M.C. Escher's Circular Staircase
Always moving upward, never getting anywhere.

I doubt anyone would disagree with me if I were to say that from our earliest years of cognition we are exposed to dogmatic and yet conflicting advice for how to live our lives. Broadly speaking, we are told to abide by two golden rules of personal success:

  1. Learn the rules of your game, learn what people who have power to help you succeed want, and give them that.
  2. Just be yourself.

For example, think about a job interview. If you want the job, you should almost certainly follow the advice in point one. You should look the part. If your job is not in a creative field, you should probably wash the cherry red out of your hair and tone the mohawk down to something more office worthy. A suit is a must. When the interviewers ask you why you are applying for the position you should tell them about how their organization is an amazing organization and you see potential there for your own personal growth while simultaneously contributing your unique skills to their mission. If possible, you should also relate a personal note that suggests that you are not simply reciting from a handbook of good interviewing skills, but that you really thought about it (this advice is also in the handbook). A good personal note that I used in one of my job interviews was that I had family who lived nearby and it would be a great opportunity for me to be closer to them. This kind of comment is both personal enough to be credible, but vague enough that if pressed you can back it up with further vague details.

There are many other life situations where the advice in point one is valid. Recently I was invited to give a talk at the country’s most prestigious university. The people there are the most respected in their fields and this is a chance that does not happen often. An opportunity to share my research with these people would be great networking for my career as an economist and could help me increase my chances to publish in a more prestigious journal. I turned it down, though. There comes a point in your life, and the sooner that point comes the better for you, that you realize that being successful by hiding who you are and playing up to the rules of a game that you think you know will leave you feeling empty, unfulfilled and likely overworked in a job you hate.

It sounds very counter intuitive to “just be yourself” in a job interview, but there are valid reasons to follow this advice even in such a critical interaction. This is in fact how I got my current job. More than anything I wanted to move to Japan. When I graduated with my Ph.D I was not particularly interested in furthering my career as an economist. Mostly I was exhausted and burned out from pretending to care about subjects my faculty cared about so that they would sign off on my dissertation. I wanted a break and I wanted to live in Japan. During my interview they asked me why I applied for that position. I told them: I want to live in Japan. I can guarantee that no one else said that during their interview. Graduate students are all trained very well to say that the reason they are applying for ______________ institution is because the faculty there are inspiring experts in their field of study. Surprised, the professor leading the interview then asked me, “But, aren’t you worried about tenure? This is not a research position.” I said to him “No. A teaching position gives me extra time before the tenure clock starts ticking. And anyway, if I got a tenure track position now I would just have to take time away from my job to go to Japan because I want to go to Japan, so this is actually more convenient for me.” He was clearly floored. I found out later that my job offer was unanimous.

Being yourself is powerful even in critical moments where you are being judged and evaluated by others. Indeed this is the most important time to be yourself because you will know immediately if you are compromising on your principles. We always think that we know the rules of the game. We always think, because others are constantly telling us, that there are rules that can be studied and followed and that if done well will guarantee success. The other side of that advice is that we are all people. Even though people can be predictable to some extent, we are all unique. Sometimes when we think we know the rules, and we think we are playing smart, the other people that we are interacting with also think they are playing smart and in the end neither side is able to communicate their true desires. In my case, most high quality graduate students are only interested in tenure track positions. This was a rule that my interviewers most likely felt they had to work around in order to fill their position. Similarly, if I had acted as if I only wanted a tenure track position in an attempt to display a dishonestly strong devotion to research and research alone I would have actually hurt my opportunity to simultaneously fulfill my dreams and those of the hiring committee.

It is incredibly difficult, in fact I would say it is the hardest thing we ever do in our lives, to live with personal integrity. Personal integrity means being honest with ourselves about who we are and what we want, and being honest with others about those things. The difficulty is that it flies in the face of common sense advice about how to “successfully” live our lives. At the most critical moments, such as a job interview or an invitation that could make or break out careers, to be honest with yourself and with the others around you could, well, break your career. It is frightening, and that fear never goes away. Luckily it is also habit forming. Being yourself, as they say, frees the heart. By validating your own desires in front of others you pave the way for others to validate you in return. This is one of our most fundamental and human needs.

I was very torn about my invitation. I am no longer interested in spending energy on my old research topic, but I thought that a presentation of my research meant that I had to spend more effort preparing and honing it to something that other economists would find interesting — an activity even more soul crushing that the research itself. But after my colleague, a senior professor at my institution, went out of his way to arrange the opportunity for me, refusing to present could be tantamount to career suicide. Certainly I could make some excuse about time conflicts, but in the end I chose to share my honest feelings about the topic. I am desperately, passionately engrossed in answering a completely different question, I told them. It is a new question and is only just now beginning to form itself into something concrete that can be studied. I am so completely absorbed in answering this question that I frankly consider time spent on anything else a waste. That time includes presenting old research at the country’s most prestigious university. I told them this and I told them that if they were interested in hearing me talk about my new passion that I would be happy to do that, but that otherwise I would have to respectfully decline their invitation.

I was so frightened that I had to look away as my computer processed and sent the e-mail. As soon as it was done and there was no going back, though, I felt a welling up of joy and energy inside me that told me I had made the right choice. Perhaps I just burned my best bridge to success as an economist. That may be true, but I can not know that for some time. What I could know immediately was that I made a choice that was true to my truest self and my truest desires and that I did not hide any of it from people who matter. It is possible that by doing this I damage my career, but it is certain that by not doing what I did that I would hurt my chances of following my passion, hurt my chances of living with integrity and hurt my ability to break out of a pointless cycle of pleasantries and assumptions that doesn’t bring anyone closer to their dream.

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