Effortlessly Cool

“All else being equal, we prefer to think that we’re buying a product because it’s something we want for ourselves, not because we’re trying to manage our image or manipulate the impressions of our friends. We want to be cool, but we’d rather be seen as naturally, effortlessly cool, rather than someone who’s trying too hard.”

 

This quote comes from Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler in their book The Elephant in the Brain. The authors describe some of the processes taking place in our brain when we make purchases that we don’t like to acknowledge. We prefer to hide some of these less than flattering motives when we buy something and we create a surface level reason for our purchase that sounds reasonable to ourselves and others. We create stories in our heads and that we share with others about how we have not done anything for ourselves recently, about how we have been saving for a purchase and want to make sure we get our money’s worth, and about how we really deserve this thing because we have been working so hard.

 

A big reason for why we may purchase something, however, is that we want to impress someone else. We want to make others think something specific about who we are, even if that isn’t exactly true. We want to be impressive, we want to be seen as cool, and we want to impress others, but we can’t always do so directly. It is hard to impress other people with direct shows of how awesome we are, and in many ways (in the United States at least) we have norms which frown upon direct bragging or obvious show-off behaviors. Subtle signaling through purchases, through physique, and through charity help us show-off in socially acceptable ways.

 

What is really interesting about the quote above is how much we try to make our signaling appear effortless. With being socially cool and desirable, a big piece is making it appear natural. Trying too hard counteracts the signaling we are doing with our purchases because it violates the norms against making obvious efforts to show off. We don’t impress people when they know we are trying to impress them as well as we impress people when it just happens to be a by product of our natural behavior. To that end, we spend a lot of time trying to figure out what will impress people and how to do that thing in a way that will appear to others as if it were natural and easy. We want to be cool, but we can’t be seen trying to be cool.

Staying Humble Out of the Spotlight

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.” Seneca wrote in one of his letters captured in the book Letters From a Stoic. This quote was at the heart of yesterday’s post, but it is only one part of a larger post that I want to write about. Yesterday I discussed the way that we can have a big impact on a small group of people. I wrote about our desires to speak to the masses and how we change our conversations and communication styles when we try to write for infinite audiences as opposed to writing for a committed few. Today’s post is more about reflection and avoiding the spotlight to remain humble and honest with oneself.

 

Seneca continues, “Lay these words to heart, Lucilius, that you may scorn the pleasure which comes from the applause of the majority. Many men praise you; but have you any reason for being pleased with yourself, if you are a person whom the many can understand? Your good qualities should face inwards.”

 

Our society rewards those who can do rare and challenging work. If you have a unique ability to produce a painting that appeals to everyone and captures the moment, then you may be rewarded by selling your art at a high price. If you can out-run everyone else on the planet, you may be rewarded with some cash, a shiny medal, and a new shoe deal. And if you can write clearly and express your thoughts and ideas so well that everyone can understand them and learn from them, then you may be able to sell your words and ideas in a mass publication. We are all about rewarding hard work that most people cannot do. This is not a bad thing, but just part of how we evolved.

 

What can be a bad thing, however, is taking the fact that we can do something difficult and socially rewarded and then holding ourselves above others. Notoriety, skill, and wealth do not mean we are actually different from those who sleep in the streets. We are all human, and we should strive to find a commonality between us and others such that we find the same value in ourselves as we do in those that we might naturally want to scorn and look down upon. The best qualities are those that help us do great work for our own satisfaction and to align ourselves with values that expand human creativity, dignity, respect, and well being for all. Seeking attention and glory is dangerous because it creates a world that is entirely about us, often at the detriment of another.

 

We can strive for great work and if we receive wealth, attention, and applause we can enjoy and appreciate it, but we should not seek these things out for their own sake. They should be byproducts of our great work, and we should always be somewhat distrustful of them. Looking inward, we can appreciate our success without the need for applause from the outside.

Individual Circumstances

For many of us, things in our life and our mental states begin to break down when we look around and compare ourselves to others. We can be perfectly happy on our own, enjoying our own flow of life, but when we see the neighbors buy a new car, when a friend posts vacation pictures on Facebook, and when a family member gets a promotion, we suddenly feel inadequate. Conversely, when we have overcome obstacles it is easy to look at everyone else who has not been as successful as us and look down on them, criticizing them for not being as strong as us and for not making the smart decisions that we had to make to get to where we are.

 

In my first example of comparing ourselves to others, I am referring to jealousy and envy that we can feel relative to others. Our status in the world will always be relative, which means that as someone else does better, our status relative to  that person is in a worse position. There is no global status meter ranking us all, but we unconsciously rank our status against one another all the time. It is stressful, and it is also all made up. Recognizing our status comparing impulses and choosing not to allow these impulses to drive our lives will free up our mind, our goals, and what we feel we must do to show that we are just as successful as other people in our orbit.

