“I have always wanted to be someone else.” Imagine that as the title of a memoir. Is it a story about a schizophrenic, about years in psychiatric hospitals, or perhaps about living in the vivid fantasy world of a Walter Mitty? For me, at this time of my life, it is none of those things. It is just one facet in the life of a modeler. Yet, it was not always that way.
I normally follow the rules of the “Game of the Gatekeepers”, a term I picked up from my son Daniel. It implies there are rules to follow when trying to enter an organization or a profession and there is an external agency or person setting those rules. For me “wanting to be someone else” is part of the game. This essay is about what it means to want to be someone else, how it helped me survive and keep my sanity during a war, how it helps me model, how it can help anyone create, and how to choose when to be someone else. Along the way, we will explore what it means to be someone else and play or not play by the gatekeeper’s rules.
Sometimes being someone else was fine; other times it was torture. Actors can be someone else, at least for the duration of a play or movie. I was an actor once, giving performances to a live audience of three thousand people! As my son, Daniel reminded me “sometimes it is easier to be someone else in front of all those people.” My acting career lasted one year, beginning in the fall of 1963. In several productions, I remember being type cast as an old man. One of these productions was “Twelve Angry Men”, where someone kicked my cane and I fell to the floor (remember I mentioned torture). We held the play in the Brooklyn Technical High School’s auditorium. At that time, it was rumored to be the second largest theater hall in New York City, with Radio City Music Hall being the largest one. We performed each play twice so the entire school of six thousand boys could see it. I was a shy as a boy, and recently wondered how I was able to act at all in front of such a large audience. I suspect I was in a stage-lights enhanced trance, so I could not see much of the audience. I evidently flubbed my lines once, because when I came off stage the director (and my English teacher), Mr. Kerrigan, asked me what had happened. I had no idea that I had made a mistake. I guess the trance of not noticing things was pervasive.
In High School, I adopted what I thought was the scientific persona: detached and cerebral. It was a useful and became second nature to me, although it was a lonely trance. That persona served me well throughout college and graduate school as I pursued a career as a physicist. I thought a physicist, who studied the fundamental nature of the world around us, was the ultimate scientist.
My career as a physicist hit a bump in the road. After receiving a BS in Physics from Case Institute of Technology in the spring of 1968, I started the PhD program in Physics at SUNY at Stony Brook that fall. Unfortunately, my stay at Stony Brook lasted just one year because my local draft board ordered me into the US Army. Before I left Stony Brook, I completed all the requirements for an MA in Physics, which SUNY granted me in 1970 when I was a soldier in the Vietnamese War.
Despite having never taken a biology course, I became a US Army medic in the winter of 1969. I have always wondered if someone in the army confused the word physicist with physician. I arrived in Vietnam in January 1970 with a quarter of my duffel bag filled with books. When I walked off the plane, I felt a blast of hot, extremely humid, and sweet smelling air. It was like a steam bath. I had to find my own way from Saigon to a small dispensary on the beach of Cam Ranh Bay. While at the dispensary, I treated mild injuries, assisted the doctor, and gave vaccinations. To me these were tedious activities. I favored a world where there were many options, and I felt stuck in a world with boring procedures. In my free time, I ate World War II C-rations and watched old episodes of “The Fugitive”, wishing I could be the main character, Dr. Richard Kimble. Instead of escaping from a crime he did not commit, I wanted to escape from the endless boredom I did not choose.
I did not want to be a soldier. If I had to be one, I wanted to do something scientific, no matter how remote from physics. To accomplish this, while maintaining my scientific persona, I began hanging out in our small medical lab and watching our only lab technician run tests. After a while, I started helping him. Before he left the country, I knew enough to perform his job. When he did leave to go home, the army decided I knew enough to take his place. Normally, becoming a lab technician in the army required extensive training, and a three-year army commitment. I had neither. I had played by the rules of the game to become a “physicist” and the war had put that game on hold. In contrast, to become a lab technician I went outside the normal rules of the Army’s standard game. Perhaps the gatekeeper’s rules are more flexible than one thinks.
When I left for my next post in Di An, I went as a medical lab technician. It was not as a physicist but at least it had the word “lab” in the title. In mid-1970, there appeared to be a shortage of medics, and the Army wanted to send some of us into the field, subject to sniper fire and other ghastly dangers. The alternative was to go to Long Binh and identify mosquitoes and their larva. The army collected mosquito larvae and adult mosquitoes from different parts of the country. It sprayed insecticide from helicopters, primarily in those areas containing the mosquitoes that caused various diseases like Malaria.
I am not sure why the Army gave me the opportunity to discuss my preferences and apparent skills for this new job. With my scientific persona in place, I successfully argued (without mentioning my lack of knowledge about biology) that with a MA in Physics (granted a month earlier in absentia while I was in Vietnam), I would be more than able to handle a microscope, work in a biology lab, and identify those tiny critters. That is what happened.
On July 20, 1970, I went to the 20th Preventive Medicine unit in Long Binh. I believe that stepping into a cerebral, detached persona as a scientific expert increased my chances of surviving the war. It was especially chilling after I got to Long Binh and one of my colleagues, who came from the field, appeared to be suffering from what psychologists now call post-traumatic stress disorder. He was unnaturally quiet, secretive, and reluctant to share information. Maybe he felt the army would send him back to the field if they thought he was not a valuable and an essential member of the preventive medicine team. Alternatively, perhaps I just engaged in the mind-reading cognitive distortion as a way of understanding his behavior.
I remember talking to Major Donald M. Rosenberg MD, our commanding officer, about my desire to go back to graduate school and get a PhD in Physics. He sent my family a letter saying that I was doing fine in Vietnam. I will always remember that as an exceptional act of kindness.
