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It’s All in the Programming

People—parents, bosses, spouses, etc.—send us messages about who we are and who we will become in the future. When we take on their ideas of who we are, they are “programming” our identities.
For instance, when I was a kid, my mother programmed two things into me: 1) I was smarter than all of the kids in the neighborhood and (2) I was a slob. I realize now that the first notion was part of my mother’s natural desire to have a successful son. The second was a product of my mother’s own need to be neat and tidy. The result? I grew up with a delusional faith in my own intelligence, and I was a horrible slob. My mother had programmed me to believe that these attributes were integral components of what made me me. It wasn’t until I started understanding the dynamics of identity that I began to realize: (1) I wasn’t always that smart and (2) I didn’t have to be a slob.

Imagine my shock I arrived at graduate school to find that my professors and fellow students also had mothers, fathers, and other important people telling them how smart they were. And, some of them were much smarter than me! I quickly realized that I had to rethink my mother’s programming. I also, if only to improve my odds on getting a date, worked on not being such a slob. Even in its most extreme form, there can be a lot that is positive about programmed identity. For example, the Marine Corps excels at forging new identities for its recruits—and it does so in the relatively short span of eight weeks at boot camp. That’s where new recruits are literally drilled into thinking of themselves not only as soldiers but as members of a unit. The result is they look out for each other and perform fearlessly under the stress of combat. It’s the reason Marines get “Semper Fi” tattoos and regard being a Marine as part of their identity for life.

Your programmed identity has many sources. It can be influenced by the profession you enter, or the culture you grew up in, or the company you work for, or the entire industry you work in, or the people you select as your trusted friends. Each of these can shape your opinion of yourself, some more vividly than you may realize. Recently I met up with an old friend from graduate school who I hadn’t seen for years. I remembered him as a quiet, earnest academic type who liked nothing more than dreaming up clever social experiments and writing research papers about them. Then he decided he needed more money than a life in academe would provide, so he became a trader on Wall Street. I caught up with him a few years into his new career, and the change in his personality was impossible to ignore. He was very aggressive and clearly cared a lot about making money.

“You’ve come a long way since the psych lab,” I said, trying to make a joke about the “new” person sitting in front of me. “It’s the culture,” he said. “Everyone in my company is there for only one reason: to make money. I was told that in order to succeed in this environment, I would need to become like everyone else. I guess that I have.” He didn’t disagree that he was a changed man, or that this change was not all positive. He simply gave himself a free pass by defining his new personality by his industry’s ‘programming’. And this is where the flaw can be found in our acceptance of our programmed identity: It can easily become a convenient scapegoat for our behavioral mistakes.

I was once hired to work with a Greek-American executive whose scores on showing respect for colleagues and subordinates were abysmal. As I reviewed his co-workers’ feedback with him, his first comment was, “I don’t know if you’ve ever worked with men from Greece before…” I cut him off and said, “I’ve worked with a lot of men from Greece, and most of them were not perceived as mean or disrespectful. Don’t blame your problems on Socrates!” In effect, he was blaming his supposed cultural heritage—his alleged programming—for his acting like a jerk.

Through the years I’ve become a connoisseur of people using their “programming” as an excuse. I’ve heard overbearing people who always need to get their own way blame the parents who spoiled them and gave them everything they wanted (Blame My Parental programming). I’ve heard overweight people blame their inability to shed pounds on their genetic makeup (Blame My Genetic programming). I’ve heard bigots blame their intolerance on the hateful small-minded town where they were raised (Blame My Neighbors’ programming). I’ve heard aggressive don’t-get-in-my-way salespeople blame their boorish behavior on their company’s ruthless Darwinian culture (Blame My Company’s programming).

At some point, usually when we’ve suffered an unambiguous moment for the second or third time (e.g., getting fired or passed over for a promotion again), it finally dawns on us that maybe we can’t lay all our problems on our programming. That’s when we stop turning to the past and to others for our sense of self and look to ourselves.

Life is good.