Identity: This Programming Is Interrupted


March 9, 2010

by Marshall Goldsmith

People—parents, bosses, spouses—send us messages about who we are and who we will become. When we take on other people’s ideas of who we are, those people are programming our identities.

For instance, when I was a kid, my mother programmed two things into me: 1) I was smarter than all of the kids in the neighborhood; and 2) I was a slob. I realize now that the first notion was part of my mother’s natural desire to have a successful son. The second was a product of my mother’s own need to be neat and tidy. The result? I grew up with a delusional faith in my own intelligence, and I was a horrible slob. My mother had programmed me to believe that these attributes were integral components of what made me, well, me. It wasn’t until I started understanding the dynamics of identity that I began to realize: 1) I wasn’t always so smart; and 2) I didn’t have to be a slob.

Imagine my shock when I arrived at graduate school to find that my professors and fellow students also had mothers, fathers, and other important people telling them how smart they were. (And, yes, some of them were much smarter than I.) I quickly realized I had to rethink my mother’s programming about how smart I was. I also, if only to improve my odds of getting a date, worked on not being such a slob.

Your programmed identity has many sources. It can be influenced by the profession you enter, or the culture you grew up in, or the company you work for, or the entire industry you work in, or the people you select as your trusted friends. Each of these can shape your opinion of yourself, some more vividly than you may realize.


Recently I met up with an old friend from graduate school whom I hadn’t seen for years. I remembered him as a quiet, earnest academic type who liked nothing more than dreaming up clever social experiments and writing research papers about them. Then he decided he needed more money than a life in academe would provide, so he became a trader on Wall Street. I caught up with him a few years into his new career, and the change in his personality was impossible to ignore. He was very aggressive and clearly cared a lot about making money.

“You’ve come a long way since the psych lab,” I said, trying to make a joke about the “new” person sitting in front of me.

“It’s the culture,” he said. “Everyone in my company is there for only one reason: to make money. I was told that in order to succeed in this environment, I would need to become like everyone else. I guess I have.”

He didn’t disagree that he was a changed man, or that this change was not all positive. He simply gave himself a free pass by attributing his new personality to the way his industry programmed him and others in it to be.


And this is the potential danger of accepting our programmed identity: It can easily become a convenient scapegoat for our behavioral mistakes. I was once hired to work with a Greek-American executive who got abysmal feedback from colleagues and subordinates with regard to showing them respect. As I reviewed his co-workers’ feedback with him, his first comment was, “I don’t know if you’ve ever worked with men from Greece before ….”

I cut him off and said, “I’ve worked with a lot of men from Greece, and most of them were not perceived as mean or disrespectful. Don’t blame your problems on Socrates.” He was blaming his acting like a jerk on messages he got somewhere along the way about how people with his ethnic heritage act.

Through the years I’ve become a connoisseur of people using their programming as an excuse. I’ve heard bigots blame their intolerance on the hateful small-minded town where they were raised. I’ve heard aggressive, don’t-get-in-my-way salespeople blame their boorish behavior on their company’s ruthless Darwinian culture.


For example, the U.S. Marine Corps excels at forging new identities for its recruits—and it does so in the relatively short span of eight weeks of boot camp. That’s where new recruits are literally trained to think of themselves not only as soldiers but as members of a unit, whose mission is to look out for each other and perform well under the stress of combat.

This kind of positive programming is rare, however. Usually we reexamine our identity only when we experience an event for a second or third time and we can’t blame it on anyone or anything else (e.g., getting fired or passed over for a promotion). Then it may finally dawn on us that maybe we can’t lay all our problems on our programming. That’s when we stop turning to the past and to others for our sense of who we are and look to ourselves.

What about yourself are you blaming on programming?