Why you shouldn’t be yourself at work

John Micah Reid
4 min readFeb 28, 2023

When I started working, I thought I needed to be my authentic, ‘real’ self at work. I tried to be friends with all my colleagues, putting effort into arranging dinners and hangouts after work and sharing deep vulnerabilities. And yet I found many of these interactions exhausting and unsatisfying — they didn’t really ‘go’ anywhere or lead to deeper connections.

I also poured myself into my projects, trying to complete each task with creativity and technical brilliance. As a result, it was really tough receiving criticism. When somebody called my idea bad or pointed out a mistake, I took that personally and got hurt. I would try to justify myself, getting into arguments and trying to refute every piece of criticism with further data and modifications to my original idea.

The hard-won truth is that work is ultimately a transactional relationship and applying the same rules from your personal life and relationships will lead to more stress and anxiety in the long term.

So what is a better way to act at work? We often hear the term ‘being professional’, but it’s somewhat hard to define — you know it when you see it. I’ve now come to think of working as like playing a role that comes with certain expectations and responsibilities. Netflix talks about a company being a sports team rather than a family, but arguably it’s more like a theatre group putting on a performance — everyone has a role to play and needs to work together to create an experience for the audience (your users/clients). In this scenario it’s essential to be inauthentic i.e. acting according to a script of what is expected.

Here’s how I’ve learned to separate out my professional and personal selves:

  • In my Product Manager role at work, I put more effort into communicating clearly and simply. I am quite pushy and goal-directed, and I’m not afraid to speak out if I think something is a bad idea. I am more analytical, thinking about tradeoffs and how much to invest in any given project or conversation.
  • Outside of work, I am sillier and more distracted, I like to do things inefficiently, like cooking elaborate meals. I’m more indirect and nuanced in conversation — I talk less and ask more questions. I̵ ̵p̵o̵s̵t̵ ̵a̵r̵t̵i̵c̵l̵e̵s̵ ̵o̵n̵ ̵M̵e̵d̵i̵u̵m̵ ̵w̵i̵t̵h̵ ̵l̵o̵t̵s̵ ̵o̵f̵ ̵c̵a̵t̵ ̵g̵i̵f̵s̵.̵

Once you understand the role you need to play at work, you start realizing it isn’t necessarily a repressive system. Sometimes it can be freeing to come to the office (or Zoom call) and be someone different to who you are in your personal life — it’s a mini-game with a different set of rules and rewards, and this often leads to growth. One of my most satisfying experiences as a manager was mentoring a data analytics intern. She came in super shy and reserved, but loved digging into data and trying out new AI models for a complex problem. At the end of her internship she prepared a presentation for the top management on what she’d done, and had become so invested in her project and the need to communicate her results that she blew everyone away with her subject matter authority. She had developed a new persona through her work, one in which I felt like the intern and her the expert.

Another benefit of playing a role is learning to not take things personally. If someone criticizes a project I’ve spent months working on, they are criticizing the project that a product manager called John has worked on, not ‘me’ and my innermost hopes and desires. Arguably they would still have criticized it if a different person in my role had worked on it instead. Paradoxically, having some distance makes you more effective. You get better at avoiding petty arguments, and can focus on getting stuff done faster. By focusing on the task and not your own ego, you learn to critique your own ideas and make more objective decisions.

be like this cat

It also leads to more satisfying relationships with your colleagues. When you’re clear about which level you’re relating on — personal or professional — both states become more enjoyable because you’re not trying to be everything to everyone. You learn to enjoy the interactions for what they are, taking joy in the small moments of connection. These may lead to a deeper friendship, or they may not, and both of these outcomes are fine.

As with all things, this compartmentalisation can be harmful when taken to extremes. Nobody wants to work with a sociopath — being professional still means treating people with dignity and respect. Playing a role that is completely out of alignment with your normal baseline will probably be exhausting, and you still need to draw on elements of yourself to play your role effectively.

Or maybe — as many philosophies argue — there isn’t even such a thing as a stable self, and we’re just moments of consciousness arranged in a sequence over time. If that is so, then even more reason to enjoy playing your part in the show!

our cat being ‘professional’