I eventually did have to go into to the field. However, instead of shooting bullets at people, I shot insecticide at an off-base garbage dump to kill disease-carrying insects.
Around 1984, I worked with a NASA scientist, helping him to study the magnetosphere, the boundary between the Earth’s magnetic field and the solar wind. One day I was sitting in his office trying to understand what he was saying. He was hunched over, his face toward the ground, and appeared to be mumbling something. To me it sounded like gibberish. I had taken a Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) training a year earlier and thought of using its rapport techniques to understand him better. Proceeding with this plan, I started mirroring his hunched-over posture and then breathing at the same rate as he did. What surprised me was that I began to understand what he was saying. I had entered his world.
A few years later, I co-facilitated an NLP training, which was about managing uncertainty when dealing with the unknown. At the end of a training day, I sometimes gave a guided fantasy (i.e., a hypnotic induction) to help each person gain the most from what we taught that day. Usually people closed their eyes and relaxed as I spoke (some may have gone to sleep). One man, whom I will call Sam, always kept his eyes open and gazing on me. He was a military man, stiff and formal. I suspected our experiential method of training was alien to him, perhaps too “touchy feely.”
On another day of that training, Sam participated in a three-person exercise with two others who I will call Linda and Joe. In this exercise, Linda performed a skill she was good at without identifying it. Joe helped Sam get into the same body posture as Linda while she was exhibiting the skill. Joe checked that Sam was breathing at the same rate as Linda and moving in the same manner. After a while, Sam was supposed to guess Linda’s skill. My friend Bob, who observed this exercise said that Sam became unusually animated and upset when he started seeing halos around people’s heads. Later, Linda said that she saw auras.
An important modeling technique is to explicitly step into someone’s experience to understand that person’s perspective (or expertise). It may be more than just mirroring their posture and breathing rate. You may also need engage in some “what if” behavior. For example, if a person (like my friend Jim) is good at breaking boards using a karate chop with his hand, and one of his key beliefs is “wood is malleable and easily manipulated.” Then, you might ask yourself, “what if I believed that.” You can also use the meta-yes belief change technique from Neuro-Semantics.
In ethnography, cultural anthropologists employ modeling techniques to understand the culture of a group. An ethnologist integrates himself or herself in the group as a “participant observer” and tries to experience the world from that group’s perspective. When modeling an individual’s expertise or individuals in a culture, we may want to be someone else.
“Pretending you’re someone else can make you more creative” is the title of an article by Susie Nelson. She described the work of Denis Dumas and Kevin Dunbar who, in a series of experiments, illustrated that the creativity a person exhibits is not a stable individual trait. Furthermore, it can change depending on the context and the perspective of the person. In particular, it can change for better or worse when a person takes the perspective of a particular stereotype. Assuming the scientist persona that I took many years ago might not help me be creative today.
Dumas and Dunbar used divergent thinking tasks as a proxy for measuring creativity. A person typically engages in divergent thinking when he or she generates as many ideas as possible in a short period to provide solutions to a problem. People use many approaches when engaging in divergent thinking, including brainstorming, free writing, and meditation. Dumas and Dunbar demonstrated that when people took an uninhibited stereotype perspective (e.g., eccentric poet) to a divergent task, they performed better than the people who took an inhibited stereotype perspective (e.g., rigid librarian), and better than the people in the control group. The authors call this effect “the Creative Stereotype Effect.”
Nelson also discusses the work of Srini Pillay who takes the work of Dumas and Dunbar further and suggests that to be creative you should “believe you are somebody else.” In a column in the Harvard Business Review, Pillay says, “When in a creative deadlock, try this exercise of embodying a different identity. It will likely get you out of your own head, and allow you to think from another person’s perspective. I call this psychological halloweenism.” Who will you be the next time you need to generate ideas?
When do you play the “Game of the Gatekeepers” by following external rules and when do you play with different rules? Do you sometimes have your own rules for getting into the game? When are they real rules and when are they perceived ones? I followed the rules of my family and country by going into the army rather than leaving the country. Two years later, after I returned to graduate school, I had the belief that I would not be a mathematical physicist until I had an article published in the prestigious “Journal of Mathematical Physics (JMP).” JMP published my first physics is paper in 1975. That publishing rule was my own rule for being in the game.
The situation was different this year in the field of System Dynamics where I am getting my first paper published in the System Dynamics Review, the prestigious journal of the System Dynamics Society. Yet now, as opposed to when I started my career in physics, my rule about publishing is no longer as solid since I no longer consider getting a paper published as a prerequisite for being a practitioner in a field. One reason is that I no longer identify as just a physicist, or scientist, or even a system dynamicist. I now identify as a modeler, which in my mind is a role that transcends these fields. I also feel I have more leeway in setting up my own rules. I changed the game by changing my perspective.
“The Man of Many Minds”, written by E. Everett Evans in 1953, was one of the most memorable books I had ever read as a child. Cadet George Hanlon, a new member of the Secret Service of the Federation (of planets) had the ability to probe minds. As the story progressed his abilities grew until he learned how to place parts of his mind in many animals simultaneously, and then eventually into humans minds. I feel that my desire to be someone else resonates with George Hanlon’s desire to probe minds. Instead of minds, I wanted to understand what it is like to be in a particular role, like a physicist, mathematician, a coach, and a martial artist. This desire led me to embrace many disciplines, including those, like Neuro-Semantics, that provided the means to become a high performer in any role. “Modeler” is the role I finally choose and that role sometimes requires me to be someone else to understand, to model, and to create.
Acknowledgements and Credits
I want to thank my wife Claire Kurs for providing valuable editorial advice. I drew the picture at the beginning of this essay.