to my days on the stage, but then I proceed to talk about the trials and tribulations of the performing life, which was my living for a while, and a horrible one at that, that went sideways. I’ll leave that story because a lot of our listeners know.
Then, I come out and that’s yet another, “Wow, I did not see that coming.” It’s such a check on bias. It’s such a moment. I always say I can hear a pin drop in the audience. It’s a scary moment, actually. It feels like a very vulnerable moment. I skate past it. I know what’s going to happen, I know the script, I know how people are going to respond. After a while, you can predict these things, like a good performer that does eight shows a week, right? You know where the laughs are and you know where the shocking moments are.
Anyway, it’s fun to be able to feel that you’re holding an audience in your hand and that you have this symbiotic creativity with them. It’s like you’re shaping this experience together and it’s really cool.
What are those moments where you take your audience’s breath away? Do you have any? I want to know, do you give the same talk all the time? Do you vary it? Are you always experimenting? I think I know the answer to that.
TANIA KATAN: First of all, today is like opposite day, Jennifer. It’s opposite day. So, when I get on a stage or I enter a space where I’m giving a talk, people know that I am at the very least a lesbian, or that at least my hair is lesbian.
JENNIFER BROWN: Lesbian hair. (Laughter.)
TANIA KATAN: What I’ve learned, yes, I change, challenger, tinker myself with giving talks and the content. I love finding specific ways to engage with specific audiences and also to call out my difference because it’s why I’m there in the room.
For example, I gave a talk to 500 chief information officers recently. There were 496 men in suits, and then four women in suits and me looking like a cartoon character wearing an orange blazer, a blue shirt, and sneakers and talking about creativity.
Automatically, I don’t fit in, right? And then I’m a lezzie. You know, 496 men maybe don’t identify as lesbian.
JENNIFER BROWN: Maybe.
TANIA KATAN: So, what I do is I get on stage, and I know also statistically that probably a lot of people in that room don’t have a degree in theater. I get on there and I’m like, “Hello, are there any thespians here?” And people are like, “Well, no, I mean, that’s weird.” There’s some uncomfortable rumbling. And then right when they’re really uncomfortable I’m like, “Any lesbians?” (Laughter.)
JENNIFER BROWN: Which is what they thought you said in the first place.
TANIA KATAN: Yeah, right. So, either way they’re like we’re out, we’re in, we’re out, don’t even understand. That calls attention to the fact that I am different and that’s why I’m there and that’s why they’re listening to me and that’s why we’re having a conversation.
If there were any doubts, I want to just claim it in the beginning. So then I say, “Look, this is a space, we can have a conversation. I know who I am, I know what I embody, and now you do, too. And now you know we can talk about it.”
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. I love that!
TANIA KATAN: Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: You know, do you ever have moments where you are at a loss for words, or whether you have – I’ll tell you something that happened last week. I was speaking to about 800 engineers in national security. I asked about pronouns. We were talking about the importance of signaling solidarity with marginalized groups. We were talking about allyship. I asked for a show of hands, “So, how may of you know the significance when I’m talking about personal pronouns, the significance of that in terms of allyship and inclusion?” Not a single hand. 800 people.
TANIA KATAN: Wow.
JENNIFER BROWN: It took my breath away. I had to manage my reaction. Was it a guffaw or a laugh? And I never, ever want to shame my audiences. It’s one of the most important things to me to meet the audience where they’re at and bring them along. My topic is so tricky and there are so many mixed feelings about it, there’s so much resistance around it. I don’t want to leave people behind. As the language leaps forward, I think we’re leaving a lot of people behind, particularly with all the acronyms, as one example, the LGBTQIA world. Anyway, it was this really interesting moment. That hasn’t happened before and I haven’t seen that before. What do I want to do with this? How do I want to teach from this?
I wonder, as you’re speaking, does anything surprise you? Does anything redirect you? Does anything freak you out about what you’re hearing or sensing from audiences these days?
