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A Problem of Programmed Identity

Ever wondered why drivers on our roads never hold their positions and are perennially trying to honk or weave their way ahead? As a young driver in the 1980s, I did all of that as it gave me a sense of achievement. Of course, one had never heard of names like Alain Prost, Alan Jones, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet those days as Indian newspapers largely ignored Formula One and television was only meant for ‘Krishi Darshans’ and the weekend movie.

Shuklaji, the man who taught me driving, had only one ‘guru-mantra’ to offer. “Just think everyone that gets on the road is mad and that it’s your bounden duty to ensure their safe delivery,” he told me when I had finally procured my driving license after paying a bribe to the clerk at the RTO (vehicle and driving licensing office) on Tilak Marg in New Delhi.

Though these words of wisdom espoused by my dad’s official driver remained with me, I admit that the thrill of “getting ahead and staying there” was too much to resist. Of course, my leadership efforts remained limited to showing off on the wide roads of Delhi and were seldom replicated at the workplace, where I preferred to be one amongst the crowd. What is it that we say about safety in numbers?

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Coming back to the bad driving, I am reminded of a question that academic and author V. Raghunathan poses. “How come it is always the other drivers who are the cause of our traffic mess?” he asks on his website. Before seeking to answer this question, consider how we convince ourselves that bad driving is always the result of ineffective policing and improper screening.

While both these factors may be at the root of the problem, we cleanly absolve ourselves of the charge of indiscipline. We pompously proclaim that “While in India, we’ve to behave like Indians! We are convinced that but for the inadequacies of the large majority of erring drivers out there, we could have become more disciplined ones ourselves.

We weave in and out of traffic because slobs stop us from zipping along the right lane. We jump traffic lights because the chap ahead was a slouch on the wheel and caused us to miss the green; We park in front of a gate or in demarcated no-parking zones and curse the traffic cop for towing our vehicle while suggesting that all they want is a bribe. And finally, We try to duck breathalyzer tests on Friday evenings by attempting to bribe the same cop!

While Prof. Raghunathan has used Game Theory to analyse these typical personality traits in his book Games Indians Play, I think that the coaching concept of ‘Programmed Identity‘ expounded by Marshall Goldsmith explains this phenomenon some more. The bad driving programs me to do some bad driving of my own! This is how it works…


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“Your Programmed Identity has many sources. It can be influenced by the profession you enter, the culture you grew up in, the company you work for, the entire industry you work in, or the people you select as your trusted friends. Each of these can shape your opinion of yourself, some more vividly than you may realize,” says Goldsmith on his blog. (Read the post here).

To prove his point, Goldsmith narrates a tale of his friend from graduate school whose personality underwent a sea change after moving from academia to the Wall Street. When quizzed, the friend noted that the culture at his new workplace brought about the change, thus apportioning himself no credit (or blame) for the behavioral shift. “And therein lies the flaw in our eager acceptance of our Programmed Identity. It can become a convenient scapegoat for our behavioral mistakes,” he says.

During a recent Coach Certification program at the Intrad School of Executive Coaching, our Founder Coach (read about him) drew our attention to a clip from the Oscar nominated movie “The King’s Speech”. The scene involves the Duke of York assuming that his stammering cannot be cured, and his Australian speech therapist debunking the theory rather rudely.

The speech therapist goes on to suggest that the first step towards resolution of a problem lies in its acceptance. And the next in line is a wholehearted desire to solve it. Lao Tzu, the mystic philosopher of China and the founder of Taoism was probably referring to programmed identity when he said, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”

Closer home, the Father of our Nation put it even more succinctly in his autobiography: “A principle is the expression of perfection, and as imperfect beings like us cannot practice perfection, we devise every moment limits of its compromise in practice.”

This raises another question, “Do we need more laws in India or better enforcement? ┬áThe first leads to more confusion while the second helps program our collective identities by inculcating higher levels of discipline?

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