Finding Symbiosis in my Work/Life Personalities

I work as a programmer / developer, and every now and then the team would hold meetings called retrospectives. These are meetings where the entire team discusses events in the last few weeks that went well, that makes us happy, and those which didn't go well and/or frustrated us. One of the aims of a retrospective is to uncover small issues and quash them before it becomes a major issue.

Today we had another retrospective, and in it I asked my team lead to update the team of business and technical decisions before they are finalized, partly because it allows us to provide feedback, but also because I am interested in knowing the product manager's thought processes.

However, my suggestion was challenged by an older member of the team, saying that I am "too young" to be able to contribute to the decision-making process.

It was disappointing to hear this from a teammate; but perhaps more disappointing is the fact that, my team lead and manager, who was present in the retrospective, did nothing to remedy the situation.

Age Discrimination - A Common Issue

What happened to me just now is the very definition of age discrimination. As it turns out, it is all too common. A survey[1], conducted by the job-listing site CV Library on 1400 worker in the UK, has found that over 75% of 25- to 34-year-olds feels discriminated for being "too young".

Of course, age discrimination isn't limited to young people, older people are equally affected. This is true even if the job you're applying to is the President of the United States.

In the UK, the Equality Act 2010 makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate against because of age[2]. The provision of the law that bans age discrimination has been in effect since 1 October 2012. So if the laws are in place, why is age discrimination still so wide-spread?

Perhaps it is because experience strongly correlates with age - younger workers tend to be less experienced - so it is difficult, even for well-meaning colleagues, to differentiate between the two.

Perhaps it's because most of your colleagues don't know you well enough as an individual. Even if you have extensive experience, all they see is the surface - your appearance (which correlates with your age). First impressions count, and whether we like it or not, everyone holds their own prejudices.

Last but not least, it is hard for a victim to objectively prove that they've been discriminated against, and so is hard to stamp out.

The Imperfect Reality

Whilst there's no excuse for discrimination of any kind, the reality is that age discrimination exists. Until this issue it eliminated, it is important for me not to let it affect my career.

Therefore, the issue I want to tackle here isn't how to stop age discrimination, but whether there are actions I can take to minimize its effect on me.

For instance, can I improve the way I talk, dress, and generally present myself at the workplace? Are there traits that I display that can be interpret as childish? And if so, how can I get rid of them.

But before we can answer those questions, let's get to know a bit more about me.

Eternal Sunshine of the Youthful Mind

In my personal life, I have often been described as what psychologists would call a puer aeternus, which translates to "forever young", "eternal youth" or "eternal child". The term is used to describe adults that carries the emotional characteristics of a child or adolescent.

Whilst some people use that description as a put-down, I have always held that label as a badge of honor. Because, for me, "youth" is synonymous with "fearlessness", "curiousity", "fun" and "hard-work" - positive attributes that I aspire to have.

Obviously, youth also carries many negative attributes - "immaturity", "irresponsibility", being "overly-sensitive". Therefore, as I grow older, I make a conscious effort to discard the negative attributes, whilst holding on to the positive ones.

For example, I try to be more organized with my finances, to communicate more pro-actively and regularly with people I work with, and not be so sensitive about minor personal issues. I've continued to have a "Learner's Attitude", and not assume I know everything. I've continued to work hard - most of my friends call me a workaholic (but I do spend time with friends and family). I am not afraid to make mistakes and am happy to own up to it when I am wrong. I have also developed a confidence that allows me to challenge ideas of my superiors, taking care to do so in a respectful manner.

If I were to assess myself against my own expectations, I'd say I am on track with where I want to be.

And I strongly believe that my resolve in holding onto my youth has allowed me to experience life to the fullest extent. Since graduating from university, I have written dozens of online articles that have collectively been read by hundreds of thousands of people, went on a life-changing backpacking trip across Vietnam, ran my own digital agency in Hong Kong, and at one point, was even in control of a Royal Navy warship. All the while, I still managed to maintain good relationships with my close friends and family.

Building a Work Personality

However, I've found that bringing the same youthful attitudes and mindsets into the workplace does not yield the same positive results.

In your personal life, the people you interact with the most are your friends and family - people who knows you well. In your work life, except in very rare situations, your colleagues only know you on the surface level, they don't know your background, your story, or your personal life.

If you act childish with your friends and family, they know that that's only a part of you. They know that there's a mature and responsible side to you, because they know you. However, if you act childish at the workplace, your colleagues, who only have a short time to assess you, will label you as childish, and with it inexperience and incompetence.

Furthermore, you can pick your friends in life - if someone isn't on your own wavelength, you can simply not talk to them ever again. But at work, you're stuck with whoever the company has hired, and these people usually have a different view and attitude to life than you.

