"The reason I said yes is because I was tired of being afraid", Michelle Obama told a crowd in 2007, explaining why she signed onto her husband's long shot presidential campaign.
In July 2016, I learned what it meant to be "tired of being afraid". I became a certified railroad conductor. This is not what many expect of a woman in my field. I am a respected leader with 20 years of sales and marketing experience.
Train movement is core to the market strategies I develop. And experience in train operations could shape how much more I contribute to my current role. But neither of these were the reason I took on the challenging process to become certified as conductor.
I needed to earn the respect of the men in the industry and I need to know the encouragement I offer others is authentic. Most people know the railroad's workforce is made up men. I travel across North America telling young women and people of diverse backgrounds, "You can do anything in the rail industry if you plan, and prepare. You can be an engineer, a conductor or a marketing executive". The times I have encouraged others, I was unsure this was true for me. Being afraid I didn't belong in this male dominated industry made me feel unauthentic. I need to prove to myself and to them that I do belong!
I arrived in Chicago for week 1 of the conductor training. I heard many stories of the program's difficulty but I was prepared. At least, until day 3 of the training. As I sat watching a technical presentation on the train's air brake system. My fears were running off the tracks! "How in the world am I suppose to learn this?", I cried to my mother that night. "Hell, I don't know where the rotors are on my car". She tried reminding me of academic accomplishments. I argued how technical the training was. The fear of my limitations had me ready to pack up and return home. "Maybe I’m just not that smart" I finally said. The next thing my mother said startled me. "I need you to tell me what is the problem. Because whether you can do this is not your problem."
My problems amounted to one thing: fear. I was afraid my professional grace had run out and I did not work hard enough. What I relate to as grace, people refer to as natural gifts and skills. These are the things you do well without great effort. To truly thrive, the hard stuff is necessary. This was my hard stuff. I extended myself beyond grace. I was afraid of failing the conductor certification. If I failed, I would embarrass myself along with every other woman in my industry who wanted this opportunity. I was afraid of getting physically hurt. Men who have done this work for years have been critically injured. People have even died doing this job. I was afraid the time away was too hard on my family. My husband will spend months as the caretaker for our small child. It felt selfish.
Some of my fears seem unreasonable as I look back. But, I am sure acknowledging each of my fears was the first step. After my fears were all out on the table, I needed to re-write the stories that fed my fears. Unsuccessful completion is not a failure. Failure, with trains, is more than answering questions on an air brake test incorrectly. Failure is doing something that results in someone going home injured or not make it home. If I am unsuccessful in this process, I am not able to fulfill the duties of this job safely right now. The most courageous thing I can do is accept that. My failure will not reflect poorly on all women. I needed to release that burden. I had my family's love and support. I drew strength from that.
From July 2016 to August 2016, I trained hard but I focused on training safely. In November 2017, I was issued by conductor’s license for the operation of freight trains on US railroad. I trained my fears. I am now one of very few women in the United States certified to conduct a freight train.
Check out the transcript of my speech to international exchange students about the need for courage in the business world at Connecting Memphis.