Michael Scott Was Right: ‘Business Is the Most Personal Thing in the World’

October 23, 2015

“Business is the most personal thing in the world.”

Michael Scott said that. He wasn’t right about a lot of things. But he was right about that.

I love Michael Scott—his bumbling, loveable, unforgettable character. I’ve watched the reruns from the first four seasons of The Office dozens of times, and each time, like every time I walk around Disney World, I notice something new. What makes something like The Office a classic, according to what I learned from one of Robert McKee’s story seminars, is that you can consume it over and over again and get something new out of it every time. That’s why I’m a Disney annual passholder and why I watch reruns of shows like The Office. Nuance. Details that draw you in to take a second look.

And just a few days ago, as I was falling asleep to a classic episode of The Office, I heard something new when Michael said that business was “the most personal thing in the world.”

Just before Michael says this, he gives a speech to an MBA class at the request of his youngest employee Ryan. Ryan only asked Michael to speak because any student who invites their boss to class gets extra credit, but Michael thinks this is an honor and gives a hilariously out-of-touch motivational talk where he throws candy bars into a stoic and unresponsive student body. His insistent belief in the necessity of his paper business is expertly juxtaposed, after he says something like, “and you can write that down,” with the furious tapping of students’ laptop keys.

After the speech, one student asks Michael a question that assumes his business won’t be able to compete with the larger companies out there. When Michael brushes it off, the student explains that Ryan had said (just before Michael came out, so Michael couldn’t hear) that their paper company would become obsolete in the near future. Michael storms off, hurt and angry that Ryan didn’t believe in the longevity of this business that Michael had spent his entire working life in, and in the car ride with Ryan back to the office, he tells him how upset he is.

Flustered, Ryan tries to explain that it’s just business, it’s not personal. And then Michael spouts, “Business is the most personal thing in the world.”

Every time I’ve ever seen this scene, I laugh at this moment. Out loud. I laugh because of the way Steve Carell delivers the line. I laugh at this lovable idiot who takes everything so personally, who just doesn’t get it, who thinks business is personal when it’s really not.

And until this week, I didn’t realize that without my consciously knowing it, I was also laughing because there was something in Michael that I saw in myself, something I didn’t want to admit. Because it was something I thought the writers built in to Michael as a huge, glaring flaw that made him ineffective in business.

Like Michael, I am sensitive. I take things personally. I feel things deeply. I wish I didn’t—it’s often terrible. But I do.

And in a way, I’ve kept it a secret, except to my closest family and friends who’ve seen the tears and the frustrations that have come with my solopreneurship journey over the past few years.

Even writing this out right now feels scary. I’ve wanted to keep my sensitivity a secret because, as I’ve always thought, Michael Scott was wrong. I thought that’s what made it so funny: Business isn’t personal. Michael doesn’t get it.

But recently I changed my mind. All of a sudden, I realized that, for me anyway, what really made this line so funny wasn’t that Michael was wrong. It still made me laugh out loud because, in this weird, twisted way, he was right.

Both the sayings “business isn’t personal” and “business is personal” all of a sudden felt equally true. What makes the character of Michael Scott so great, and why the show is so re-watchable, is because his character is a contradiction of these two ideas. For the character, it’s always personal, but for the audience, Michael making it unnecessarily personal is his tragic flaw. Or is it? That’s the question that makes this show so brilliant, and the shift in how I personally interpret Michael’s declarative that “business is the most personal thing in the world” has come about because of another brilliant show: StartUp, Gimlet Media’s podcast series.

StartUp is about what it’s like to start a business. And while the series taught me many things, what I took away the most was this: While numbers on a spreadsheet might not be inherently “personal,” everything they affect is.

Before I listened to StartUp, I thought that since business isn’t personal, if I’m taking it personal, then I must not be cut out for it. I must not be strong enough.

While I’d never said this out loud, I know it’s what I thought, and that all this time as I’ve been slugging through the mud of my own confusing career, I’d unknowingly tied bricks to my ankles. Written on those bricks: “You don’t belong here.” StartUp untied the bricks and obliterated them.

StartUp shows the personal side of business in a way you’ve never heard before and yet, somehow recognize in your core. Because you have heard it over coffee with friends, in kitchens with spouses, in living rooms with family, hushed in cubicles or office hallways. Because even if you’ve never started a business or known someone who’s started a business, you know what it feels like and what it sounds like to have a business—a job—affect your life personally.

The themes in the show you know in your bones, and it makes for a listening experience that is both wildly entertaining and gut wrenchingly affirming. It brings intimate conversations to your ear that reveal things like how two grown men’s feelings are hurt after a negotiation about equity, how even a successful professional can have a horrible confidence crash when something isn’t going well, and how business, while on paper isn’t “personal,” still deeply affects your marriage, your children and your very identity.

Once I was finished with my StartUp binge, I had that same existential angst I felt after I finished Scandal on Netflix: WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO WITH MY LIFE NOW? EVERYTHING IS MEANINGLESS!

Truth be told, I am in a period of transition in my own work life right now that has ignited the scariest, saddest, darkest and most terrible business related feelings I’ve ever experienced. And more than hating how hard it’s been, I’ve hated how hard I’ve taken it. I’ve hated how much I let it hurt.

I thought I had a choice to hurt or not hurt, and I was mad at myself that I couldn’t seem to control that. I was pained at the knowledge that maybe I was weaker than I ever imagined. I hated that I couldn’t be stronger, that I couldn’t not cry. And all over something that’s supposed to not be personal.

Where do you go from there? You begin to count yourself out. You begin to believe that this feeling, this inability to not feel hurt in business, means that your worst fear is actually true: You really don’t belong here. You should stop trying. 

But now I have hope.

Being hurt in business, at times, is OK. Instead of being a sign you can’t hack it, it’s actually a sign of something else: that you’re human.

Maybe those feelings of self-doubt that follow the hurt are normal, even among the most successful, and perhaps the voice that whispers in your ear that your hurt means you don’t belong is wrong—because Michael Scott was right.

Self-doubt might be normal, but you can’t let that feeling control you. So conquer it. Step 1? Fake it.

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