Melvin worked as a middle manager at IBM, and a miserable middle manager
Melvin made. If clinical depression had a phone voice, it would sound
just like Melvin's did the morning he called me to see if I could take
him on as a client. He'd been feeling sort of flat and listless for
a while, he said - no big deal, just the past couple of decades.
Lately, things had reached the point where Melvin's work performance
and marriage were both showing signs of strain. He thought the problem
might be his job, and for the past month or two he'd been surreptitiously
checking upscale want ads and sending his résumé to friends at other
companies. He'd gotten a few nibbles, but nothing that really interested
him. Melvin said all this in dull but fluent Executese, rich in words
like incentivize and satisfice.
I decided to give Melvin the little verbal phone quiz I sometimes use
to evaluate potential clients before they spend time and money in my
office. I asked him his age (forty-five), his marital status (separated,
no children), and job history (a Big Blue man since the day he left
college). Then we got to the questions that really interest me.
"So, Melvin," I said. "When you were a little kid, did you have an imaginary
"Excuse me?" said Melvin.
I repeated the question.
"I really don't remember," said Melvin, stiffly.
"Okay," I said. "Is there anything you do regularly that makes you forget
what time it is?"
"Time?" Melvin echoed.
"Yes," I said, "do you ever look up from something
you're doing to find that hours and hours have gone by without your
"Wait," said Melvin. "I have to write this down."
"No, no," I said, "you really don't. Do you laugh more in some situations
than in others?"
"Listen," said Melvin tensely, "I didn't know I was going to have to
answer these kinds of questions. I thought you could tell me a little
about midcareer job changes, that's all.
I've had no time to prepare."
I had a mental picture of Melvin calling in the marketing department
to measure his laughter rates and interview family members about his
favorite childhood fantasies.
"Melvin," I said, "relax. I don't grade on a curve. Just tell me everything
you can remember about the best meal you ever had in your life."
There was a very long silence. Then he said, "I'm sorry, but I'll have
to put together some data and get back to you on these questions. Will
next week be soon enough?"
I never heard from Melvin again.
Actually, I never heard from Melvin in the first place - at least not
all of him. As a matter of fact, I don't think Melvin had ever heard
from all of Melvin. The conversation I had was with Melvin's "social
self," the part of him that had learned to value the things that were
valued by the people around him.
This "social self" couldn't tell me what Melvin loved, enjoyed, or
wanted, because it literally didn't know. Those facts did not fall in
its area of experience, let alone expertise. It didn't remember Melvin's
preferences or his childhood, because it had spent years telling him
to ignore what he preferred and stop acting like a child.
There was, of course, a part of Melvin that knew the answer to every
question I'd asked him. I call this the "essential self." Melvin's essential
self was born a curious, fascinated, playful little creature, like every
healthy baby. After forty-five years, it still contained powerful urges
toward individuality, exploration, spontaneity, and joy. But by repressing
these urges for years and years, Melvin's social self had lost access
to them. It was inevitable that Melvin would also lose his true path,
because while his social self was the vehicle carrying him through life,
it was cut off from his essential self, which had all the navigational
equipment that pointed toward his North Star.
Melvin was like a ship that had lost its compass or charts. It wasn't
just the wrong job that made him feel so aimless and uninspired; it
was the loss of his life's purpose. If Melvin had become a client, I
would have advised him to stay put at IBM until he had learned to consciously
reconnect with his essential self. Then he would have regained the capacity
to steer his own course toward happiness, whether that lay in his present
job and marriage or in a completely different life.
I base all my counseling on the premise that each of us has these two
sides: the essential self and the social self. The essential self contains
several sophisticated compasses that continuously point toward your
North Star. The social self is the set of skills that actually carry
you toward this goal. Your essential self wants passionately to become
a doctor; the social self struggles through organic chemistry and applies
to medical school. Your essential self yearns for the freedom of nature;
your social self buys the right backpacking equipment. Your essential
self falls in love; your social self watches to make sure the feeling
is reciprocal before allowing you to stand underneath your beloved's
window singing serenades.
This system functions beautifully as long as the social and essential
selves are communicating freely with each other and working in perfect
synchrony. However, not many people are lucky enough to experience such
inner harmony. For reasons we'll discuss in a moment, the vast majority
of us put other people in charge of charting our course through life.
We never even consult our own navigational equipment; instead, we steer
our lives according to the instructions of people who have no idea how
to find our North Stars. Naturally, they end up sending us off course.
If your feelings about life in general are fraught with discontent,
anxiety, frustration, anger, boredom, numbness, or despair, your
social and essential selves are not in sync. Life design is the process
of reconnecting them. We'll start this process by clearly articulating
the differences between the two selves, and understanding how communication
between them broke down.
getting to know your selves
Your essential self formed before you were born, and it will remain
until you've shuffled off your mortal coil. It's the personality you
got from your genes: your characteristic desires, preferences, emotional
reactions, and involuntary physiological responses, bound together by
an overall sense of identity. It would be the same whether you'd been
raised in France, China, or Brazil, by beggars or millionaires. It's
the basic you, stripped of options and special features. It is "essential"
in two ways: first, it is the essence of your personality, and second,
you absolutely need it to find your North Star.