Therefore, if you are, like me, a puer aeternus, then you must learn to develop a more mature and professional personality for the workplace. For example:

  • Dress smarter / professionally - by dressing up, people will take you more seriously. For example, instead of a jeans / T-Shirt combination, wear khakis / shirt. Also, make sure you're well-groomed.
  • Be less emotional / more moderate in your views - instead of "this is utter garbage", say "There are many areas of improvement"
  • If you're a fast talker, speak slowly and clearly
  • If you're a spontaneous person, think before you speak, and plan before you act
  • If you're a blunt and no-nonsense person, make sure you put your point across with a softer tone and be less confrontational - pay attention to how you say something, not just what you say
  • If you're a humorous person, make sure you don't joke around all the time. Use jokes sparingly.
  • If you're easily frustrated when things don't go your way, take care not to show that emotion to your colleagues. Always present a calm persona
  • Compliment others more, and act like you like them - it'll make them like you more
  • Be on time
  • Don't fidget, and this includes with your phone
  • Develop a good posture (e.g. don't slouch)
  • If you like to stay out of office politics, know that at times politics is inevitable, and sometimes you have to play the game

There's a Method in the Working

But how? Most of us have one personality, and if we try to put up a "workplace personality", then that'll inevitable affect our "personal personality".

After some thought, I realized that my dilemma has many parallels with method acting.

Method acting is where an actor / actress goes to extreme lengths to be "in character". They would mimic the psyche and behavior of their character; in essence, they would try to stand in their character's shoes. Oftentimes, they will stay in character even when off-camera.

This is in contrast to "surface acting", where an actor merely changes their actions but not their thought processes. A method actor inhabits the life of his character, and believes that he is the character. The "real" actor disappears and a new, perhaps just as authentic, character arises. This idea is eloquently expressed by James Franco's description of Marlon Brando's acting:

Brando’s performances revolutionized American acting precisely because he didn’t seem to be “performing,” in the sense that he wasn’t putting something on as much as he was being.

The goal of method acting is to give the most genuine and authentic performances possible.

Therefore, if I can figure out how method actors are able to immerse themselves into their characters, whilst ultimately able to separate their personal and on-screen lives, then maybe I can apply that to how I view my personal/work personalities.

Daniel Day-Lewis

Whilst Marlon Brando is a famous method actor, he is not alone in the group of highly-acclaimed method actors. Joaquin Phoenix, Christian Bale, Robert de Niro, Matthew McConaughey, Leonardo DiCaprio, Adrien Brody, Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker, Kate Winslet and many others have used method acting to good effect some time in their career.

But even such a distinct group of method actors would not contest Daniel Day-Lewis' claim for being the most dedicated method actor of his time. Of the 21 films made in his 46-year career, he has won 3 Academy Awards (Oscars) for Best Actor, more than another other actors.

When Day-Lewis was preparing to play Christy Brown, an Irish writer and painter who had cerebral palsy, in the film My Left Foot (1989), he spent 8 weeks in a cerebral palsy clinic to research his role. He also learned to put a record on a turntable with only his toes, and then spent almost the entire shoot in a wheelchair, whilst also asking his crew to feed him with a spoon. The film eventually earned him his first Oscar.

His next Oscar came when he played as Bill 'The Butcher' Cutting in The Gangs of New York. Day-Lewis actually trained as a butcher and listen to Eminem to build up his aggression. He also refused to wear warmer, but non-authentic clothing which led to him catching pneumonia whilst on-set. After contracting the disease, Day-Lewis then refused any modern treatment.

His last and final Oscar before his retirement saw him play the U.S.'s 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, in the biopic Lincoln (2012). In preparation for the role, Day-Lewis read extensively - first Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”, of which the film is based on, and then Lincoln's own writing, and lastly the Carl Sandburg biography.[3] After reading, Day-Lewis shifted his research to studying Alexander Gardner’s American Civil War era photos in minute details. During the shoot, he would remain speaking in Lincoln's supposedly high-pitched voice, signed off texts to his co-stars with "Yours, A", and ordered the British cast and crew on set not to speak in a British accent.

The entire game is about creating an illusion, and for whatever reason, and mad as it may sound, some part of me can allow myself to believe for a period for time without questioning, and that’s the trick.

