I’m Not an Actor, So Why Am I Performing at Work?

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Everybody’s got that one friend that’s always coming down with something. An unexplainable headache, chronic stomach issues, a twitchy eye that is obviously a clear indicator of impending death. Well, in my friend group that’s me. You might even say that one of my defining characteristics is my lack of wellbeing. So many doctors, so many paper gowns, so little consensus about my ailments.

But just this year the cause became clear… It’s stress. For real? WebMD (and my actual doctors) were right all along?!

I had written my health issues off as something that wouldn’t be solved in my lifetime. They were just something to suffer through. But then, thanks to COVID-19, I stopped traveling for work. And now for the last six months, I haven’t been getting sick?! How are a lifetime of health issues resolved by six months of working remotely? If stress is the symptom, then what is the actual problem?

The Painful Side Effects of Performance

After just a few months at home, my dreams of embarrassing nudity or missing teeth were replaced with playful visions from high school or becoming an FBI agent (clearly inspired by my Netflix consumption). Instead of waking up at 5:30 a.m. to rehearse for my day, I’d wake up at 7 a.m. to make a cup of coffee or go for a walk. All of a sudden the pressure of being perfect that felt so acute in person couldn’t penetrate my 12-inch screen. I realized I was feeling so much better in my remote world because there’s little to no performance required.

For years I’ve felt like my duty was to be on stage for the entertainment and gain of others. I quite literally felt like a professional actor — a painful career choice for a tragically honest person with no swagger. However, in our 9–5 work world I had to try to play myself.

Method Acting Into New Versions of Ourselves

Method acting is a controversial technique some professional actors use to move from a sense of acting to a sense of being. It requires fully inhabiting the role of a character in order to appear more sincere. Picture Christian Bale who lost 60lbs to play Trevor Reznik in The Machinist and then less than 1 year later he had to put on 100lbs of muscle to play the mysterious and strong Batman in the The Dark Knight.

It’s not unlike how we assume roles in our lives, and not just at work. I’ve been trying some form of this approach since I was a child. And just like how the New York Film Academy’s description of method acting, my process produced some “dark behaviors and thought patterns.” Here’s what the technique looked like for me:

Step 1: Define what good looks like.

I thoroughly studied the behavior of others in order to transcribe the rule book. This helped me craft a clear picture of what success looks like and how it’s accomplished.

Step 2: Rehearse and perform.

I had practiced and perfected how to be a 4.0 student, how to speak in public, and how to effortlessly produce results that matter to others.

Step 3: Beat myself up for not being perfect.

After accomplishing “good,” I would ponder if I’m enough. I questioned what that even means relative to what I should be.

Why Are We Always Performing?

Human beings are so fascinated with performance. We love the drama. We love storytelling. We spend so much time watching other people’s stories that we hardly make time to authentically experience our own. Is that why we choose to play multiple characters in our lives? Work-me, Family-me, Friend-me, Internet-me.

Do we admire performance so much that we must create different realities in order to feel alive?

Over and over again, we take on roles before we understand the character. It’s not unlike middle school when you’re trying to figure out who to be in the world. As an adolescent, it feels like throwing a dart into the clouds, but as an adult, the dartboard feels real and the target is tiny. By the time we’re thirty, we haven’t stopped to question if the bullseye is the right place to land. We keep playing the game, winning the points, and even hitting the target, but something feels off. Why?

Question the Role Before You Choose to Act It Out

I actually believe in fake it ’til you make it. It’s a great way to learn. What I take issue with is steps one and three: defining what good looks like and relentless self-criticism. I think that’s what we’ve been getting wrong. We haven’t been making enough space to question the norms before we replicate them. Instead, according to Professor Brian Little from Cambridge, we act like amateur scientists. He writes, “We do things, say things, and then we observe the reactions and unconsciously store the results.” We are, in effect, designing our lives based on the reactions of others until we no longer recognize what really makes us feel alive.

It’s not the performing that’s inherently unhelpful, it’s the roles we choose to act out.

My dad used to say to me in high school, “You have to stop caring what other people think of you. If you care, then they own you. Only you should own you.” But it’s exactly the opinions of others that can mean so much and that end up constructing our definitions of success. There may be no place where this happens more than at work. Work is an adequacy-shaping playground frequently full of child-like performers trying to be something they’re not.

