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Seriously Taking Yourself Seriously

I decided to conduct an experiment last week to see if I could be a more effective HBS student. My experiment involved dedicating last Wednesday to consciously taking myself extremely seriously. No more laughing at my faults, admitting shortcomings and definitely no “taking it easy.” Here is how the day went…

At 6:00 a.m. the sound of my bedroom stereo wrenched me from a deep sleep. I extended my foot from my comforter’s delicious shelter and used my oversized, large toe to turn it off. Five minutes later, my reserve alarm clock sounded and I frustratingly silenced it with my right index fingernail. I was now awake, and my eyes focused on the yellow post-it affixed to the alarm clock. It read, “You are a serious guy.” In the spirit of the experiment, I said aloud, “You’re goddamn right I am!”

I lumbered to my bathroom where I quickly showered, but not before cranking the temperature down to ice cold for the final five seconds. I thought this would teach me a lesson for shutting that first alarm off. I shaved using the Mach 3 Power razor aiming to get the closest shave possible. I wanted people to think that I have a legitimate chance at being a power player in the future, and a healthy swath of facial hair seemed to suggest apathy, ambivalence and devolution (I also elected to use my right hand to shave as I did not want to strain my left arm, as I would need all the strength in that arm for class participation).

I then selected jeans that evoked a cool, yet casual vibe and donned a crisp button-down shirt, hangers-no starch. Wrinkles are for clowns and college kids! It was time to be a professional.

Next, I put on my bulky New Balance sneakers built for comfort and stability, but I was yearning for a pair of sleek, designer soccer shoes which might mask my large feet and allow me to maintain a more gingerly gait. Would people notice I didn’t have on Pumas? Would I be “The New Balance Guy?” I prayed not.

I then looked at my fleece collection and decided that while I enjoyed the supple, tender feel of my new L.L. Bean pullover, I worried that L.L. Bean was an inferior brand. I decided to wear the trusty North Face brand, as I figured maybe people would think I was an alpine mountaineer. Mountaineers seem to be tough people who garner immediate respect for their death-defying hobby.

I headed for campus across the footbridge and was passed by another student walking significantly faster than me. I refused to be outpaced by this person, so I drafted her across the bridge, using her body as a human windshield. I pulled out in front of her just before we got to the other side, claiming a quiet but much-needed victory. Of course, this student had no idea about our little competition, but I figured that’s a lot of what it means to take one’s self seriously.

I quickly realized that my little burst of speed at the end of the bridge cost me my well-groomed hairstyle. I frantically looked around for help and noticed the kiosk, labeled “ASSISTANCE.” I wondered whether the kiosk might be able to advise me on my minor crisis. Emergency? Absolutely! I already had my unsightly shoes working against me, and I didn’t need an untamed mane as well. However, the tall, cylindrical security man inside the kiosk seemed to think this was indeed not an emergency.

I soon met up with my learning team and immediately tried to crack a morning icebreaker. I used a Cumnock joke I had been saving for quite some time, and it bombed. My confidence dropped with every second of post-delivery silence. Finally, someone saved me by opening a case discussion. I kept thinking to myself “if I can’t get a laugh in my learning team, how will I ever deliver a successful joke in class?” I pondered whether cracking a joke for utilitarian reasons subtracted from its impact. Perhaps people could see through my mockery of the beloved Cumnock building as simply a tool to garner support and perception as a “people person.” Or, perhaps it just wasn’t that funny.

I attended LEAD class and, against the advice of the instructors, prepared what I considered a bulletproof, awe-inspiring comment to deliver midway through class. I saved my hand-raising capital until the exact moment my comment applied. I raised my left hand with such gusto I actually jerked my chair leftwards. It was a good thing I had saved my strength, as the teacher refused to look my way. I pulled it down during other’s comments but couldn’t even listen to them as I was repeatedly reciting my comment in my head. It was a sure winner!

Sadly, my endurance and arm length were no match for the professor’s discerning eye. I quickly became an “old hand.” I never got my comment in and retired to break knowing I’d blown a huge opportunity. I went to the dining hall and passed the first-year honor board. The school was rubbing it in my face that I was unfunny and incapable of class participation!

People passed me, laughing with each other freely, fetching bagels, coffee, and yogurt fruit cups. Each and every smile made my frustration worse, and I decided to punish myself by resisting a scoop of succulent apple cider. Not for me today, no sir…not for a loser with bad jokes and an invisible hand.

The rest of the day went much the same way. I was unable to get into the second case discussion and lunch was riddled with missed opportunities to impress my peers. I suggested a pumpkin-carving get-together, and people laughed at me. I was now officially Charlie Brown.

I went out later that night to Grafton for some adult beverages. I chatted with sectionmates and told everyone my comment that I neglected to get into LEAD. I also dropped the names of all my previous employers and how I was promoted several times at each one. People gradually began to lose interest. I walked home and relished getting into bed. Taking myself seriously had exhausted so much energy that I could not even get under the covers before I fell asleep.

I learned a great deal from my experiment. First and foremost, being overly serious is entirely too much work. And I learned that at times, not taking yourself seriously can be a valuable trait here at HBS.

So next time you wake up thinking that someone or something requires you to go about your day with way too much rigor, remember the words of one Warren Miller: “Don’t take life too seriously because you can’t come out of it alive.”

November 7, 2005
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