Typecasting

When he was a 9-year-old schoolboy, Neil deGrasse Tyson first visited the Hayden Planetarium in New York. Sure, he had glimpsed at the night sky before, but that was from the rooftop of an apartment building in the Bronx. Never before had he seen the Milky Way like this. Lit up like a Christmas tree inside the planetarium’s darkened theater, the night sky had a profound and galvanizing effect on him. He was literally “star struck” by that first encounter with space, and it would change the direction of his life. By the time he was 11, he was telling anyone who would listen that he was going to be an astrophysicist. Pretty precocious, even by 11-year-old standards!

Today, he is the Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York and one of the country’s best-loved and most passionate scientific communicators. I’m struck by two thoughts. 1) How wonderful (and rare) that a boy so young should be so confident of his direction in life, and 2) How easy it would have been for others to discourage him from this foolish childhood notion, and how tragic if that had happened. In order to achieve his ambition, however, he would need to overcome all manner of societal stereotypes, including the low expectations of teachers who might easily have steered a young black boy from the Bronx towards athletics, and not astrophysics.

Whether we like it or not, we are all being typecast. We get typecast on the basis of our age, gender, race, where we live, or simply by how we look. It’s a form of mental shorthand that likes to categorize people quickly and easily. As soon as we put people in a box – no further thought is required. With these easy-to-read labels – Hipster, Party Girl, Retiree, Flake – we make snap judgments about people that precludes any getting to know them. While labels can be useful when buying a tin of soup, they are less so when applied to human beings. When all you see is the “label” – you may miss out on the totality of that person, and the multitudes contained therein.

Lately in my coaching sessions, I’ve found myself saying, “you’ve been typecast” to clients who may feel frustrated at being misunderstood, forced into a role or treated unfairly. I’ve seen it come up during mediations, where two co-workers are at loggerheads and wrongly assume they know all there is to know about what the other is thinking. We have a tendency to make assumptions about everything. When this happens, I usually have them drop the script they are holding, and ask open-ended questions of each other. Questions like: “What is really happening for you? How are you feeling? What do you need?” It is surprising how often false assumptions are behind real misunderstandings, and how quickly fear and distrust melt away when two people get to know each other properly for the very first time.

I think we rely on typecasting because we are often in a rush and we have lost some of the art of being curious. It’s an easy trap to fall into, especially with those we are closest to. We say things like: “I know what he’s thinking; my wife would never go for that; my boss doesn’t like to collaborate; he or she is not the type; my colleagues already know I care about them…” Really? How do you know? I, too, sometimes find it difficult to remain fully present and attentive. It takes a strong will not to jump in when someone else is talking. But any time we pigeonhole someone, or finish a sentence for them, or presume to know what their answer will be, we have not only stopped listening. We are typecasting.

Change the way you look at things, and the look of things change.

Sometimes it’s a physical distance that allows us to see something old in a new light. Like the first photograph of earth taken from outer space. The famous “Earthrise” photograph – taken aboard Apollo 8 as it orbited the moon in 1968 – was the first time anybody had actually seen what our own planet looked like. Prior to this, it only existed as a diagram on schoolroom walls. But with that one color photograph, suddenly we were afforded a new “cosmic” perspective, and it changed the way we think about ourselves and the planet. Says Neil deGrasse Tyson: “We went looking for the moon, but discovered the earth instead.”

In the personal realm, sometimes it’s a tiny shift in perspective that allows us to see someone familiar in a new and interesting way. It may be watching your spouse or partner interact with someone across a crowded room, and noticing something you hadn’t seen before. It may be watching your boss skillfully handle a meeting, and admiring this ability you hadn’t seen in the past. Or it may be the “stranger at the dinner table” phenomenon – where suddenly you are amazed to learn more about your parent in 30 minutes than you have in the entire previous 30 years. It’s not that anyone necessarily changed in that scenario, it’s only the perspective that changed.

When we can resist the urge to typecast, both ourselves and others, we may be surprised by what we see. In the words of Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking out new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

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