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:

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

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”:

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:

Back to Dempsey’s post. Emphasis mine:

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:



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