Free Yourself From “Should Be”

Most workplaces were designed based on our knowledge of how to motivate animals. We pay attention to both rewards and punishments. This simplistic view often minimizes the strength of humans: our cognitive abilities, including our capacity to rapidly change. We find ourselves performing in roles that don’t feel right because they weren’t designed for us. We keep giving each other informal feedback based on a dysfunctional design, not our real potential.

So how do we let go of dated design and its baked-in should be’s?

It’s simple in theory, but hard in execution.

Question everything. Experiment with change.

Why do certain norms exist? Who do they serve? Are you holding onto assumptions that limit your potential? Once you’ve developed your own why, take action. But first, a quick timeout. There are the narratives we have running through our own minds, and then there are the cultural, political, economic (I could go on) systems designed to keep certain groups of people small. The two are not mutually exclusive, but let’s start here, with how we show up to work. We’ve got to fight the man, and do it with passion. I want to question what’s in our control and bravely pursue change where we can. That means we must create an endless cycle of experimentation in our lives.

Here are a few should be’s I’m eager to question.

  • Simplify everything. I am so sick of being told to simplify. Simplify your message. Simplify your life. Simplification gives us a false sense of control. By pretending the answer is concrete and absolute, we can feel cozy. I see its value, but I also think it prevents us from learning and expressing reality.
  • We shouldn’t disagree in public. So, should we just do it on the internet? Behind each other’s backs? When we don’t hold healthy tension as a value, we show others that it should feel natural to be on the same page. That’s an unrealistic expectation that leaves people wondering where it’s safe to ask tough questions.
  • We should defer to leadership. Leaders are people too. They may have more context and experience, but that doesn’t mean they always know the best path forward. If we only defer to leadership, or even consensus, we never train ourselves to be confident decision makers.

This is just a starter list. Have a cocktail with me and I’ll share at least 10 more.

Creating a More Authentic Development Practice

We are constantly fighting a natural instinct to want to fit in. We want to be liked. We want our ideas to be well-received. I get it. Me too! I love to feel understood. However, in growth, these instincts can be our enemy. The sooner we not only realize that, but actually embrace it, the closer we get to freedom from should be. Getting started is the hardest part, but one small action leads to another and to another. And like with just about anything else in life, to get to where you’re going, you have to first know where you are.

  • Recognize what’s giving you that Something is missing. Something isn’t right feeling.
  • Identify and begin to let go of the roles in your life that you’re playing but that someone else wrote. This is where un-learning really starts to happen. How can you move from a place of executing to a place of authorship?
  • Experiment your way towards change. Treat every small action like an opportunity to learn, and un-learn, about yourself.

Un-Learn In Order to Re-Imagine

Let go of the original steps towards great performance — seeing how others define good, acting it out, and self-criticizing. Replace them with a process of un-learning and re-imagination — self-awareness, questioning norms, and personalized experimentation. I believe in this process. I’ve recognized it for years, and I am just now embracing it with a little more confidence.

This is exactly what we had in mind when we created Un-Professional. We wanted to not only improve the mental health and growth experiences of others, but also fulfill our own aspirations of boldly pursuing something that we care about with the risk of failure clearly in sight. Just like we ask of our clients. We’re still learning so much and will continue to evolve what we bring to the world. As a personal experimenter myself, let me remind you, it always feels messy in the middle.

Read more stories on un-professional.co.

A Few Resources

For my fellow geeks, here are some things I dug into for this essay.

HBR’s Don’t Just Put on a Happy Face at Work: Deep acting can lead to less fatigue and higher engagement. When you are acting to change your attitude, it might just work.

Brené Brown Podcast on Burnout & Completing the Stress Cycle: Brené brings on Emily and Amelia Nagoski to talk about their book, Burn Out. I heard this just days after I started writing this. It gives great simple tips for releasing stress regularly.

This job is (literally) kill me: This study from Indiana University Kelley School of Business finds that our mental health and mortality have a strong correlation with the amount of autonomy we have at our job, our workload and job demands, and our cognitive ability to deal with those demands.

Acting Out of Character at Work: Sanna Balsari-Palsule and Brian Little from the University of Cambridge dig into the complexity of acting out of character at work based on interests and relationships.

Method Acting: Method or Madness?: Rabbit hole alert. I read probably 10 articles about method acting… This is not an adequate summary, but it is what piqued my interest.

Org Psych, Culture, & Design. Devoted to asking difficult questions and creating a more exceptional life.

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