We live in strange times. A generation of selfies and self harm. We create edited online personas of people seemingly living perfect lives. Yet behind the screens insecurity, vanity and depression are the defining characteristics of our culture.
People absorb culture like sponges. Every time we open our phones we internalize the competitive game of likes, retweets and follows as we strive to reach the false cultural concept of the — “perfect self” — (why did I only get 12 likes on my last post?! I’m better that that!) and when we don’t receive positive, dopamine fueled feedback we hate ourselves for failing. Hence the recent spikes in self-harm, body dysmorphia, eating disorders and suicide can be attributed to this damaging culture of ‘social perfectionism.’
This is the argument of a brilliant new book by author Will Storr who traces our story of self obsession back to Ancient Greece and Aristotle. Storr describes how the Greek concept of “selfhood” was heavily based on individual self improvement and through the persistence of personal will one could obtain the optimal level of spiritual, mental, physical, and material being.
Fetishizing the self permeated the Western conscience ever since. Storr decides to live with monks in a secluded monastic settlement, enrolls in the infamous California retreat centre named the Esalen Institute where the “self-esteem” movement is said to have been born and finally stays with the tech evangelist entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley to try and piece together how the modern self was formed and how we can survive it.
This is a phenomenal exploration of Western culture and through Storr’s blend of interviews, personal reflection and analysis the book reads like a Louis Theroux documentary. There are times when chapters can feel verbose and Storr spends a third of the book discussing the Esalen Institute and the libertarian movement’s impact on the social and political direction of the 20th century. Yet it’s a book that has stuck with me a month after reading and opened my mind to the extent our motivations and opinions of ourselves are products of a deeply individualistic culture of perfectionism. I can’t recommend it enough.
Our entire lives are governed by stories. From the idea that certain pieces of paper are worth “$20” to the belief that to live a good life one must follow their passions, the stories we believe shape the course of our lives.
Humans have harnessed this power to co-operate in large numbers and create ordered communities governed by a common set of beliefs and inter-subjective reality. The most obvious example of this is global capitalism. We universally are told to believe in a system of ‘credit’ and that by imagining coins and paper as having real value they can be exchanged for tangible goods. We are also told to believe in brands called “Google” and “Starbucks”, countries called “France” and “India” – beliefs that have such an overarching influence on our lives we tend to forget they are the product of human storytelling rather than scientifically discovered objective facts.
As individuals we are bound hand and foot by these inter-subjective realities. If you wish to disagree and not believe in money or government you won’t get very far. The only way to break free from such entrenched beliefs is to convince people on a mass scale to think differently. The most common way of doing this is by telling new stories.
From Jesus to Karl Marx, compelling storytellers have been able to shape and influence the direction of human history. Hundreds of millions of lives have been affected both for the good and bad by the beliefs and ideas of certain individuals.
It can be disorientating to think just how powerful these stories are. Yet it’s crucially important and relevant that we begin to understand the story of planet earth we are all apart of. In the face of global challenges such as climate change, artificial intelligence and nuclear weaponry in the hands of man-children, most people feel they are at best unimportant extras in this precarious story of the twenty first century’s fragile fight for its collective future.
Powerlessness is also a result of the ruthless individualism and isolation which is at the heart of our fundamentalist beliefs in the modern economic system. The most powerful way we can counter these feelings and pave the way for change is to begin to tell better and more optimistic stories about what the future for humans could look like.
It won’t be the politicians, the engineers nor the scientists who will solve the crises the world faces today but the storytellers who give them the reasons why.
It’s about learning the organic process of connecting with people not mechanical box ticking of things “you’re supposed to do”
American actor, director and screenwriter Alan Alda has had quite the illustrious career. Streching four decades, not only has he picked up seven Emmy’s, a Golden Globe and an academy award nomination he’s also learned the tricks of the trade in effective communication.
In this conversation with Big Think, he explains why you should be weary of ‘tips’ on public speaking. Methodical steps like ‘take a pause after every paragraph’ or ‘walk from one side of the room to the other’ may sound good on paper but in practice, nothing will lose an audience quicker than the speaker mechanically following pre-planned pointers and movements.
