An external speaker came in recently to tell us how we could be better and more effective people by being happy. I'm a big believer in perspective and being genuinely happy as much as possible. I tend to think that nothing is ever as bad as you think it is when you are in the middle of it. Or, as I sometimes say ‘it’s hard to see the shape of a thing from inside the thing’. Trying to be genuinely happy as much of the time as possible is good for you, good for those around you and… just easier.
However, I think what’s more important is to be genuine. I get on well with people. Most people, most of the time and I’m told I’m easy to talk to. I attribute a lot of that to being genuine. When I talk to anyone about anything, that’s me. I can’t abide the idea of having to go to Disneyland, or Butlin’s, or America in general were everyone is just so falsely happy all the time. I mean, Disneyland at least has rides and cool electronic systems to marvel at and go ‘that’s clever’. But the concept of having to go to Butlin’s fills me with a sort of cold dread. I’m fairly sure they have redcoats in hell. I desperately don’t want to work in an environment were everyone goes around pretending to be happy all the time. I want to work in an environment were I feel able to be honest. I think people respect you for being open with them when you are in a foul mood. I think that if you at least admit you have burdens, people around you will help, they may even open up about their own burdens and you get the chance to help them and that’s the whole point. I don’t think you can function well by playing some sort of elaborate game were you play at getting on with people. Eventually, that’s going to break down. I know that some people are cautious about just being open with folks – they don’t want to let people get to them. I’ve heard fellow teachers talk about ‘tweed armour’ that they put on in the mornings and take off when they get in. It’s definitely hard sometimes when someone is critical of something that you have really put something of yourself in – and I genuinely do spend time in evenings pondering things kids have said about me and about lessons. I tend to think that these moments of reflection are actually helpful but I can see why it would be easier to hide behind a persona. (I also, manifestly can’t do it. I tried to pull my punches with one of my final year students who I felt was having a bad day telling them that their work was not that bad. They turned to me and told me that was total bullshit and we both knew it. Definitely something I reflected on.)
To broaden out again, I think people are too compartmentalised so I don’t do it. I don’t have a professional self, who I become and then I come home and revert to my casual self. I’ve even known people to who seem to have different selves for the different social groups they operate in. I couldn't deal with that. I’d lose my own sense of self and I don’t trust people when I detect them doing it. Obviously, caveats exist if you are a funeral director, you have to be quite good at pretending to be glum when you are actually officiating the funeral – even if it is your birthday. In general though, people should just be straight up and down with people. So, it rankles with me when people come in to tell everyone to act happy.
This has advantages. Anyone who knew me as an undergraduate will remember that I used to dress like a vague sack of potatoes. I didn’t care. When I started working for citizen’s advice bureau I realised I would have to get some clothes that made me seem at least vaguely respectable. Shirts with collars and suchlike. Around this time I remember having a conversation with my father, who, as fathers are want to do, dispensed some advice. As far as possible you should strive not to have weekend clothes and week clothes. You should just be comfortable to be seen by whomever whenever, because you never know who’s going to see you walking down the street. As it goes with clothes it goes with life. If you are a professional, take those aspects of your professional self that you need and make them part of you. In that way, you will improve yourself, and seem more genuine in all you do. You also temper your professional self with some much needed humanity and enable people to actually relate to you on a human level. I’m proud of everything that I am, that includes the loud hawaiian print shirts at the back of my wardrobe. (Which I wear into school at the slightest hint of an opportunity I might add) It also includes all the thoughts on my blog, which I’m happy to sign my real name to.
- Phil Johnson