As Boomers, we started off life as iconoclasts. We were the Woodstock Generation, the Counterculture Generation, the Me Generation. We turned on, tuned in and dropped out. But that didn’t last very long. Once the Vietnam War was over, we quieted down and became those people over 30 we weren’t supposed to trust. We’ve been juggling our normal lives ever since, figuring out how to fit in, putting any counter-cultural weirdness on hold while we bought houses, raised families and got distracted by an economy that lulled us into a false sense of security. But in the wake of the Great Recession, as we press on into our 50s and 60s, it has become pretty clear that fitting in to a normal existence is doing us no good. More and more of us are threatened with being downsized out of our jobs. Our retirement savings are either insufficient or non-existent, and we are quietly dreading this last act of life — an unprecedented and extended period of time that no prior generation has ever had to deal with. It’s time to realize that playing it normal is no longer serving us.
Manfred Kets de Vries is a professor of Leadership Development & Organizational Change at INSEAD, the renowned French management school. In his professional development work with business executives, he has cataloged the negative effects of those who have tried to fit in to their workplace environments, and the great toll it has taken on their state of mind. Normalcy, or our conception of normalcy, is the problem. We allow our limiting belief of what constitutes normalcy to limit our options when it comes to choosing or staying in a work environment that is antithetical to our values, philosophy or lifestyle. As he says, “Trying to fit in is likely to make you miserable. Accepting your differences as assets and applying them is more effective … Normality is a subjective, relative concept: a conundrum, an enigma, and an illusion.”
Somewhere buried beneath that illusion, then, is our individuality, our vision, our special weirdness. Maybe we’re afraid of it. Maybe we’ve buried it so deeply that we no longer believe it even exists.
At the Oscars this past weekend, screenwriter Graham Moore touched millions with his heartfelt acceptance speech alluding to his troubled teenage years as an outsider: “I would like this moment to be for this kid out there who feels like she’s weird or she’s different or she doesn’t fit in anywhere: Yes, you do. I promise you do. Stay weird, stay different …” That’s us, right? All of us. I don’t know a single person who didn’t feel weird and alone in Junior High. It’s just part of the package. It is, ironically, normal. What’s also normal at that age is hero worship. Whether it was James Dean, John Lennon, Gloria Steinem, Martin Luther King or Neil Armstrong, we all had posters on our bedroom walls (mine was Mr. Spock) that defined various aspects of our dreams and aspirations and what we thought was cool.
What if we went back to Junior High School and picked up where we left off? Only, let’s be smart about it and update our visions and dreams to incorporate our decades of life experience, working skills and hard-won wisdom. Let these lessons guide us in picking new heroes who reflect who we’ve become.
Maybe we can turn these new, updated inspirations into actual grown up game plans, not just teenage pipe dreams. Maybe we can create the seed of a new business or a new career focus that emanates from a deeper place.
Here’s the three-step exercise:
Find Your Hero. By settling on someone you admire, someone whose voice, message, style or story inspires you, you get to create what behavioral psychologists call a “positive projection.” Positive projections are when admirable qualities you attribute to someone else are actually qualities that you embody, but don’t feel entitled enough to recognize in yourself. By picking a hero, and then looking closely at their values, behaviors, or messages, you can begin to see where you share similar ideas, patterns and ways of being. Your world and their world may not be on the same scale, but if you admire a statesman or leader for his or her vision, entrepreneurship or philanthropy, perhaps there are ways in which you, too, can combine a similar business or civic vision with serving your community.
Be Your Hero. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. More pointedly, as has been attributed to (variously) Picasso, T.S. Eliot and Stravinksy: “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” I think the meaning beneath the glibness is the idea of embodying the essence of who and what that artist (“hero”) is. Just copying the work doesn’t really denote any particular sense of understanding — it’s tentative and unimaginative. Stealing is far more radical. It is taking ownership. It is saying: “I stand with this person. I identify with this person. This is who I am.” Another flavor of this is the meme “What would Jesus (or Oprah) do?” If we can begin to pattern our thoughts and our habits and our actions after the person we admire, it is likely that some of their perceived greatness will rub off on us. Or, when viewed as a positive projection, acting like our heroes allows us to germinate our own greatness, and nurture and cultivate it until it becomes a real expression of what we love about our hero.
Find the Hero in You. In acting like our heroes, we awaken a potential inside of us. The key is to have the courage and the awareness to take that potential, culled from our admiration and inspiration, and develop it into an expression of who we truly are on the inside, separate from our hero. In fact, we must take the process to this next level. If we don’t, it’s actually creepy. We all know people who adopted certain behaviors from their heroes and idols, but never really absorbed the meaning or the value of these behaviors. These are the Elvis impersonators of life: people who merely copy the artist, not daring to merge that artist’s inspiration with their own Self. These are the people we experience as pretentious and inauthentic, hiding behind a persona that is not their own.
See how this exercise works for you. Perhaps it will open up a new perspective on what you can do, how you can reinvent yourself, and where you can go in an encore career. Reinvention can be accomplished from many different angles. There is no one way to implement it. In fact, the more ways we try, the more we open ourselves up to fresh ideas and fresh solutions. In a more entrepreneurial workplace, the more expansive our thinking, the more primed we are for success.