on compartmentalization

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about compartmentalization¹, and the tension that arises from splitting ourselves into multiple identities — whether through psychological makeup, deliberate choice, or structural imposition. It’s bubbled up into this weird, rambling post, pulling on some threads in different directions. Bear with me?

Last night my friend Carolyn Penner tweeted a link to a wonderful blog post by Michael Dempsey, titled Being Known is Being Loved. I highly recommend reading it in full, but as they say in the business here’s the nut graf:

To know someone is to understand their inner workings. It is to know the foods they hate, the ways they deal with stress, the goals they have, the secrets they keep, the time they spend, and hundreds of other smaller things that define someone, and your journey with them as you get to each other’s cores.

Dempsey then talks about how we’re not really doing much knowing of each other when we’re out there on the Internet.

Our world has turned into one that inflates to a minimum viable aesthetic. We want to show a version of ourselves online that is most attractive, most agreeable, most interesting, and most admirable. Perfect pictures, curated stories, high level tweets designed to garner likes and RTs, and a catering to the masses of our minimum viable audience. This is the seemingly agreed upon dominant strategy whether seeking influence, capital, or something else.

We string together fragments of various selves, but rarely do we see the entire self, because what’s the incentive? There’s just too much risk in being known. By being somewhat known we are effectively minimizing some of the beautiful human volatility I mention a few paragraphs above.

I was crushed last night by this Tweet.

I have never met Chrissy Teigen (or her husband), I don’t really know them; all I know is the version of themselves that they show online. But this is human volatility, on display, non-compartmentalized. Twitter is where Teigen lives, and this is where she is choosing to process her grief. If, on the socials (and in Dempsey’s words) we “string together fragments of various selves,” Teigen has strung together more of hers than most of the rest of us. To this observer (who has done some seriously advanced work in the area of compartmentalization), Teigen’s Twitter is one of the more remarkable things to happen online in the last five years. She probably isn’t sharing everything, but her boundaries are absolutely blurry.

On some other end of some sort of wild Twitter spectrum, a relevant graf from this story by Traf about making an icon set for iOS that earned him“six figures in six days”:

There’s only so much we can control once pushing something out into the world, but publishing often will increase your odds at finding something that sticks. They say that fortune favors the bold. In the internet age, the bold are those that aren’t afraid to publish their work for the world to see. The internet is a never-ending stream of content, the idea of being annoying or over-sharing is only an idea that you invent to stop you from sharing.

I know everyone skims the blockquotes, so let me make sure you got that last sentence again. “The idea of being annoying or over-sharing is only an idea that you invent to stop you from sharing.”

One of my favorite podcast episodes of the last couple years, and one I recommend to people constantly, is Russell Brand’s conversation with Brene Brown about vulnerability and power. (Here’s the YouTube version, which I haven’t watched, but probably should because the conversational chemistry between the two of them on the podcast was really something else.)

Wow. Remember hugging? Good times.

One part of that episode that blew my mind, about halfway through, is when Brown talks about her research that found that people that demonstrate the most compassion also tend to have strong personal boundaries. That these two seemingly contradictory personality traits are actually complementary. Brown, speaking in the voice of her compassionate research subjects: “Yeah, I’m compassionate because I don’t subject myself to the abuse of other people.” Compassion through boundaries. And as 50 million people have heard in her Ted Talk, vulnerability can be extremely powerful:

I know that vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.

Back to Dempsey’s post. Emphasis mine:

In investing, higher volatility usually equates to higher possible returns. In today’s world of online expression, we settle for lower expected value, market-level outcomes so as to not ruffle any feathers and not take any outsized risk. We’re basically hoping to allow people to know us enough so that they include us in their passive index of humans they hold in moderate regard, like that vanguard ETF that their finance friend told them to buy and never think about until they were 60.

For those of us lucky enough to work with a computer as our primary tool, with COVID and quarantine pretty much everything is now some version of online expression. We spend our days ⌘-tabbing between windows of identity: public socials, private DM threads, email inboxes, Slack channels, Zooms with our managers, Zooms with our teams, Zooms with our families, Zooms with our schools.

We’ve been living with context collapse in our social feeds for years; we’re now living with it full time thanks to life migrating to screens 24x7. (Life is now one run-on sentence; there is no punctuation.) On an individual level, compartmentalizing your life is not only a potentially a losing investment strategy (to abuse Dempsey’s metaphor), it’s increasingly difficult to even pull off! For organizations, asking your people to compartmentalize and leave their non-work selves “at home” when they come “to work” feels like a fool’s errand.

¹ From the American Psychological Association’s Dictionary of Psychology:

compartmentalization n. a defense mechanism in which thoughts and feelings that seem to conflict or to be incompatible are isolated from each other in separate and apparently impermeable psychic compartments. In the classical psychoanalytic tradition, compartmentalization emerges in response to fragmentation of the ego, which ideally should be able to tolerate ambiguity and ambivalence. See also isolation.

Written by

Labs @ Medium. Avid reader, long time blogger.

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