Work is how you think


When I was a kid—perhaps between the ages of 9 and 13—if you were to have asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer would have been a confident, “an Egyptologist!” I was fascinated by ancient Egypt and was surprisingly well-informed for a child. I had read all about Carter’s famous unearthing of King Tut’s tomb. I knew about canopic containers. I had even worked on a real archeological dig near the Cahokia Mounds in Illinois. Like many people, my attraction to the job was largely based on what people in that job did. That is, most people are drawn to a line of work because of the behaviors involved: bus drivers drive, teachers teach, and Egyptologists dig. I only learned much later that many jobs are as much about how you think as they are what you do. 

If someone would have taken me aside and explained that there was an Egyptology mindset, that would have been helpful. If they would have told me that successful archeologists need patience, attention to detail, superior powers of observation, they could have saved me a lot of time (since I only have one of those three qualities). Many young people might be well-served to better understand the idea that jobs are as much about a way of thinking as they are technical ability and skills. 

To illustrate this point, I decided to interview people who are in jobs that, at first blush, appear to be about “doing” a particular thing. After in-depth discussions with each, I realized how much a particular way of thinking was critical to their role. Admittedly, I could have interviewed people from almost any line of work: bus drivers or underwater welders. I think the results would have been the same. 

The space-time continuum

I can remember the first time I ever noticed an error in a film. It was in the Oscar-Award winning movie, The Untouchables. In one scene, Sean Connery is sitting in a chair with his top button undone. The next time the camera is on him, his shirt is buttoned. And then unbuttoned again in the next cut. Because these types of errors in continuity can pull the audience out of the flow of the film, there is a job specifically to guard against such problems: script supervisor. 

Script supervisors are integral parts of modern film and TV, and their roles have expanded. They are expected to keep track of continuity, any re-writes, line-of-sight, camera angle issues, the various takes of a scene, and countless other details. If you were to look at the job in terms of behavior, it would look like hushed side conversations on set, coordinating with costuming and other departments, and writing tons and tons of notes. 

If you were to peek into a script supervisor’s head, however, and see how she thinks, you would notice other things. This is precisely what happened when I interviewed Carly Romberg. Carly is one of those unsung people who work behind the camera to create our favorite shows. She has worked on feature films like Valley Girl and American TV shows such as New Girl and Speechless

When I asked Carly to describe the work of a script supervisor, generally, she gave me a single example: multiple takes of a fight scene. It is the script supervisor who must keep track of the actor’s messy hair, torn clothes, and amount of dirt on his shirt from one take to the next. Once she started giving examples, it was like a faucet had been turned on: “I have to keep track of nail polish color, the levels of drinks in glasses, which direction the actor is looking during a dinner party scene, whether a dog’s ear is up or folded down, and which version of the script we are working from. I take notes for the editor and this includes the camera distance and height and lens and direction and a description of every take. It can be exhausting.”

What Carly is describing is more than just a supernatural attention to detail; it is what psychologists call cognitive load. There is only so much you can keep in your mind at once. This is why it can be difficult to carry on a conversation, for example, while you are trying to drive in heavy traffic in an unfamiliar city. You have to process movement and language and sense of direction and a hundred other little details all at once. 

Some of this comes naturally to Carly. She jokes that she can be a bit obsessive about details. She describes herself as someone who, even off-set, could probably tell you where you set your car keys because she had seen them two hours earlier. When I asked for an example of a superhuman observation (my words, not hers), she said: “Once, I was working on a show with a British actor, and I noticed that he glanced right, instead of left, before crossing the street.” 

Carly, it should be noted, did not dream of being a script supervisor when she was a little girl. She didn’t even know the job existed. She didn’t respond to an ad that said, “want to work long hours where everyone thinks you are a police officer trying to catch them doing something wrong?” She wasn’t attracted to the idea of scribbling a thousand notes at breakneck speed. Instead, she self-selected into the role because success relied on the very thinking talents that came naturally to her. A combination of detail orientation, a cooperative mentality, and the ability to juggle an unusually large cognitive load. 

On your marks!

People have been fascinated by actors since the advent of cinema. Few jobs—certainly not plumbers or librarians or grocery store managers—have attracted as much popular attention as have actors. We look at them as some blend of talented creatives, rich and powerful, and enviably fit and good looking. Further, we hear about the creative extremes actors go to in order to inhabit their roles. For instance, the most Oscar-Award winning actor, Daniel Day Lewis, has—for various roles—lived in a shack, learned Czech, and (reportedly) ceased to bathe for the duration of the film shooting. 

This is exactly why I was so interested when, recently, Tom Hanks (who has as many nominations as Day Lewis but one fewer win) received a lifetime achievement award. I was certain he was going to head to the microphone and speak eloquently about the creative process, emotional availability, and the importance of pretending. Instead, he described his job in the following way: “…. What is required is everybody has to do their job to their perfection, they have to hit the mark, and they have to go there.” He boiled it down to a way of thinking about acting that prioritized showing up on time and knowing one’s lines. 

I was curious about this idea when I interviewed Lisa Linke, an American actor with a long list of television roles. She’s been on Grey’s Anatomy and Modern Family and had a recurring role on the sitcom, Bless This Mess. Lisa is alum of the improv company, Second City, and is both talented and funny. By way of example, she told me that she gets typecast as “a stressed kindergarten teacher on the verge of lashing out.” When I asked her how she would cast me, she said: “An insufferable barista who won’t let his co-workers forget that he is all-but-dissertation in a local philosophy department.” Nailed it. 

Without prompting, Lisa identified professionalism as a critically important way of thinking for an actor. “It’s not about the character’s motivation,” she explained, “or taking ten minutes to get into the right emotional space. A show might cost 25 thousand dollars every 15 minutes to produce, and the crew cannot wait around until the actor’s inspiration strikes.” She was clear: the job of acting is more about showing up on time and being prepared than it is about relying on the mercurial whims of the muses. Lisa likened her work to that of a cardiac surgeon. Not that she thinks of it as life-saving, but that she believes that actors should be mentally as present and prepared as someone would want their own surgeon to be. 

At the heart of this professional mindset is the idea that acting is not about being a star and shining brightly but about doing one’s part in a collective effort. “I am here,” Lisa told me, “to help the show succeed. Anything I can do to make that happen—taking direction, learning my lines, performing exactly what is written on the page—I will do that.” This mental attitude—one part professionalism, one part cooperation, one part service-orientation—is likely the reason that Lisa has made a full-time living from acting for years in a city where talent is a dime a dozen. 


Both Carly’s and Lisa’s stories illustrate our thesis: work is more than what you do; it is also how you think. Specifically, being successful in Hollywood is as much about a mindset as it is about talent and technical ability. This lesson extends well beyond Tinseltown; it is true of any profession you can think of. Whether you are a special forces soldier or are a school teacher, your style of thinking is critical to your role. 

I notice this in my own work as a research psychologist. Success depends on an inquisitive nature. On the ability to think critically, to create clear arguments, and to think systematically about evidence. In my role as a coach, I am more than the sum of my skills. My way of thinking—focused attention, curiosity, and concern—are as important as my technical ability to set agendas or keep track of time. 

If you had to reduce your work to thought processes, how would you describe it? To what extent would a good day at work be one in which you were able to think in certain ways, such as problem-solving, planning, improvising, or attending to details? When you praise or complain about your job, do you tend to focus on your duties or your thinking? Perhaps, looking at your work in terms of attention, attitude, and other thought processes might change your relationship to it.