The social self, on the other hand, is the part of you that developed
in response to pressures from the people around you, including everyone
from your family to your first love to the pope. As the most socially
dependent of mammals, human babies are born knowing that their very
survival depends on the goodwill of the grown-ups around them. Because
of this, we're all literally designed to please others. Your essential
self was the part of you that cracked your first baby smile; your social
self noticed how much Mommy loved that smile, and later reproduced it
at exactly the right moment to convince her to lend you the down payment
on a condo. You still have both responses. Sometimes you smile involuntarily,
out of amusement or silliness or joy, but many
of your smiles are based purely on social convention.
Between birth and this moment, your social self has picked up a huge
variety of skills. It learned to talk, read, dress, dance, drive, juggle,
merge, acquire, cook, yodel, wait in line, share bananas, restrain the
urge to bite - anything that won social approval. Unlike your essential
self, which is the same regardless of culture, your social self was
shaped by cultural norms and expectations.
If you happen to have been born into a Mafia family, your social self
is probably wary, street-smart, and ruthless. If you were raised by
nuns in the local orphanage, it may be saintly and self-sacrificing.
Whatever you learned to be, you're still learning. Your social self
is hard at work, right this minute, struggling to make sure you're honest
and loyal, or sweet and sexy, or tough and macho, or any other combination
of things you believe makes you socially acceptable.
The social self is based on principles that often run contrary to our
core desires. Its job is to know when those desires will upset other
people, and to help us override natural inclinations that aren't socially
acceptable. Here are some of the contradictory operational features
that, mixed together, comprise the You we know and love:
your two selves: basis
behaviors of the social
- Planned; and
behaviors of the essential
- Spontaneous; and
As you can see, you are definitely an odd couple. Only in very lucky
or wise people do the social and essential selves always agree that
they're playing for the same team. For the rest of us, internal conflict
is a way of life. Our two selves do battle against each other, in ways
small and large, every single day.
Let's make up some details about the life of Melvin the Middle Manager,
to serve as a hypothetical example. When his alarm clock rings at six
a.m., Melvin's essential self tells him that he needs at least two more
hours of sleep; he's been getting less than his body requires each night
for the last several years, and he's chronically exhausted. His social
self, however, reminds him that he's been late to work three times this
month, and that the boss is starting to notice. Melvin gets up.
He eats breakfast alone. This floods his essential self with loneliness
for his wife, who moved out last week. For just a minute, Melvin
thinks about calling her, but his social self immediately nixes that
idea. For one thing, it's six-thirty in the morning. For another thing,
Melvin's wife is sleeping at her boyfriend's apartment. Melvin barely
even notices his essential self's suggestion that he go after the boyfriend
with a baseball bat, because his social self knows how wrong and futile
that would be. Instead, Melvin goes to work.
At the office, Melvin's social self sits quietly through a meeting that
bores his essential self almost to death. The guy next to him is a smarmy
twenty-eight-year-old with an MBA from MIT who was recently promoted
right past Melvin. Just looking at this guy makes Melvin's teeth clench.
His essential self wants to squirt ink from his fountain pen onto the
little twerp's oxford shirt, but his social self bars the way yet again.
Instead, Melvin's essential self writes a nasty limerick about the MIT
MBA in the margin of his notebook. Then his social self scribbles it
out, lest it fall into the Hands of the Enemy.
And so it goes, hour after hour, day after day, week after week. After
mediating this constant struggle for decades, Melvin's inner life is
hollow and numb. If you ask him what he's feeling, he won't have an
answer; his social self doesn't know, and it is the only part of Melvin
that is allowed to speak to others. Melvin's social self has kept him
in his job, his marriage, and his life - but only by sending him off
his true path. Now everything is falling apart. His sacrifices seem
to have been for nothing. The problem isn't that Melvin's social self
is a bad person - in fact, it's a very good person. It has the horsepower
to get Melvin all the way to his North Star.
But only his essential self can tell him where that is.
the disconnected self
Most of my clients are like Melvin: responsible citizens who have muzzled
their essential selves in order to do what they believe is the "right
thing." There are, of course, people who fail—or refuse—to develop a
social self. They live completely in essential-self world, never accommodating
society in any way that runs contrary to their desires. But I very rarely
see anyone like this in my practice. You, for example, are not one of
How do I know? Because if you were totally dominated by your essential
self, you wouldn't be reading this. You'd avoid taking advice from any
book, even if it happened to be the only thing available in the prison
library. That's where you'd probably have to read it, because people
without social selves generally end up in cages. If we all ignored our
social selves, every neck of the human woods would be another variation
on Lord of the Flies; people would be stabbing each other with forks,
looting rest homes, having sexual relations with twenty-one-year-old
interns in the Oval Office, and God knows what else.
So I'd lay heavy odds that you, personally, are heavily identified with
your social self. You're reading this because you're the kind of person
who seeks input from other people, people like life-design counselors
and book authors. You're trying to make yourself a better person, and
you're pretty darn good at it. Congratulations. Having a strong social
self is a terrific asset. It's allowed you to sustain relationships,
finish school, hold down jobs, and meet a lot of other goals. But if,
in spite of all these achievements, you're feeling like Melvin - discontented
and unfulfilled - I can tell you with a fair degree of certainty that
your internal wiring is disconnected. You need to re-establish contact
with your essential self.
Paradoxically, if you want to do a really good job at this, you're going
to have to stop thinking about doing a really good job. To find your
North Star, you must teach your social self to relax and back off.
Buy Finding your Own North
Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live
© 2001 Martha Beck