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Creating Your Secret Identity

Creating Your Secret Identity

When I was eight years old I had a secret identity. By day I was mild mannered Jeffrey but when the shadows of the afternoon drew long I became Batman. No, not the brooding and menacing Dark Knight but rather the breezy and kitsch Caped Crusader – POW, BAM, WHAM. I spent every nickel I could wrangle on DC comic books. My mother made me a cape from an old blanket and my father bought me the official mask and ears at Meijer Thrifty Acres.  My brother Joe was Robin. What a rube. Robin was lightweight. Later he turned coat and became my arch villain – Riddler. Now that was type casting. By the next year I had moved on to Little League Baseball where I was transformed once again into Minnesota Twins first baseman Harmon Killebrew.

Why the little trip down memory lane? Because the other day I was giving a talk on beautiful Mackinac Island to a convention of mayors from around this great land of ours when I met two police officers from the city of Clare, Michigan who had started a business called Cops & Doughnuts. These big burly guys told me the story about how their favorite bakery that had been in constant operation since 1896 was going under when the entire Clare Police Department decided to buy the joint. Of course I thought the whole concept was a bit tongue in cheek until I heard these guys talk about the business – various baking techniques, supply chain management and even the subtle differences in types of coffee. These guys were entrepreneurial foodies. Sure they wear a badge and carry a sidearm, but I’m guessing they could hang with a French pastry chef or a smarmy East Village barista. While it was clear that they took great pride in being offers of the law, they also identified with their role as restaurateurs.

Like these strudel scions of the north, I think most of us have a secret identity – or at least a second one. I’m not talking about the elusive alcoholic, the habitual philanderer or even the closet cross-dresser. Let’s leave the guilt and shame issues, as well as the addictive and psychotic ones, to the professionals.  And I don’t mean the occupational identity you assume at work or the roles you play during the week – Husband, Father, Professor – or even the ages of Man -“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…”  These are just the acceptable personas we assume or the disguises we wear to hide ourselves.

Instead, think about a conversation you’ve had with someone you thought you knew well only to discover that they had a second – more creative – life. For example, at a banquet I sat next to a rather demure attorney that I’ve known for years. I was discussing a recent trip I had taken to Bali when she suddenly became unexpectedly talkative. It turns out that she is an accomplished diver and travels with her husband around the world documenting coral reef bleaching for environmental groups. Who knew? Similarly, I was talking to a very gruff gent who owns a small automobile parts manufacturing plant near Detroit when I learned we have some mutual friends. I was a bit surprised to discover that this man directed a choral group that sang Latin requiems in Catholic churches around the world.

I suppose you could smirk about judging a book by its cover or think about how we all dabble with a hobby at some time but the real point here is these folks have a second self. Maybe I shouldn’t be amazed. There was a time in America that most people had a portfolio life – millwright and playwright. My grandfather, who worked on the Gemini and Apollo space programs, created bedazzling fishing lures in his basement workshop. It was so much more than a mere amusement. It was an avocation. I believe he was equally proud of both endeavors and considered himself one person with two identities.

It’s easy to dismiss the New York cabbie who sees himself as a poet or the LA waitress who is really an actress just waiting for their lucky break. But are they really any different from the engineer that lives next door to you who is creating an online museum chronicling the history of Chiclets gum? He now calls himself the “curator.” Reinventing your life is really hard. You have commitments to keep and bills to pay. So why not create a second self? I’m not suggesting that you become a sibyl but rather someone with a secret identity that is truly free to create. Companies do it all the time. They call it rebranding. Instead of just being improved, they chose to be new. Retirees do it as well – “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple…” So start a little early. What is it that you really do? Not the stuff you tell the boss or do when others are watching but things you do when you feel like you’re a better or new person – Saint Soup Kitchen or GarageBand Gangster.

Well, I’ve got to go now. My youngest son is waiting for me to play Dungeons and Dragons with him. He’s some kind of ax wielding bearded dwarf. He tells me I have to choose my character. Little does he know that I already have. I’m guessing Batman can handle the wizards and elves but I’m a little concerned about the fire breathing reptiles.

JEFF DEGRAFF is a Professor of Management and Organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. To learn more about his book Innovation You and PBS special by the same name, visit his web site at or follow his blog on innovation at

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