A Life on Stage

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts…”

That idea was already old and a bit hackneyed by the time Shakespeare put those words into the mouth of Jacques in As You Like it (Act 2, scene 7). But it remains a powerful metaphor and makes us aware of important aspects of being human.

In the 1950’s Erving Goffman developed a way of doing Sociology he called “Dramaturgy.” It begins with the insight that most of the time we’re performing (“front stage”) and that, by ourselves or with those we’re very close to, we’re “back stage,” recovering from our performances or preparing new ones. It’s an apt place to begin explaining human behaviors: much of what we do is impression management, fulfilling the identities we (or others) expect, and trying to influence others with our performances. And, with the relatively recent popular understanding of “personal branding,” we’re now more conscious of something we’ve been doing all along.

I’ve spent my life as a performer. I started with acting and music as a kid in the 70’s and it’s remained an important part of my life. It teaches you a different way of seeing the world. A performance is an iceberg. The audience only sees the tip of it. There are hours of practice, honing each detail. But performers also spend a great deal of time understanding our characters, the story, the world they inhabit, and how we can touch the audience in just the right way. Being a performer turns you into an unashamed people watcher: we’re looking to see how people act, trying to figure out what’s going on inside, and noting how they respond to others. It also requires you become more attuned to yourself, critically examining your own thoughts, emotions and motivations.

It turns out this was a great skill set to carry into my career as a social and behavioral scientist. I had been developing my skills of systematic people-watching all my life. I had been hypothesizing and testing folk explanations for why people do what they do. And I had been honing my interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences: applying those to building rapport and meaningfully connecting with others. Each of these pays unexpected dividends when collecting and interpreting human data.

It was also a great skill set to carry into my career as a college professor. Being in front of a classroom is a performance. It’s about connecting the class to material you care so much about that you’ve devoted your life to understanding it. But it’s also about learning to construct a compelling story out of material that can (let’s face it) be dry, technical, and…well…academic. And I had been on the receiving end of enough professors — both profoundly energizing and terminally boring — that I knew which type I wanted to be.

I still bring those tools to every speech and seminar I deliver as a speaker, trainer and consultant. I’ve sat through too many well-intentioned, yet mind-numbing, lectures to do that to others. I carefully craft each presentation as a performance to maximize education, engagement, and entertainment. Life’s too short — and what I’m sharing is far too fascinating and practically useful — to make it a chore for others.

I find that, every time I design a study, as a research methodologist, or analyze and interpret data, as a data scientist, I draw on this experience, as well. I always remember that data are the recorded traces of real human lives. If we pay attention, and know what we’re looking for, they tell a story. Truly understanding that story can be the difference between your success and failure — and it can mean your competitive advantage.

Being a performer has shaped the way I do science, the way I analyze data, and how I communicate those insights to others. The practical understanding born of a life on stage gives me a unique glimpse into the human condition — and that insight is crucial both to the quality of service I provide for clients and the way I get it done.

If you are interested in how my expertise as a consultant, research methodologist, data scientist, social and behavioral scientist, speaker or trainer can serve your enterprise or group, let me know by contacting me now!