Escaping the Asylum
Sometimes we wonder: why is it the case that we’re so wrapped into the cultural reality, into the value system, and into the little power minuets, that we call organizational life? I’m often struck at the financial conglomerates who have on-site gyms, on-site physicians, on-site food, and on-site life–all for the sake of getting everyone involved in the immediate reality that is the organization. Indeed, organizations in these instances define not only what gets done, but who we are in and outside the organizations.
One doesn’t speak about one’s job; one speaks about ones “team.” One makes a reference to the organization. They say, “we at Goldman,” “we at Merrill,” or “we at Citi.” It’s always “we,” never the “I.”
It’s not a very profound to point this out. The fact that these corporations are no longer organizations, but asylums is nothing new. But it is a wonderful way of recalling the work of who I consider to be one of America’s best sociologists in the latter part of the 20th century.
Whenever I hear my friends at Goldman, my friends at Chase, and my friends who work at large organizations, lament their loss of self, their feelings of alienation, and their sense of entrapment, I have a tendency to grab a copy of Erving Goffman’s book, Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates and make them read it.
Published in 1961, Goffman’s Asylums examines the social situation of mental patients in hospitals. For him, hospitals are total institutions, that is, organizations where individuals conduct all their activities in one place. In total institutions the culture is defined, the activities regimented, and life is insular. These are institutions where immersion is complete, where are roles are defined, where relationships are inhibited by the culture, and where we become what the organization needs us to become.
In Asylums Goffman speaks about the mortification of the self. How the self changes, how over time personal identity is replaced by organizational identity to the point that a completely new role emerges–the role of the patient.
After a while everyone within a total institution begins to submit to the definition of self the organization imposes on them, begins speaking the language of the organization, parroting the aspirations of the organization, and accepting the authority and rules of the organization.
In time, the patients become aware that their survival depends on understanding the political, the social-psychosocial, and even the economic nuances of the asylum they are in. They construct a new self and a new intensely vision focused on succeeding within the asylum.
But what happens when patients leave a total institution after they’ve learned how to survive and even thrive within one?
How will the specific skills they have learned serve them outside of the asylum? Will the skills that they’ve learned fail them in the outside world?
Goffman finds that those who’ve stayed too long can never truly move on because they’ve become totally defined by the institution. They’ve become “professional patients.”
The ideal situation for patients is to leave the asylum after having learned from it and before they’ve lost their sense of self. They must leave having reaped the benefits, while not becoming enveloped in the asylum’s culture and values.
So you’ve graduated college, you’ve got a new job, you’re working 18 hours a day learning new skills and discovering what you need to succeed, but somehow you feel that this isn’t quite you.
You feel the process of what Goffman calls, self-mortification. The destruction of your autonomous self. You feel yourself talking a new language and walking a different walk and you feel that you’re not exactly where you want to be. The job is good, the money is great, and the direction defined—but you still know you have different aspirations. Now the haunting question you ask yourself is: “when should I leave?”
Well, maybe never. Maybe life in a total institution is comfortable for you. But if you choose to leave make sure you do before you’re totally defined as a “professional patient.” Make sure you leave while you still know how to survive in the outside.
Be careful of the mortification of self and pick up a copy of Goffman’s Asylum.
Tagged as asylums: essays on the social situation of mental patients and other immates, career planning, erving goffman, goffman, goldman sachs, high-potentials, jp morgan, merrill lynch, self mortification, talent retention + Categorized as Features, Leadership, Managerial Competence, Political Competence, Proactive Leaders