Maxwell Maltz was a plastic surgeon in the mid-late 20th century that got interested in Psycho-Cybernetics (his term for NLP or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy before those terms were made popular) after seeing that a small fraction of his patients came back after undergoing major surgery and were still unhappy with their appearance. They had undergone a dramatic physical change as the result of reconstructive surgery, but not the accompanying mental shift.
He relates the specific story of a patient that had gone through a traumatic car accident that had disfigured his face. Maltz did reconstructive surgery on him and, according this family and friends, it had been a tremendous success.
Many couldn’t notice the difference between his reconstructed appearance and his pre-accident appearance. The patient, however, returned to Maltz’s office furious at the results. He still saw himself as the disfigured. His identity was still the same.
Maltz realized that what he was selling wasn’t reconstructive surgery, he was selling identity change.
In Impro, a book on teaching improvisational theatre, Keith Johnstone cites a similar phenomenon when students start doing mask work.
Many actors have been unable to really ‘find’ a character until they put on the make-up, or until they try on the wig, or the costume. We find the Mask strange because we don’t understand how irrational our responses to the face are anyway, and we don’t realise that much of our lives is spent in some form of trance, i.e. absorbed…
In most social situations you are expected to maintain a consistent personality. In a Mask class you are encouraged to ‘let go’, and allow yourself to become possessed.
There’s always a disparity between the objective reality of ourselves and how we see ourselves or our identity. Maltz realized this through his work as a plastic surgeon and Johnstone through teaching improv.
I think there’s a tremendous point of leverage for people in our generation to leverage our locations to change our masks and, consequently, our identities. When you change locations, you get to put on another mask and see how it feels.
Most people that come back home after having lived abroad for the first time experience this as reverse culture shock.
I remember the feeling I had when I came back after having lived abroad for the first ime in Argentina for 6 months. I had taken off the mask that I’d worn for my whole life and put on a new one.
It was initially devastating to me coming back. I had changed dramatically over the past 6 months but not many of my friends had. Most people that have lived abroad or become expats relate to this pretty easily.
Through travel and changing locations, we can try lots of different masks and refine those down into creating the mask we want to be at any given time.
We’re the first generation with the ability to leverage our locations to create more meaningful lives.
It’s hard to hang out with all your old buddies, in all you old haunts, having all the same conversations, and become a new person.
We are what we do repeatedly. And one of if not the most effective way to change who you are is to change your location, your venue, your environment.
When you change your location, it’s a lot easier to wash away a lot of bad habits. That’s not to say if you move somewhere, you’ll become a different person, but you have a greater opportunity to make dramatic changes in your identity.
I think a lot of people that want to start businesses or become entrepreneurs should move to Vietnam. Not because it’s a great opportunity to take advantage of the cheap cost of living, hire great talent, or have a cultural experience (though it is all those things).
The real leverage is that when you hop on a plane and move to Vietnam or New York or Berlin – you’re not taking a trip, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to put on a new mask.
This process, done over and over, makes you a more robust person. You not only become more adaptable, you gain increasing confidence and self-assurance that who you are is congruent with who you want to be.
You aren’t wearing the mask the your parents, or school, or your friends assigned to you. You’re able to try on lots of different masks and slowly, deliberately craft the mask you want to wear.
For me, the moves I’ve made abroad have let me try on a lot of different masks to figure out who I wanted to be. I’m far more confident and comfortable with who I am today than I used to be because I feel like I’ve tried on lots of different masks. I’ve gotten to be a lot of different “me’s” and decide explicitly and deliberately which one of those I really want to be.
Charlie Munger has something he calls the Iron Prescription for Life:
“Whenever you feel that some situation or some person is ruining your life, it is actually you who are ruining your life…Feeling like a victim is a perfectly disastrous way to go through life. If you just take the attitude that however bad it is in any way, it’s always your fault and you just fix it as best you can – the so-called “iron prescription” – I think that really works.”
Munger is right. And I think the opportunity for a lot of us now is to leverage technology and globalization to facilitate those changes in ourselves.
It’s not an easy cure-all. I know lots of people that travel that are the same miserable people everywhere they go. But there are a lot fewer of them.
One of the interesting things about being an expat is that most all expats have something interesting going on. They all have some perspective. They’ve all tried on at least a couple of different masks.
Change your location. Change your mask. Change your life.