If I have managed to convince you to read me regularly with what I have written so far, let me start with a warning that this article is going to show a hint of repetitiveness. One reason is the fact that yet again, I have picked a Jason Reitman movie- Up In The Air to write about. But when a director makes such amazing movies about the lives of people with, for want of a better word, interesting career choices, it begs to be opined about in a business magazine. The other reason is that I am going to use my editor to segue into the meat of what I want to say, again. I was discussing this movie with him in a non-work context, when I suggested writing about it. He agreed almost at once, suggesting that the theme of work-life balance would make a good discussion topic. But strangely, the takeaways for me from the movie were entirely different.
Not good enough is worse than bad
George Clooney plays a corporate downsizer, someone who carries out the task of layoffs for bosses too cowardly to do it themselves. Now I had no idea that such a job description even existed. The movie is a part funny, part serious look at his personal relationships as he makes a living ending people’s professional relationships. This entire business of downsizing is handled in the by-now-familiar Reitman style, in a laidback manner laced with a tinge of dark humour, but never once belittling or ridiculing the affected. In fact, Reitman intersperses footage of people really being laid off .Though, at some level, this does seem kind of exploitative, he felt that in the grander scheme of things, it very effectively conveys their shock and complete sense of loss. Reitman does a good job of humanizing what is essentially a purely economic survival decision and highlights the collateral damage that a company needs suffer to outlast tough times.
A fascinating aspect of ‘Up in the air’ was the co-relation between George Clooney’s personality and the kind of work he did.
My personal gripe against layoffs in general is the lack of an objective process in picking the people to let go. I could almost use the word ‘unfair’ to describe this, but then, caught myself, for, when promotions and pay hikes are not just a result of how much work you do but also how much work you are perceived to be doing, it is tough to expect fairness in a weeding out process. More often than not, along with the non-performers and the slackers who deserve to go, there is a hard worker whose work was not noticed, or who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, losing his job. While people are devastated by the financial repercussions of losing their livelihood, it is the fact that they have been judged, not to be bad, but rather to be not good enough at what they were doing that hurts them more.
Personality and work
A more fascinating aspect of Up In The Air was the co-relation between Clooney’s personality and the kind of work he did. Now, telling people that their professional life, as they know it, is over, and handling their reactions to it definitely needs a great degree of emotional detachment. In fact, there is a scene in the movie where a young upstart attempts to do that and struggles to keep her emotions in check. Clooney, on the other hand is portrayed as some kind of ice-man, who almost effortlessly handles the disparate responses of the people he fires. This work persona of his is, at most times, indistinguishable from his real personality as he attempts to lead an unfettered, uncommitted existence, shunning any kind of emotional relationships. It is almost as if because of the kind of work he does, he is afraid that the closer he gets to people the more difficult it would be for him, if he had to let them go.
That set me thinking about whether and how personality plays a role in the kind of work we do, and more specifically the way we do it. Do we pick careers based on what kind of people we are? Do callous and stoic people pick a field of work that can cause emotional turmoil like emergency rescue and firefighting? Do shy, introverted people choose jobs with little or no people interaction, like writing or programming?
And having chosen a line of work, do we choose to adopt separate personalities- one for professional and another in our personal life? Or do we remain the same? There are some of us who definitely pick the former because we like these two parts of our lives to be completely non-intersecting. Work is merely an aspect of survival and we want to shed off our professional roles and scurry back to the cocoons of our relationships as soon as possible. And then there are some like George Clooney’s character in the movie, for whom the line dividing their lives at work, and out of it is blurred. The work they do influences who they are and who they are influences the work they do in a weirdly symbiotic way. I do not know if it is a good thing or a bad thing, but I know that it sure makes for an interesting movie.