My friend Mark and I had a great conversation the other day while reminiscing about our days as younger professionals relocating to Washington, DC. We shared stories of how those days, while full of excitement and possibility, also spawned new levels of social pressure as we tried to fit in and find our place among the thousands of other ambitious twenty-somethings seeking to make their mark on the world.
DC, just like most large cities, is a place full of niche social circles. These circles attract people based on profession, alma marter, economic status, where you grew up, etc. Navigating the social scene, you wear many hats – putting on a sport coat and talking about the state of the European economy with the State Department crowd, or tossing on an Ubuntu T-shirt and building web apps at the DC Tech Meetup. It’s just natural human behavior to explore and discover new places, people and things when in a new environment to fulfill our innate desire to be connected to others and comfortable in our surroundings.
The ability to adapt to various social/professional settings is key to survival in society. People tend to reject what goes against our understanding of the natural order of things. Being the person wearing gym sneakers and a t-shirt to a formal affair, where a suit or dress is the widely-accepted appropriate attire, won’t necessarily win you social acceptance. Stringent determination to be one way, and only one way, often results in one being deemed a social pariah.
In our conversation, we made one important distinction, which is often forgotten – adaptation should never come at the expense of authenticity. While adjusting to societal and cultural norms is essential to seamlessly integrating into a new environment, never sacrifice who you are or what you stand for.
Perfect example of this is Molly Ringwald’s character in colt-classic movie The Breakfast Club. I first saw this movie in my high school psychology class, where we examined each character through the lens of Erik Erickson’s stages of psychosocial development. Ringwald’s character unabashedly shed her good-girl identity for that of a cool, sassy fashionista in order to fit in with the cool crowd. As shown through her diatribe about why she would not hang out with the other kids attending detention with her, we discovered that she was willing to, and had, suppressed her values and become complacent in her role among her school’s social elite in order to fulfill her own desire for social acceptance and connection.
Ringwald, according to Erickson, was making her way through the Identity vs. Role Confusion stage of development. While Erickson felt this development stage occurs during our adolescence, I would argue that, given our transient population and rapidly changing culture, people now continue through this stage well into adulthood. As Mark and I discussed, we found ourselves, well into our twenties, still seeking our place in society and defining who we are.
Adaptation is a big part of role definition in that you need to test out different environments to find your place in the world and develop your own set of values. Lack of role definition leads, as we saw with Ringwald’s character, heightened confusion, disillusionment, and often times a willingness to compromise one’s beliefs for social gratification. This is, unfortunately, an all too common case in society.
I’ve always felt authenticity is key to success at anything we do. Acceptance in the workplace and amongst social circles is important, we are genetic hardwired to seek it out, but never do so at the expense of who you are and what you believe in. Integrity is fertile, dishonesty is corrosive.
Discover who you are, stay true to it, be great at it, and people will love (or hate) you for it. People have a good bullshit radar and can tell when someone is not being true to themselves. We don’t wear other people’s clothes well – if it isn’t obvious to you, it is to others when you are not comfortable playing your part.