And even when he's not putting on an Oscar-worthy performance, his method does not change. When he played a Czech brain surgeon, Tomas, in the film The Unbearable Lightness Of Being (1988), he actually went to teach himself Czechoslovakian, even though the film is in English. When he played colonial frontiersman, Hawkeye, in The Last Of The Mohicans (1992), he lived in the wilderness, learned to skin wild animals and build canoes, and would only eat things that he's hunted himself. When he played Gerry Conlon, a wrongfully-convicted IRA bomber, in In The Name Of The Father (1993), he spent 3 nights in an abandoned prison cell eating prison rations. When he played the 19th century lawyer Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence, we spent the prior two months wearing a top hat and cape around New York. For his 1995 film The Boxer, Day-Lewis trained for 18 months as a boxer. When he played a reclusive hippy in The Ballad Of Jack And Rose (2005), he spent off-camera time inside a shack he built himself, whilst his family stayed elsewhere. When he played violent oil prospector Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (2007), he would act out the fight scenes for real, not talk to his co-stars off-camera, and lived in a tent on a deserted Texas oilfield.

Dangers of Method Acting

Whilst Day-Lewis' method acting is viewed as extreme, once the entire production is finished, he seems to be able to go back to his sane self. However, he's still quite eccentric, very reclusive, and often shows signs of mental instability.

During a production of Hamlet in London in 1989, where Day-Lewis played the lead, he ran off the stage mid-performance and cried uncontrollably. Since then, Day-Lewis moved to Ireland and did not return to the theater stage. Then, when his agent Julian Belfrage died in 1994, Day-Lewis reportedly suffered a nervous break down.

However, several method actors suffered a more tragic ending.

Heath Ledger, who played the Joker in the The Dark Knight, isolated himself in his hotel room for an entire month. There, he would practice the Joker's voice and demeanour, and write diary entries as the Joker.

Tragically, Ledger died from a prescription drug overdose before the film was released.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, another highly-proclaimed method actor, died in 2014 from drug overdose of heroin, cocaine, benzodiazepines, and amphetamine.

Whether their deaths was because of the characters they played, or because they couldn't compartmentalize the characters from themselves, or some other reasons, method acting is viewed as a controversial technique because of these very tangible risks to one's mental stability. There's only so much separation you can place between the character and your "true" self. Eventually, it'll be hard to know who the "real" you actually is.

"You think you’re traveling a vast distance to understand another life, but it may be that you’re bringing that life toward you at the same time." Daniel Day-Lewis

Attaining Symbiosis

However, with the exception of military personnel, most people's work does not affect them emotionally to the extent that acting does. And traits that is present in one doesn't necessarily have to be excluded from the other - there are traits which can exists in both personalities.

For instance, if I am outspoken in my personal life, I can use that same trait to my benefit at work - to not be afraid to suggest new ideas and initiatives. However, whilst I might be more blunt and direct with my friends, I'd have to make sure to use a softer tone to prevent my actions as being interpreted as being disruptive and divisive.

Likewise, a sense of humor is a good thing to bring into the workplace, especially early on, as it can make forming bonds and relationships easier. But I must ensure the jokes are appropriate and doesn't cross the line.

But not all traits can be so easily-managed. For instance, in my personal life, I'd never do smalltalk - I view it as a waste of time, and I still maintain this view. Equally, I hate office politics - I wish everyone would just be open and transparent with each other, and not talk behind people's backs.

However, in the workplace, smalltalk and politics are inevitable. You have to ask about people's weekends, about their family, and most importantly, about the weather. You have to work with people you don't respect, and who doesn't respect you.

So how can I carry out the ritual of smalltalk about topics and with people which I don't care about, and to play my part in office politics when required, whilst not making the "real" me indulge in gossip?

To tie back with method acting - how are successful (and relatively sane) method actors able to keep a sense of self and not let their characters change them?

Daniel Day-Lewis says you can't, but also implies that it's not necessarily a bad thing.

"What allows that work to live is the common experience, the bond between the two of you. It’s utterly delusional to say you become some other person — you don’t. But you do get to know yourself in a different way, through the prism of that other life." Daniel Day-Lewis

To put that into the workplace context, he's saying that although your true personality and your work personality needs to be different, they are both undeniably the same person you - just different sides of you.

You should use your work personality to find out things about the "real" you. For example, forcing yourself to dress smarter might lead you to discover a new style that you'd like more than your current one. Limiting you humor to only those which are work-safe may force yourself to use less profanities and expand your vocabulary. Controlling your temperament at work may help you handle frustrating experiences such as handling a dispute or raising a child.

Rocks in a stream steers the direction of the water, but the water also slowly erodes the rocks - both affect each other. The best we can do is to make sure these effects are positive ones. By having this mindset, we achieve a symbiosis where the two personalities are not opponents, but, teammates.

References


  1. Majority of UK workers say age discrimination is common at work ↩︎

  2. Equality Act 2010: guidance ↩︎

  3. Abe Lincoln as You’ve Never Heard Him ↩︎

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