Alda believes you should first and foremost focus on relating and connecting with the audience. That will inform you in the moment when to pause or when to walk. By learning to react to the audience you can sense whether they understand the point, whether it needs further explanation or whether you can tag on something extra to give it meaning and value.
Most importantly, connecting with an audience on a meaningful level requires an adept knowledge and deep understanding of the subject.
Alda eventually cedes towards the end of the clip and admits there are some ‘tips’ which may be useful in adding a bit of flair and compelling edge to speech after the groundwork is complete.
This is an honest and informative clip that offers intriguing insight without sounding preachy or pontifical.
Watch the interview below:
We live in a world where once you leave school or college you are defined by “what you do” or more precisely what your profession is.
Occupation stratifies us into a hierarchy of social status with rich people at the top and poor people at the bottom.
Philosopher and founder of The School Of Life Alain De Botton describes how this modern capitalist obsession with economic status is a recipe for depression and deep dissatisfaction. Most of us are unable to bring our true richness of character and personality in line with our business card. Our jobs rarely, if ever, fully reflect who we are as people but merely a small part of ourselves which is publicly on view.
Yet the market based capitalist machine only recognises outward financial, external achievement. Yet most of us carry all kinds of richness which we are unable to translate into quantifiable monetary terms leaving us feel dissatisfied because our human talents are not profitable.
The antidote to overcoming debilitating anxiety around status is to recognise the value of our non monetary goods. Such as being a good friend, being an honest person or being someone who cares for their community and environment around them.
These are incredibly valuable traits and we should look to judge ourselves and the people around us on a comprehensive complete analysis and not narrow the lens of social status to be based on economic output!
Have you ever reached a goal you’ve worked hard for and expected to feel a burst of elation only to feel a little dissatisfied? Or that you just immiediately increased the target to another goal?
In this short clip Adam Alter, author of ‘Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked’ argues that goals are never fulfilling and what you should focus on is implementing ‘systems’ instead.
Through the example of smart watches and fit bits Alter describes how people initially feel good about hitting a daily exercise goal. Yet soon the number becomes hollow and they
have to keep increasing their exercise target in order to feel satisfaction or to feel that they’re achieving their goal. Otherwise they feel like their failing and eventually give up because they feel it’s not worth it.
This is an unsustainable way of achievement and Alter argues the problem with goals is they’re based on negative feedback, “if you don’t hit this goal you’re losing”
Systems on the other hand are based on a positive feedback mechanism. For example a blogger instead of saying “I’m going to write a post a day” can instead adopt a system of spending 40 minutes writing a day. Instead of focusing on getting a specific number of posts your focusing on becoming a better writer and saying
“Here’s my system, 40 minutes of writing a day and whatever number of words I get I’m achieving”
Dr. Cornell West provides some excellent insight into the role of hope, imagination and empathy in carving a better more just world in the face of catastrophe and misery.
Quoting some of the worlds best known dreamers and doers, West offers a compelling vision of justice and how it differs from the bitter and counter intuitive idea of revenge or retribution.
A must watch!
The Google generation is fascinating. Children growing up in an age with unlimited access to information at the end of their fingertips. Have a question about sex? Ask google. Forgot to do your homework? Copy and paste Wikipedia.
Its incredible to believe that only twenty years ago none of this was possible. You needed to own books, actually ask real people uncomfortable questions and unless your friend let you copy their work you were screwed if you didn’t do it.
In 2014 I wrote on the massive impact of streaming services such as Netflix and Spotify were having on the power of consumers and disrupting the economy through the digital world. Since then, Uber and Air BnB have further changed the game in the subscription economy, Instagram and Snapchat have become the social currency and more and more people have traded the onerous obligations of ownership for the ease of subscription and service.
The video attached above documents how this massive shift in power from industry to consumer marks the end of the ownership economy and the beginning of the subscription economy.
Young people these days don’t dream of buying a house and a car and working for a big investment bank. They dream of travelling the world, spending on experiences rather than materials and sharing the photos online for the world to see.
Where will this lead us? It has the potential to be as detrimental as it has to be phenomenal. There’s something intimate about owning a physical book or a physical Vinyl record – preserving memories of a time. A place. And a feeling. Subscription on the other hand is highly perishable, its gluttonous, and digital storage is not as familiar as a physical item.
What do you think?