Sunday, January 31, 2010

Programmed Identity

Programmed Identity is the result of other people sending messages about who you are or will become in the future. When I was growing up my mother imprinted me with two immutable notions—(1) I was smarter than all of the kids in the neighborhood and (2) I was a slob. The first notion, I now realize, was part of my mother’s natural desire to have a successful son. The second was the distillate of my mother’s own incredible need to be tidy and clean. After years of hearing of this from my mother, I grew up with an outsized (and frankly delusional) faith in my own brainpower, and I was an incredible slob. My mother had programmed me to believe these attributes were integral components of what made me me. It wasn’t until I started understanding the dynamics of identity that I began to realize: (1) I wasn’t always that smart and (2) I didn’t have to be a slob.
By the time I got to graduate school, where I was shocked—shocked!—to learn that my professors and fellow students also had mothers, fathers and other important people telling them how smart they were, I had to rethink my mother’s programming. In addition, if only to improve my social acceptance, I worked on not being such a slob.
In its most extreme forms, there’s a lot that can be positive about Programmed Identity. For example, the Marine Corps excels at forging new identities for its recruits—and it does so in the relatively short span during eight weeks of boot camp. That’s where new recruits are literally drilled into thinking of themselves not only as soldiers but as members of a unit—so that they have their comrades’ backs at all times and perform fearlessly under the stress of combat. It’s the reason Marines get “Semper Fi” tattoos and regard being a Marine as part of their identity for life. It’s the reason that wounded soldiers who’ve been sent stateside for medical attention want to get back to their unit as soon as they’re healed; they want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. That’s how they’ve been trained. The Corps is at the core of their identity.
Your Programmed Identity has many sources. It can be influenced by the profession you enter, the culture you grew up in, the company you work for, the entire industry you work in, or the people you select as your trusted friends. Each of these can shape your opinion of yourself, some more vividly than you may realize.
Not long ago I met up with an old friend from graduate school whom I hadn’t seen in years. I remembered him as a quiet, earnest academic type who liked nothing more than dreaming up clever social experiments and writing research papers about them. Then he decided he needed more money than a life in academe would provide, so he became a trader on Wall Street. I caught up with him a few years into his new career, and the change in his personality was impossible to ignore. He was very aggressive and clearly cared a lot about making money.
“You’ve come a long way since the psych lab,” I said, trying to make a joke about the “new” person sitting in front of me.
“It’s the culture,” he said. “Everyone in my company is there for only one reason: to make money. I was told that in order to succeed in this environment, I would need to become like everyone else. I guess that I have.”
In other words, he didn’t disagree that he was a changed man, or that this change was not all positive. He simply gave himself a free pass by defining his new personality by his industry ‘programming’.
And therein lies the flaw in our eager acceptance of our Programmed Identity. It can become a convenient scapegoat for our behavioral mistakes.
I was once hired to work with a Greek-American executive whose scores on showing respect for colleagues and subordinates were abysmal. As I reviewed his co-workers’ feedback with him, his first comment was, “I don’t know if you’ve ever worked with men from Greece before…”
I cut him off and said, “I’ve worked with a lot of men from Greece, and most of them were not perceived as mean or disrespectful. Don’t blame your problems on Socrates!” In effect, he was blaming his supposed cultural heritage—his alleged programming—for his acting like a jerk.
Through the years I’ve become a connoisseur of people using their “programming” as an excuse. I’ve heard overbearing people who always need to get their own way blame the parents who spoiled them and gave them everything they wanted (Blame My Parents programming). I’ve heard overweight people blame their inability to shed pounds on their genetic makeup (Blame My Genes programming). I’ve heard bigots blame their intolerance on the hateful small-minded town where they were raised (Blame My Neighbors programming). I’ve heard aggressive don’t-get-in-my-way salespeople blame their boorish behavior on their company’s ruthless Darwinian culture (Blame My Company’s programming).
At some point, usually when we’ve suffered an unambiguous Nojo moment for the second or third time (e.g., getting fired or passed over for a promotion again) it finally dawns on us that maybe we can’t lay all our problems on our programming. That’s when we stop turning to the past and to others for our sense of self.

Life is good.


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