One of the hardest things that I had to learn after I had a “Real Job” was how to be me. This post talks about this issue of rediscovering who you are at work.
Perhaps the ultimate freedom is the freedom to be one’s self. But in the traditional workplace, authenticity is often neither condoned nor rewarded. As free agents around the country told me their stories, they repeatedly used the language of disguise and concealment to describe their previous jobs. They spoke of putting on “masks” or “game faces” at work. They talked about donning “armor” and erecting “smoke screens,” because exposing themselves in a large organization could be perilous. Only when they returned home after work could they shed the costumes and protective gear and return to being who they truly were.
This personality split–Mr. Hyde at work, Dr. Jekyll everywhere else–can take its toll. Public relations guru Deborah Mersino recalled a conversation with her fiancé that convinced her to go solo. After she’d returned from another bruising day on the job, he told her, “You are not you anymore.” Walt Fitzgerald, a GE veteran, told me that compromising his identity was his greatest workplace fear: “I think the biggest ongoing risk I faced was being myself in a corporate environment.” Both the Calvinist ethic–and the workplace it infused–tended to flatten identity and homogenize individuality. The Gregory Peck movie wasn’t called Tom Rath. It was called The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit because to the giant corporation where he worked, the costume was more important than the soul that inhabited it.
Karl Marx, hardly a film critic, would have understood this decision. Central to his critique of capitalism was the notion of “alienation.” He believed one of the most corrosive features of the industrial economy was that it split workers in two. By dividing “being” from “doing,” this form of capitalism inhumanely separated who workers were from the jobs that they did. Marx essentially warned the laboring class, “You are not you anymore, comrade.”
Joan Tyre, hardly a Marxist, would have understood this analysis. She spent twenty years working for large organizations like Sheraton and Miller-Freeman, where she planned meetings and organized conferences. But in her late forties–in an act that “was the single most scary thing I had ever done in my life”–she became a free agent. She now works for herself from her home in Brooklyn.
“When I was working in a corporate environment, I would put on my little corporate suit–a Stepford Worker–and I went in there and did what was expected,” she told me. “The minute I walked out of the building, I was Joan Tyre again. But this way [as a free agent], I’m me all the time.” She says the thought of returning to traditional work “terrifies me. It would be like muzzling myself, gagging myself.”
Peter Krembs, a solo industrial psychologist in Minneapolis, echoes Tyre’s feelings. “Optimizing” the organization, he says, almost necessarily means “suboptimizing the individual.” That’s something he’s seen in his consulting practice–and experienced firsthand. Krembs began work in 1974 at Honeywell, worked there for three years, then did time at a consulting firm before going out on his own. “A lot of people who have chosen to [become free agents] in some ways perceive themselves to be marginalized in their organizations. I happen to be a gay man. In 1974, Honeywell was a very homophobic company. I have to tell you, a very strong reason for my leaving was saying, ‘I’m not going to run this risk of them discovering that I’m gay and have them throw me out on my ear. I’m going to create my own world.’ ”
Free agents, however, don’t sit around waiting for authenticity to rain down on them like a summer shower. They express that authenticity by being passionate about their work. Indeed, where the Calvinist work ethic called for self-denial, the free agent work ethic permits–and at times, demands–self-expression. The advertising campaign of Kinko’s–a crown jewel of the free agent infrastructure–reflects this attitude. Kinko’s began targeting free agents with the slogan “Your Branch Office.” But once the free agent population reached a critical mass, and Kinko’s importance to this population became widely known, the company switched its message from value to values. One print ad brilliantly captures this emerging free agent mind-set. It features a nicely bound document, prepared at Kinko’s of course, sitting on a plush leather executive chair. The document’s title? Hell: Visitor’s Guide for My Boss. Sprinkled on the cover are promises of “Suggested Routes,” “What to Wear,” and “How to Beat the Heat.” And beneath is the new Kinko’s slogan: “Express Yourself.”
In free agency, work becomes more fully integrated with who you are. That can be rewarding. But because work is more deeply woven into yourself, it can be harder to cast off–which means work can occasionally consume and even smother identity.
Yet this urge for authenticity and self-expression is pervasive. “These are all byline occupations,” Charles Handy says of independent workers, “meaning that the individual is encouraged to put his or her name on the work.” Joan Tyre’s one-person microbusiness is Meetings by JT. Allison Cutler calls her Nashville, Tennessee, political consultancy the Cutler Group–a “group” that she says consists of “me, myself, and I.” Nothing new about this approach to naming. Think of the millions of Americans whose surnames describe some ancestor’s occupation: Baker, Miller, Farmer, Skinner, or Taylor. Even the ultimate free agent movie, Jerry Maguire, bears the name of its protagonist. And it’s probably no accident that Jerry Maguire compared his manifesto to The Catcher in the Rye. What did Holden Caulfield detest more than anything else? Phonies.