Friday, December 18, 2009

Who Shall I Be Today?

Who are you? Although appealing, I'm not asking from an existential perspective, but instead from the perspective of the people around you, the people in your life.

Now the question probably has many answers based on the perspective of the observer. Your partner... your parents... your children... your coworkers... your boss... your neighbors... your band-mates... your fellow worshipers... the guy that sells you coffee in the morning... would all likely answer at least a bit differently, or perhaps, quite differently.

And then again, maybe not.

The Office Holiday Party
This time of year, many of us get to participate in a wonderfully rich experience called the office holiday party. The office holiday party is wonderful because it provides an opportunity to get to know people in ways that they might not otherwise be known. People tend to relax a bit, drink a bit and let down their hair, so to speak.

Many office parties include "significant others" which can serve as the pyscho-social equivalent of a sub-atomic particle-collider. It's amazing how different the perspectives of coworkers can be from those of a life partner. In an office holiday, you often get to see what happens when two strongly formed perspectives intersect at the same point.

The other night, I was invited to a holiday party for one of the companies with which I consult. Although it was a spouse-free party, it still was really fun to get to talk to people and ask them questions in an environment where they seemed more amenable to actually answering them, not just politely nodding and moving on, or responding with an I-don't-know. On Wednesday night, people were really thinking about and considering what they were saying.

It was delicious. I learned more about people in the space of just a couple of hours than I'd learned in twelve months. In many cases, I walked out with a completely different perspective than I'd walked in with. People who typically seemed a bit standoffish and distant, were open and engaging. People who normally seemed all-about-business, displayed deep interest in a variety of activities that had nothing to do with business. Managers who had appeared arbitrary and disconnected in their decisions, showed a deep sense of caring about what they were doing and the people who worked for them.

As Iris and I drove home yesterday, I thought about the disparity between the people I saw at the party and the people whom I would normally see in the office. I liked the people at the party much better. It's not that the people in the office are not likable; it's just that they don't even compare to the people who were at the party.

How Many People Can I Be?
Back in 2002, I participated in my first personal growth program. It was focused on authenticity in relationships.

For me, the program was not about lying or not lying, it was not about obfuscation or openness; it was about being consistent inside and out, and being exactly who you are independent of the situation.

By 2001, I was a least twenty different people depending on the situation. I had an almost chameleon-like capacity to morph myself to suit myself to the circumstances. I had founded an Internet security company raising $53M in venture capital over 18 months. I had a whole persona that went with doing business. Even that had different versions depending on whether I was working with the money guys, or the marketing guys, or the sales guys or the technical guys.

I had another persona for home where my kids were getting to their late teens and early twenties. And I had yet others for my parents, one for each. (People could tell when I was talking on the phone with my mom who was from South Carolina because I suddenly spoke southern; my dad doesn't speak southern). I had started racing mountain bikes with a bunch of people who were down-to-earth working-stiffs; so I had a totally-not-a-suit personality.

I can remember lamenting to myself, "I wish there were someone in my life with whom I could just be myself!"

Radical Convergence
Radical Authenticity helped me to change all that; and it wasn't a slow drawn-out process. A couple of weeks ago at Thanksgiving, my daughter Eila who now seems quite pleased with the transformation recalled thinking that I had been brainwashed or joined a cult; I had gone away for the week one person, and had come back someone completely different. Of course, the different person was just me.

Some people didn't know what to make of me. Some really liked who I was. Others really didn't. I loved it.

It was so much easier to be one person than twenty; so much less work; so much more fun.

I became more curious about people, who they were and why they were. I started asking the obvious questions that people often avoid regardless of circumstances. If someone seemed upset, whether it was at dinner or in a business meeting (where others might be ignoring their manner), I would ask them about it. I became the same person whether talking to an executive or junior staff member, whether talking to a scholar or a drop-out, whether talking to a client or a supplier, whether talking with my kids or my dad (my mom had passed away by then).

At a significant-other-friendly holiday gathering a few years ago, Rich Jerry, one of the software guys I was working with, leaned over to Iris and asked, "Is he really like this all the time?"

Iris responded, "Yeah. All the time."

He then asked, "So, when Mark tells me that he really wants to hear what I think, he really means it?"

Iris replied, "Yup!"

How Many People Are You?
So, how does this all work for you? Are you one person, consistent inside and out, independent of circumstances? Or, are you different things to different people?

If you are different things to different people, who are you? With whom? Why? How's it working for you? Do you resonate with the chameleon's lament of wishing you could just be yourself?

As we dive into the midst of this holiday season, whether it's an office holiday party or a family gathering, who are you going to be? Will you morph yourself into the person everyone expects? Or will you let go of all that?

To be clear, being consistent inside and out regardless of situation can be habit forming and not everyone will cheer you on. But in the end, the people who do cheer you on will mean it.

Who will you be today?

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