Emulating people to improve productivity at work & home
September 4, 2011 6:04 PM   Subscribe

Is it normal to wanting to emulate a certain person at your job? My guess is yes, but I find myself doing this all the time. One day, I want to be as ambitious as General David Petraeus and it shows in my work - my productivity increases. This goes on for a few weeks... recently I've been reading about Tim Cook (Apple's new CEO) and aside from being very impressed with him, I have a more of an "industrial design" approach to my work... help! (more examples below.)

Truth be told, I've struggled to write this post for the past month or so, mainly because I have gone through life (I'm 30 years old) with this type of approach, mostly in my professional life. In some ways, it trickles into my personal life but with unusual amount of productivity.

What I am looking for is to make some sense of this -- is this normal? Is there anything about this type of thinking that needs to be addressed? Am I missing something here?

Example: I read some articles about NASA astronauts, particularly those with a strong military background and then I find myself wanting to become an astronaut. I know this is unrealistic but I start having a very detail-oriented approach to my work (the way an astronaut would) and at home, become more organized, efficient. Things are done/cleaned/put away on a whim.

After reading about Tim Cook, my interests in cycling heightened. I've always been an avid cyclist but made a point to go cycling more often as a way to emulate him. Plus, I started eating Powerbars more often (because of what I read about him, eating such during meetings, et al.) I also appeared to show a bit more "leadership" at work, stepping up more and helping my colleagues out a lot. Again, positive outcome from this particular emulation. I've even thought about getting up at 4 a.m. like he does just to answer e-mails.

This happens all the time and I find that if I am not emulating anyone at the moment, I become "me." A real slacker. Aside from being Super-Dad and loving husband (which are my only constants), I just like to chill at home. Dishes can wait because I'm not trying to be someone else. I've been doing this my entire working life and would like to improve on this as to be more consistent with my mindset, all while maintaining quality productivity just by being me, myself and I.

So, hive mind, is this normal? Do you go through your career emulating those you admire or do I need to get professional help?
posted by msposner to Human Relations (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Well, yeah. Unless you believe "the real you" is entirely free of influences, the choice is between incorporating the best traits you have encountered and ignoring them in favor of worse traits.

That said, you started out by saying Tim Cook has influenced you to take an industrial design approach to your work and also emulate his preference for powerbars and cycling. Eating a powerbar isn't really a trait so much as one man's personal preference for a quick meal that provides energy and nutrients. Why, at the core, does Tim eat powerbars? Do you want that core trait? If so, are powerbars the most effective and enjoyable way for you to get it? Thinking like that will help you determine which adoptions are cargo-cultish and which are actually healthy changes to make.
posted by michaelh at 6:10 PM on September 4, 2011

...to your work and went on to state you also emulate*
posted by michaelh at 6:11 PM on September 4, 2011

This strikes me as oddly immature behaviour for a man old enough for a professional career and a family. I'm no shrink but it seems like a poorly developed sense of identity or maybe just a lack of self esteem. So to answer your question, yes, I would seek professional help.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:52 PM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's nothing amiss in having someone to model yourself on. Who doesn't want be as eloquent as Obama, or as innovative as Jobs or as charming as Bill Clinton? You don't know these people irl, but why not strive to emulate thse whom you admire? On the other hand, eating Powerbars isn't exactly a real achievement.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:58 PM on September 4, 2011

these sorts of people have books out because people like to read them and try to emulate their successes. i mean, those lee iacocca books didn't sell to teenagers or housewives. every copy i've seen has been on a businessman's work bookshelf. i also know a lot of people who read things like "the art of war" for the same reasons.

this seems perfectly normal. just don't lose you as you try to take on the positive attributes of another. also, just for balance, maybe occasionally find someone diametrically opposed to someone you just got finish reading/admiring to see how there are different paths to most ends.
posted by nadawi at 7:15 PM on September 4, 2011

On days when I'm sleep deprived, or otherwise burnt out, I try to force myself to wear better clothes than usual and put on make-up. Because I'm trying to convince myself that if I'm the Person Who Is On Top Of Things Enough to Be Polished, then I must also be The Kind of Enviable Person Who Has It Together and Gets Stuff Done.

I'm not a therapist or psychiatrist, but some people's philosophy might say that being an awesome dad and husband already shows that you can choose to dedicate yourself to things you love. Maybe role-playing gives you an extra boost to get to things that are maybe desirable but don't have that same core importance? (Many people with clean dishes would prefer an awesome dad.) I also don't think that this is much different from having a personal mantra (e.g. "Today is a good day", or "Today I will excel"), it sounds like you're just giving yourself a more specific script with ways that seem to make goals you already care about more attainable. As long as you can recognize the difference between what you want and the person you're emulating or even just consciously recognize that you're emulating them, it seems reasonable.
posted by synapse at 8:02 PM on September 4, 2011

I would think that the point of concern is less that you're reading about these role models and incorporating chunks of their advice into your life (a little strange, I grant you, because by your age a lot of folks have already sorted out the majority of their 'work persona') but rather that you pick up and put down these gurus' chunks as readily as you pick up and put down their books.

Is this something that really goes on for a few weeks and then stops in favor of your next fad, or are you incorporating bits of their advice into your daily life from that point on?

I think you might benefit from a therapist if the answer is 'I significantly change my work persona every few weeks based on what I'm reading.'

