On Self-Knowledge and Service

I’ve been thinking a lot about self-knowledge and identity, who I am and who I want to be. These questions are often challenging for me and, I’d bet, for a lot of other people too. But they’re important: they affect everything from our sense of style to how we’re able to be close to our loved ones. And that’s one reason that our company values here at Magnolia Bough include openness and in particular openness to self-knowledge. In fact, Magnolia Bough owes its existence to this kind of openness: this business is possible for me only because I started figuring out who I really am and who I’d like to be. And it’s always requiring me to figure those things out more clearly, because the more I do that, the better I understand how I can serve my customers as well as my friends and family.  One thing I’ve learned is that sometimes all it takes is a five-second encounter with a stranger to help me discover who I aspire to be. And in the future, I want to be a little old lady who says “hey.”

I got the answers right but the expression wrong.

Maybe it’s true that, to contradict the title of a Sinéad O’Connor album, we always want what we have not got. Maybe I want to be charmingly informal with people because for a lot of my life so far I’ve been just the opposite. I was a precocious, reserved child. A people-pleaser. A maker of good grades. I spent a lot of time reading; I loved stories, words, writing, even sentence diagramming. So, early on, I acquired an ear for professional-sounding prose and learned to mimic it pretty well. And I thought that was great . . . until I realized it was a liability when I needed to express myself more informally. What had seemed precocious now struck me as uptight and cringey. (And, y’all, it was. A brief example: for a semester in college, I was a teaching assistant in a literature course that was team-taught by two professors. On the first day, they stood up to introduce themselves, and a student asked me which was which. I wanted so much to be taken seriously, to seem professional, that I referred to one prof as “female” and the other as “male”—which resulted in the students around me dissolving into fits of giggles. Justifiably.)

 

via GIPHY

In order to be more present, I had to take a good look at my past.

When I first started to feel self-conscious about sounding too formal, I think it was because I was focused on what other people would think of me based on my writing: would they laugh at me? think I was boring? think I was socially awkward? (OK, full disclosure: I often am socially awkward, but in much more fun ways than my prose used to suggest.) But then I also began to remember who I’d hoped to be, and who I was, when I was 12 or 13. And I realized my writing didn’t reflect my personality much at all, which seemed a shame. By this time, I’d also changed careers: I’d decided to stop teaching college classes and focus on building a jewelry business. The more I read about personal branding and making meaningful connections with people, the more convinced I became that I needed to be more open, more vulnerable, more myself. And the ways I expressed myself needed to reflect those changes.

And then it was time to look forward.

So I started to say what I really thought. I started to edit myself less in conversation, to stop myself from overthinking every email, text message, and phone call. But things really, fully clicked for me a couple of years ago, when my husband, our kids, and I were visiting my mom in my home state of Alabama. We were walking into a place (likely either a church or a restaurant—memory fails me as to which), and a very pretty older lady was walking out. As she stepped over the threshold, where we were standing aside to let her pass, she smiled gently, looked us in the eye just briefly, and said politely, in a sweet Alabama drawl, “Hey.”

Y’all, I was charmed. Tickled. We walked through the door, and all I could think was, “That’s who I want to be! A personable, beautiful woman who doesn’t stand on ceremony, who can connect with total strangers in one utterly disarming word, said with an equally disarming smile.” I thought about her for weeks afterward, always happily, and even now the memory brings a smile to my face.

Memories can reveal a lot about what kind of future we want.

I think part of the reason that brief encounter affected me so deeply is that once when I was a kid, my mom corrected me for greeting the coach at my elementary school with “hey” instead of a more formal “hi” or “hello.” I saw her point—that “hi” probably sounded more respectful—but the coach had greeted me with, “Hey, Jennifer,” so I was responding in kind. (I wasn’t really focusing on social niceties anyway: I was late getting to school that day because my beloved puppy Dixie had died that morning.) That experience had left me thinking that others expected me to be prim and proper and would form a poor impression of me if I messed up. So even years later, hearing a perfectly charming little old lady say “hey” so amiably and politely felt liberating and joyful.

Our authenticity allows us to serve others all the better.

Thanks to my anonymous role model, I want to be a little old lady who says “hey.” Heck, I don’t even want to wait—I want to say it now! I want to put other people at ease, to help them feel as though the world can still be a friendly place, a place of unhurried accents and footsteps and soft, gentle vowel sounds. And I want the very same thing for my business: I want it to help people feel a little more joy, a little more self-acceptance, a little more openness. A little more love. And I want it to do all that with a Southern accent.

Can jewelry really be that important? Can it accomplish what I ask of it? I think it can—especially when the designs honor the wearer’s individuality, when they reflect a particular way of appreciating the richness of life in this complicated, beautiful world. And especially when that jewelry is offered in a spirit of caring for the client and her values: her commitment to family, her desire to invest in herself, her engagement with the world around her. That’s the Magnolia Bough approach. If you’d like to experience it for yourself, shop online, give us a call, or send us a message. And don’t be shy about starting with “hey.”

Your turn!

Drop a comment below and share an experience that helped you figure out more about who you want to be.

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Photo credit: Molly Mitchell for the Mansmann Foundation.

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