TANIA KATAN: Okay, first of all, because I’m speaking about creativity in the workspace, I’m not entering it with overtly talking about diversity and gender. I’m not approaching it in the same way that you do. I say that very clearly because it’s a whole world of information and language and I’m constantly learning.
The saving grace for me as a human being in the world and in learning about gender diversity and inclusion is that I married a professor, a professor of art. Also, I’ve been through some training through the Anti-Defamation League in terms of anti-bias and diversity and stuff like that. And I’m deeply interested in learning because when I was growing up, had there been this language of non-gender-conforming or non-gender-binary, I would have latched onto it, loved it, and embraced it as my own. I obviously embrace it in the world.
It’s more of I’m going there and I’m sharing stories where I brought creativity into the space. And so people could think in some ways it’s “queering” business. You know?
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s a good book title.
TANIA KATAN: Queering business? That will be my next book. That’s what creative trespassing is to me. How do we bring in people and ideas and notions that are seen as “other” or not invited in or invisible? And how do we get into those spaces and show our value is exponential in those spaces?
I’ve had the privilege and been interested in sneaking those things into corporate and rigid culture and as an experiment seeing what happens while contributing to the greater mission and good of those organizations.
I think about gender and speaking about it more as embodying who I am and how I am in the world and learning who and how other people identify and feel most comfortable.
But to answer your question, because I don’t deal with it head on, I think the best example is when I call out my gender identity in front of or I talk about my sexual orientation, and then I go into what’s valuable for the people I’m speaking with, and hopefully – and some people do make the connections. Like, “Oh, right, when I feel like I don’t fit in, that’s how you might feel like you don’t feel in if you’re non-gender-conforming,” or whatever. I actually ask people and audiences to be and embody their intelligence because they have it, otherwise they wouldn’t be sitting at a conference learning.
JENNIFER BROWN: One would hope.
TANIA KATAN: Yes. I’ve also found that people opt out. I was just speaking at a conference to public information officers. Prior to that, they sent up a little Facebook page and there was one person who said, “I don’t want to go see her. I hear she’s a feminist.” I’m laughing because I would love to have a conversation with this person and say, “What does feminist mean to you?” You know? I think that we’ve taken something that really means equity and equality and we’ve turned it into something that is not actually true.
Anyway, to make a long story short, I was like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m going to show up and there are going to be hecklers in the back.” Men are going to be like, “You feminist, you believe that women should be paid as much as men, what’s wrong with you?” I can’t even tell if you’re a woman, so I don’t even know what you want to get paid.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right. Oh, God.
TANIA KATAN: However, I show up with the best stories and relevant information I’ve got for a group. I offer it up, and they loved it. And whether or not that gentleman – but the coolest thing that happened was, apparently, there was somebody who said to this person online, “Hey, I’ve seen Tania speak before, please come. If you hate it, I will buy you a coffee and we can talk about it.” And I’m like, “You are my role model.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Yay!
TANIA KATAN: I love that that interaction happened.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s fascinating. She was an ally. When we talk about allyship, part of it is somebody standing up so that you don’t have to. Somebody else translating you to others and saying, “Hey, come in, the water’s warm.”
TANIA KATAN: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: You’re not going to get hurt. Plus, you’re just irresistible. Give you two minutes with someone and they’d say, “I’m her biggest fan.”
TANIA KATAN: I think we should tell listeners now, Jennifer is my sister.
JENNIFER BROWN: I know, my sister.
TANIA KATAN: Look, here’s the deal: This is why there are thousands and thousands and thousands of speakers, books, ideas in the world – you can absorb whatever ones in whatever ways feel right to you. I would also recommend that you pick some that feel totally uncomfortable and terrorizing, those are the ones you need to learn from as well.
The person who cut himself off from learning something, yes, whatever, it’s his choice.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, yeah. Another gig, I heard there was somebody who sent an e-mail right to the top and copied an entire division on the fact that he thought the company’s commitment to diversity was reverse racism, so the focus of the company is discriminating against him. And then he copied 1,000 people.
