March 17, 2008

Good day, team,

David Brooks has been writing for The New York Times editorial section for more than 30 years. He’s a conservative, and although I don’t often agree with his political opinions, I do appreciate a great writer when I read one, and he fits the description.

This past week, he wrote a very interesting article, “The Rank-Link Imbalance,” describing a trait he often sees in people in power: “People who have all of the social skills to improve their social rank, but none of the social skills that lead to genuine bonding. They are good at vertical relationships with mentors and bosses, but bad at horizontal relationships with friends and lovers.” He could have called the article “The Sad Sagas of the Supremely Successful.”

He describes how this happens:

“Perhaps they grow up in homes with an intense success ethos and get fed into the Achievetron, the complex social machine that takes young children and molds them into Ivy Leagues valedictorians. They go through the oboe practice, soccer camp, homework-marathon childhood. Their parent-teacher conferences are like mini-Hall of Fame enshrinements as all gather to worship in the flame of the incipient success. In high school, they enter their Alpha Geekdom. They rack up great grades and develop that coating of arrogance that forms on those who know that in the long run they will be more successful than the beauties and jocks who get dates.

“Then they go into one of those fields like law, corporate management, medicine or politics, where a person’s identity is defined by career rank. They develop the specific social skills that are useful on the climb up the greasy pole: the capacity to imply false intimacy; the ability to remember first names; the subtle skills of effective deference; the willingness to stand too close to other men while talking and touching them in a manly way.

“And, of course, these people succeed and enjoy their successes. When Bigness descends upon them, they dominate every room they enter and graciously share their company with those who are thrilled to meet them. They master the patois of globaloney—the ability to declaim for portentous minutes about the revolution in world affairs brought about by technological change, environmental degradation, the fundamental decline in moral values.

“But then, gradually, some cruel cosmic joke gets played on them. They realize in middle age that their grandeur is not enough and that they are lonely. The ordinariness of their intimate lives is made more painful by the exhilaration of their public success.

Brooks goes on to describe some of the stupid things these powerful, emotionally adolescent people do to fix that loneliness. How many times have you seen the corporate executive get drunk at the company Christmas party and make a sloppy pass at one of the pretty young things in the crowd? Maybe they turn to prostitution, as we saw in the recent headlines about the governor of New York, because transactional relationships are something they understand. How many managers do you know who claim that they work as hard as they do because they value their families most, and yet they travel most of the time and are hardly ever with their families?

This entire phenomenon creates middle-aged professionals who end up emotionally bankrupt due to their inability to experience any genuine intimacy in their lives. They carry on inauthentic relationships until they suddenly realize that their lives are made up of empty successes without any real connection or heart. They feel a lack of integrity since their external actions don’t match their internal state and often find themselves acting out in undignified ways.

I remember working with someone years ago who always looked and acted the part, but never seemed happy doing it. He couldn’t give anyone else his full attention and would often start working on his computer in the middle of a conversation with someone on the team. This inability to really connect with anyone was filled instead with a false personality that liked to act as though he always had it together and didn’t really need anyone else to help him out. He was cool and smart and always had the same kind of smile for everyone. We called him “Teflon man”: nothing ever stuck. He was so smooth and seamless that it was almost scary to watch him, because he seemed so inhuman.

When his wife walked out on him one morning after 24 years of marriage, he looked at himself in the mirror and didn’t like who he had become. He came to work a week later and announced to all of us that he’d hit a wall in his life and that he knew things had to change. He asked each of us to write a small paragraph about who we thought he really was, and started the process of unraveling the false personality he had so carefully woven over the years. The person who emerged was a really nice guy who wasn’t going to be the next president of the company, but was a pretty darned good manager and friend.

Your challenge this week is to try being true to your self and authentic in your interactions with others. If you’ve been living up to someone else’s idea of who you should be or some company’s idea of what a successful person looks and acts like, ask yourself if this is who you really are and if you want to continue to support that false personality you’ve created to fit in.

As Shakespeare wrote, “This above all, to thine own self be true, and…thou canst not then be false to any man.” Try finding out who that true self is and allow it to come to the forefront. You may just find that others respond in kind and your work and personal relationships are far richer because of it.

Have a great week!