There's two parts to that: 'significantly change' (so Powerbars don't count but increased leadership would) and 'every few weeks' (if you're dashing between changes every few weeks, that's incredibly unusual).

In reading over your post, you sound like you have a really fluid sense of 'me.' Only you (and your wife and boss!) know whether that's a bad thing ultimately. I would say it's an unusual thing past early adulthood.
posted by librarylis at 9:01 PM on September 4, 2011

Totally normal and healthy even, provided you're happy with the results and the comparisons don't make you feel bad about yourself (and it doesn't sound like they do). This sort of thing is even recommended by therapists, seriously; keeping inspirational figures in mind is a good motivator, and asking yourself what a different person might do in your situation can be REALLY helpful for perspective and ideas.
posted by Nattie at 9:03 PM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I disagree with DarlingBri - I think it's fantastic you're getting such motivation and I pity those who don't engage with their imaginations this way. I spend quite a bit of time daydreaming scenarios of being that person or thinking about ways in which my life could have landed me in those shoes or even beside them as a colleague. It is one of the few things that really pushes me to be a better me.

Just remember Tim's life is very different than your own. He isn't married (does have a boyfriend, iirc), doesn't have a child and probably pretty much has to start emailing at the crack of dawn. Not to say that there aren't parents that do this (and successfully so), but be sure it's something you actually need to do: don't burn yourself out, you're young. Eat the PowerBars because you didn't have time for a meal, not as an additional snack or instead of meals you could have taken.

As long as nothing you emulate negatively affects your work, your family or your health, please keep getting actively inspired! We need more people like you.
posted by june made him a gemini at 9:47 PM on September 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

I do this sometimes, especially when I have to deal with situations that are problematic for me. For instance, I don't like to have to discipline or critique people. but it's part of my job. I find that if I pretend I am Tim Gunn - I imagine how he might solve the problem, and emulate his speech patterns somewhat - the things I tell people are more constructive and they respond more positively.

That's one example. I have other people I go to for different situations, because there are people that I imagine to be better for different scenarios. But you get the idea. It's normal and fine, as long as you don't entirely lose yourself in the fantasy of the other person.
posted by louche mustachio at 12:03 AM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes, it's completely normal and in my opinion, a great thing. More people should look outside of themselves and learn from others. As long as you are not berating yourself, comparing yourself unnecessarily to the point of anxiety or depression, there is nothing wrong with wanting to emulate people and the things that they do.
posted by mleigh at 1:02 AM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sometimes I pretend to be Jack McCoy, or when I'm researching, I pretend to be the guys on the wire as they piece together the drug families ... so, yeah.
posted by yarly at 8:12 AM on September 5, 2011

I think this is normal among people who seek to improve themselves and sounds like it's leading to good results for you. But the part you might have to watch out for is where you say you always have to be emulating someone or you become "you" a real slacker. If this is how you think of yourself, then maybe these qualities you're emulating aren't sticking.

See if you can internalize the good things you're seeing in these people. So for example, if you read about someone and start bringing their leadership traits into your work, try and make those traits your own, so they become part of who you are, and not just something you're emulating. Then when you next read about another person who is a strong leader you can take their qualities to build on the traits you've already established. Then you'll have your own strong identify as a leader. Instead, it sounds like you go through cycles of emulating people without taking on those qualities long-term, and you seem to be concerned about that. At least that's what I'm reading from your question.
posted by daikon at 10:34 AM on September 5, 2011

I don't see a downside here unless you start reading up on serial killers.
posted by bq at 12:16 PM on September 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

It sounds like that the problem isn't really that you emulate these people - it's more that you STOP emulating them after some point and become, in your words, "a real slacker". It sounds like you WANT to be producing at the level of Tim Cook or David Petraeus, and so make a good-faith effort to try to accomplish things the way they do. But after awhile, for whatever reason, it doesn't work and you start to beat yourself up about it. You call yourself names like "slacker" and get a little defensive about the fact that your main goals are being a husband and father, instead of the CEO of Apple or a NASA astronaut. Then, you see another memoir/autobiography of someone who's worthy of being emulated, and the cycle starts again.

If you can look yourself in the eye and say that you're entirely happy with who you are and the way you live your life, then you have nothing to worry about. Tim Cook and David Petraeus have their own successes to celebrate and problems to deal with, and that doesn't make them any better or worse than you - just folks with a different job. Someone else's lifestyle may seem glamorous when reading some overhyped biography, but at the end of the day, everyone goes through stress, and everyone goes through periods of being bored or unhappy. Cook and Petraeus will never see the smiles on your kid's face, or know what it's like to share the joys of your wife (or husband). They're not better - just different.

On the other hand, if there IS something you'd like to improve upon, there's nothing wrong with trying to change yourself, at any age. But I would suggest that instead of emulating the small things - an interest in cycling or Powerbars - try to only emulate the big things, the things that really matter. For one, this gives you less stuff to change, and change is hard for all of us. But also, you can really focus on that one aspect of yourself you'd like to improve. Do you want to be more of a leader at work? Don't just be Tim Cook - be better than Tim Cook. Learn all you can about leadership from as many good teachers as you can, and put their lessons to practice. Give it your 100%, and try everything you can to make it a real, lasting, positive change.

tldr: Basically, the goal in life is happiness. Are you happy? If yes, great! If not, don't worry, you can do something about it.
posted by be11e at 4:04 PM on September 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

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