TANIA KATAN: Whoa.
JENNIFER BROWN: He got a phone call and an invitation to a conversation. It’s funny, I have a lot of debates in my world about whether resistance to this message is actually growing or lessening or it’s lessening, but it’s becoming more vocal. We’re just hearing it more. I’m not really sure. Some days, I think that there’s actually a lot more openness to this conversation on the part of people who have never really thought they have a diversity story, for example. But they’re curious and they also know, shoot, I need to get this inclusion thing so that I can be a better leader, so that I can be more creative, so I can have a variety of ideas at the table, accomplishing the work that we have to accomplish.
People are starting to wake up, but it’s interesting that the resistance is still there and it makes me think about going to a healthy masculinity fishbowl last night, which was super deep and interesting and important. I found myself thinking a lot about why are only mostly women in organizations talking about gender and a lack of gender parity? And trying to recommend the strategies that we put in place to shift it, but we haven’t really come up with the strategy to make gender a more universal conversation.
I like to think that those of us in the LGBT community and the fact that we mess with gender in a way, whether, first of all, we’re not in the norm. That challenges people anyway, but I also feel like we’re messengers from beyond in terms of perhaps being able to live in the middle, live in this ambiguity, and have an appreciation for the ambiguity. I’m sure that has given you permission to be that truthteller or the Trojan Horse that you are, getting into the castle walls. And then being able to have this holistic conversation and get away with it, honestly.
I don’t think it’s an accident that some of us in the Q community are these bridge-builders and space-holders for people to take a leap of faith, for people to challenge what they’ve assumed, and to build understanding between binary misunderstanding.
Also, what you’re talking about is wild creativity, especially because we get the privilege of reconstructing what it means to be in a body. I think that’s awesome.
JENNIFER BROWN: Beautiful.
TANIA KATAN: That’s the ultimate creative pursuit in terms of, quote/unquote, gender. Gender is a construct. And we can reconstruct it, right? That’s the coolest part.
When my partner – I don’t even know, we both hate saying “wife,” but we’re married. We shacked up. Okay? We got a caterer.
JENNIFER BROWN: I can relate to that.
TANIA KATAN: But when we got married in 2006, not legally, thank you for asking the question. We invited all of our family and friends.
What my cousins and family members were so astounded by was how fun, creative, and deeply personal our wedding was, because they said, “They just did what was prescribed to them. They bought the dress at the shop, because that’s where women buy the dresses at the shop, and the men bought this, because that’s what men do at weddings, and they did this.” And they’re like, “Because you didn’t have to follow those roles, you got to do things that were infinitely more fun and more specific to who and how you are.”
I thought, “Yes, what a gift.” Holy guacamole. What a gift.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s such a gift. I love that. When I came out, it struck me that I was leaving behind the familiar and the scripted and I was setting a course for no script and not only having to figure it out, but I have the opportunity to fight for my deepest authenticity. It was literally so freeing and scary to say, “I’m going to now architect my life to be true to who I am.” And for women, this is so critical in the society we’re in, the script is so strong for us. Of course, the “man box” script is also tremendously strong, vis a vis the masculinity conversation I was in last night, and really toxic, as we know. That’s a fascinating conversation that I’ve been learning a lot more about.
But for girls and women, straight or gay, you’ve got to literally fight to cast off the shackles of those expectations. And for me, coming out totally made that a lot easier. It really wasn’t an option to go back to the script. To me, it was the most beautiful gift I could have ever had. I often say I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if I hadn’t had to figure it out on my own. I had to figure it out, and nobody was going to answer those questions for me.
But on the flip side, being an outsider, like you talk about, that lens is so critical to life, to empathy, to making a difference in the world. When you have felt outside, invariably, I think a lot of us dedicate our lives, we turn around and we try to heal that wound for ourselves and also in terms of our legacy.
We also look at problem-solving different. I’m curious, when we talk about creativity and diversity, we say creative abrasion is created through different experiences, different identities at the table, and it’s visible diversity and invisible diversity. So, when we talk to team leaders, we encourage them to think about when they complain and say, “Oh, you’re just telling me I have quotas and I have to have X number of women and X number of people of color.” This is what I have to deal with all the time.
I wish I could bring you in and say, “No, actually, this is critical for your ability to be creative.” Do you call that out specifically in the book at all? Is it something you wove in? I’m not sure the book is about that, but I’m sure you have some views.
TANIA KATAN: Yeah. In fact, I have a whole chapter, actually, about that. It’s interesting, I’m fascinated by the visible and the invisible. I think that’s what drew me to and kept me in software for a little bit. Especially in business-to-business, B2B software, I’m a real tangible, experiential learner and person. So, I was like, “I don’t understand this, I can’t see it, I can’t touch it. What the hell is software? There’s no box.”
And then I realized, “Oh, my gosh, this is something that’s invisible that’s really powerful and that impacts people’s everyday lives.” There are people who are invisible and impact people’s everyday lives. There are ideas that are invisible.
Yes, there’s a whole chapter about it. I talk about an artist who is, unfortunately, no longer with us. He was thriving in the ’60s and early ’70s. His name is Gordon Matta-Clark. He came up with this idea call “anarchitecture,” like “anarchy” and “architecture.”
What he did was he saw all these buildings were being destroyed and people would just disregard them as rubble. And he would cut them in half or bore holes in them so that the light came through. People who passed these seemingly mundane or weird spaces that they’d never looked at, would now look at them. Also, he bought easements. They’re the spaces in between buildings that are really tiny and too small to park a car in, he bought them. And then he’d do performances in them.
What I learned from him and his work is how to pay attention to the quiet spaces in between the screaming ones, in between the more vocal or the bigger buildings, that the real art and innovation and people who are in the world are a lot of times in-between the spaces that are often louder and screaming for attention.
Actually, in the book, I have these things called “productive disruptions.” They’re exercises. I know that when we disrupt our habits and patterns that are keeping us stuck, we can actually get more work done.
One of the productive disruptions that I have in this chapter is to find the quieter spaces that exist between the screaming ones, between home and work, between you and the person standing across from you, between hearing and listening. And then spend time occupying these invisible spaces and allow your mind to wander.
So, again, this is something I write about and speak about and learn about all the time. Especially we’re talking about the beauty of reconstructing gender. My gender was deconstructed in a way when I had breast cancer and had my breasts removed. I realized that I became invisible in some ways as a, quote/unquote, woman. And then visible in other ways I didn’t necessarily identify with. It really forced my hand in terms of how am I in different spaces and when do I choose to be seen in a certain way or not?
Anyway, yes, very keen on making the invisible visible, or giving tools and resources to help other people do that as well.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m having this vision of you as a real voice for the voiceless and a real lightning rod and drawing attention to the silence or those spaces that we choose not to show, if we can choose not to show them. Some of us have obvious diversity, and that causes a whole different level of reaction to us. We talk a lot about covering in our work, which is Kenji Yoshino and Christie Smith’s concept from their Deloitte paper. And if we can, often, we give in to peer pressure and we conceal or downplay something that we don’t have to bring up.
It’s interesting, I try to come out on the stage – it’s a big deal for me to come out over and over again. You’re super comfortable with it. I’ve gotten more comfortable with it because I know my role, but it doesn’t mean that I’m always in the mood to do it in front of – you said 495 men of 500. That’s my life as well. It’s not just being LGBT, it’s a vulnerable moment, I think, for me as a woman in general – feeling that I am vulnerable in that moment. Thank goodness I’m standing on a stage. I can duck out stage left, get on a plane, and go somewhere else.
It triggers some safety things for me. But that’s what tells me why it’s so important to do over and over again. I use myself as an example. I say, “Do you know how I felt when I just shared that?” It makes you a little shaky. It makes you wonder, “What’s going to happen to the rest of my message? How am I going to be heard? Now that you know that about me, how is it going to impact whether you believe me, whether you assign credibility to me?” Do you know what I mean?
TANIA KATAN: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: I do it, and then I talk about doing it. What frustrates me is that some of us are working so hard at being vulnerable in order to teach others and in order to role-model it for others.
When we’re not in the mood, when it’s not feeling safe, when you’re not sure if it’s going to be understood in the way that it’s meant. I know that’s part of my own healing. I get stronger every single time I do it. It’s a really interesting moment.
Then I turn to people and I say, “What are you concealing? What could you reveal that would allow someone else to be seen and heard who’s around you, who hears you do that? How would it change the tone of the workplace around you?” If I look at you, dude in the audience, I’m going to make probably the wrong assumption that I might know who you are. I might think I know who you are.
After being in diversity for a decade, I have been so schooled and so humbled by the diversity stories of every single person. I just know now that people are this incredible mosaic of courage. There’s no such thing as somebody who has absolute privilege in life.
I love inviting that. But for me, it’s a choice. I sometimes wonder, do you feel like if people look at you and their second thought is, “Maybe lesbian,” and they look at me and it’s like not at all. Is it easier for me or is it easier for you? I’m not sure. We always have this debate, as you know.
TANIA KATAN: That’s really funny. First of all, I am so “lezzie” there is no hiding. (Laughter.) I’ve been a lezzie for a long time, before I even knew the word. Peppermint Patty was my role model.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, she was the best! When was your first girlfriend? Were you under 10 years old?
TANIA KATAN: Wait, when did I have a first girlfriend? First of all, I have not peaked yet. When I am 95, I’m going to be very hot, I’m just saying right now. I was the nerdiest nerd. I had a girlfriend when I was in college and she didn’t even want to be my girlfriend.
JENNIFER BROWN: There’s hope! (Laughter.)
TANIA KATAN: I am pretty confident now, but in that arena, less so. But I wanted to, the desire was there, just so you know. It just wasn’t met. And you know, it’s funny hearing you talk about this idea and the execution of coming out, I feel like I come out in different ways now. Seriously, to me, people within work culture are coming out as creative.
JENNIFER BROWN: Totally.
TANIA KATAN: Seriously. I will speak on a stage, and the gender and/or sexual orientation part, less of a conversation. They see, they make assessments, sometimes I address it, sometimes I don’t. The higher-stakes proposition, I’ve learned, is I’ll give a talk to 2,000 people in manufacturing and people will rush the stage afterwards and in hushed tones, confess to me, “Tania, I have a degree in theater, too.” Or, “I like painting, I take dance classes.” I’m like, “Whoa, why is there a disconnect?” Why do we feel this binary, like it’s either creativity or work, it’s business or play?
To me, I’ve done it myself and I’ve seen other people bridge the gap between these seemingly disparate ideas of being in the workforce. That’s why I wrote Creative Trespassing. I know that who we are and what we do are connected. And if we see it, then we have unlimited opportunities in the workforce and in the world and we become more expansive.
The binary I’m dealing with these days is people coming out as being creative within a rigid work culture. Also, when that happens, Jennifer, once you come out with something, as you’re saying, you start to reveal other things to yourself and to others. You realize, “Oh, I don’t have to live in these silos that were constructed and formed for me by systems and societies that I can change those.” I think it’s really valuable when people come out about anything, even if it’s just to themselves, admitting to themselves, “You know what? I’m creative and it’s okay that I’m the CEO of a pharmaceutical company.” I don’t know, whatever your job is.
JENNIFER BROWN: How did I end up here?
TANIA KATAN: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love your point, that even that person can bring tremendous creativity to that pharmaceutical job and they’re the ones that are the innovators and you’re the Pied Piper of a lot of us who are in the cubicle culture to question more.
My last question. Begin different and being provocative, there’s a double standard in terms of who gets to be that and who doesn’t. If you’re already different, I wonder whether it gives you more license to jump into creativity and breaking some rules and asking for forgiveness later, or whether if you’re already a stigmatized identity in the workplace, which we talk a lot about, those of us who are underrepresented, marginalized, we feel we’re hanging on in corporate culture, but knowing that that culture really isn’t built for us.
If that person turns around and is wildly creative, do you think there’s more risk that goes along with that? I don’t know if that question comes up, but I would imagine it would because it’s safer for some people because they’re already in the in group. When they’re wacky and creative, it’s like, “Oh, that’s just them being them.” But if you’re someone who is dealing with some level of identity stigma, it would feel a bit more risky for me to do what you’re talking about.
TANIA KATAN: Absolutely. Listen, the things that I write about and the tools to help people be more creative within their work culture also acknowledges that for some people, it’s not a safe space for them to be wildly creative. That doesn’t mean you can’t be creative. And by creativity, I just mean utilizing your imagination to solve problems and get your job done. So you don’t have to be painting or dancing, it’s about using your imagination to solve problems.
And one thing also we forget, a lot of people I’ve spoken with who have read my book, they’re like, “Tania, this is great. I feel like I’m in a rule-bound culture and I don’t feel comfortable based on who I am being a punk rock creative. How do I do it?” And I say, “Hey, rules are just operating instructions. They’re just helping us operate in the world.” And when they are ceasing to do that, then we need to reimagine the rules.
Also, just know it’s a practice. This is something people forget all the time. I’m sure with you, Jennifer, you’re a professional speaker. You get on stage and they’re like, “She knows what she’s doing. She doesn’t practice anymore. She just wings it.” And anybody who says they wing it, they’re “big, fat liar-pantses.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Pants on fire. (Laughter.)
TANIA KATAN: And I only use the technical term there. But the point is, creativity and engaging with it is a practice. And doing it in a way that feels enlivening to you and those around you is really the focus.
Practice. Maybe your form of creativity is you have to send out a new process to your entire team, which is really dry and boring, and it’s in e-mail form. And at the end of the e-mail, you embed a really silly question, A, to see if people followed through and read the whole thing, and B, they get an Easter egg of having a little playful moment where they get to answer a question that has nothing to do with the content that you provided.
This is a safe way to stretch your creative muscle. And then practice it. Look, I get up on stage, I’ve rehearsed, practiced, and then sometimes let everything go that I came to the stage with because I’m so comfortable with the fact that I know who my audience is and what I’m going to offer them. And then I find out they need something different and I can change. But it’s because of hours of years of rehearsal.
JENNIFER BROWN: Don’t we know it?
TANIA KATAN: You know it. That fear becomes dampened when we practice over and over and over again. And then what happens, as you know, muscle memory kicks in. Whenever our brain goes, “I’m scared to share that idea,” our body knows what to do. And raises our hands for us in the all-hands meeting to share an idea with everyone.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. I think that’s good advice. Start small, pick something that you can develop a skill around and have a good habit formed and practice and resilience. Embody it, not just mentally, but in your body. That is what it feels like when you’re on stage doing what you’re meant to do, which I feel strongly that you and I have the absolute privilege of doing every day.
I thank you for your message in the world, Tania. Creative Trespassing is your book. I’m sure you’re appearing everywhere, but where are the upcoming summer 2019 places that you are bestowing your wisdom?
TANIA KATAN: I’m going to be speaking at Inbound in the early fall. Before that, Pluralsight Live. And before that, World Domination Summit. See? I started from the ending.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, backwards. It’s opposite day. (Laughter.)
TANIA KATAN: Opposite day! Yay!
JENNIFER BROWN: Yay! WDS, World Domination Summit. I’ve never been, it’s on my list. That is an incredible gathering of change-makers. They’re going to love you. Thanks, Tania, for everything you put in the world. May you continue to have as much energy to get on planes and speak as much as you can and write a lot of books. God knows, we need you. Thank you.
TANIA KATAN: Thank you so much, Jennifer. A total treat.