 

The second example from the opening paragraph of comparing ourselves to others is something I have been thinking about more recently. Once we become successful, I would argue that we have an incentive to over-hype the obstacles we faced and to make it even more challenging for other people to follow in our footsteps. If I had come from nothing and succeeded, and a hundred thousand people after me also came from nothing and found success, then my achievements would look smaller. If, however, I came from nothing and achieved great success and suddenly found myself in a rare group of individuals with very few other people able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, then my accomplishments would look even more impressive. What I did to achieve success may not have changed, but how it is perceived will change based on how many others also become successful. We have plenty of incentives to build up our story, trump up the obstacles we had to overcome, and to then criticize those who don’t make it. We shouldn’t believe the story we tell ourselves, because it is probably and exaggeration and will likely make life unnecessarily challenging for others, just so we can hold a special place in our own minds and in the eyes of society.

 

In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, Colin Wright writes the following, “Don’t compare your efforts to that of your peers. Everything you do should be customized for your individual circumstances.” We never know all of the challenges that another person faces. We never know what advantages another person has in life. And ultimately, for ourselves, neither of those things matter. What does matter is whether or not we are making efforts to be well-rounded individuals and whether we exist in society for ourselves or with the goal of making all of society better for everyone. Comparing ourselves to others in an attempt to monitor who is working hard, who is cheating, who deserves what they get, and who is high or low status will simply burn us out and lead to negative thinking and negative interactions with others.

The Ego Drives the Wrong Outcome

The idea in Ryan Holiday’s book, Ego is the Enemy, shows up over and over again in children’s movies. We frequently see main characters who have incredible ambition but are not patient enough to learn from the wise elders of the show. They set off with confidence that they can be great, take on the mighty challenge, and achieve some impressive feat only to fail and return to gain knowledge and insight from the wise leader whose advice they previously ignored. The message is to be confident in yourself, to push yourself, but also to be patient and learn from those who have come before you. In other words, the message is to control your ego.

 

We see this all the time in children’s movies, but in our own lives, that message often seems forgotten as we plunge into AP classes in high school, 20 credits our first semester of college, and into a new career with an eye toward the corner office. We set out to be recognized in each of these areas, driven by our ego, with the advice of our elders falling on deaf ears unless that advice is really just someone telling us that we are great and will get into a great school, will get a great job, and will make boatloads of cash. Our ego takes over and the focus is not on doing great work and learning, but on getting something so we can show off.

 

What is worse, when we are under-prepared for challenges that we face in this situation, we tend to let the ego drive us forward as if it is our will that will push us where we want to go. As Holiday put it, “We tend to think that ego equals confidence, which is what we need to be in charge. In fact, it can have the opposite effect.” We face challenges and want to look strong and prepared for what we face. We want others to be impressed as we handle these difficulties without breaking a sweat. We try to be a leader by inflating our ego and standing tall in front of our desk with our arms crossed, the cliche magazine cover image of a CEO.

 

How we actually reach our goals and become successful is a different picture. We learn from grunt work. We set stretch goals and challenge ourselves, but within reasonable bounds that we know will force us to grow. This is completely different from setting goals that we know will impress other people. Trying to be the leader through sheer ego will make us look small and put us on a path toward isolation. Becoming a leader through experience and a willingness to learn from others will actually make us great, but it is something we can only do if we can control the ego and allow ourselves to learn from others. It all requires self-awareness and a dose of humility to put our ego aside and learn from the wise people in our lives and to take on our ambitious challenges when we are ready.

Truly Impressive

“Impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive.”

 

Ryan Holiday wrote this quote in his book Ego is the Enemy which I read a couple years back. I was thumbing through some of my highlights in the book last week and saw this quote and it has been in my head non-stop. In my own life, I have experienced numerous times where I have been motivated by recognition and I have wanted to get involved with something because I wanted to be seen actively engaging with what I thought looked impressive. Quite frequently I have made decisions that sounded good and sounded impressive even when I knew the thing I was choosing was not a good fit for me or not I wanted or would bring me the most value. For much of my life, I have tried to impress people, but I have not been willing to put in the work to be truly impressive.

 

I have been afraid to work really hard on something and either fail at that thing or to just not like where I end up. I have had great ideas of things I could do to make an impact, and then I have been afraid to get engaged and going with those things because I was afraid that the time commitment would be too much or that I would have to put in too much effort to try to convince other people that what I was doing was important.

 

In all of the examples above, I have been worried about my own ego and my first thought has often been, “how can I impress other people without having to try too hard and without having to put myself in a risky position?” What I should have been asking the entire time has nothing to do with other people’s perception of me or with being impressive at all. What I should have been asking is, “where is there a gap or a great need in our society, and is there something I can do to help make that better?” The focus here is not on identifying an area that needs improvement for the glory of being the one to step in and save everyone, but instead, the focus is on living purposefully and using our time, energy, good health, and other resources to make a positive impact on the world. In this way, being impressive is not a goal but an byproduct of doing meaningful work and engaging positively in society.

 

If we set out to be impressive, we will likely do less and feel more stressed about who we are and where we find ourselves. If instead we set out to help alleviate the pain, suffering, and shortcomings of our society, we will end up doing more impressive things and becoming a more impressive person overall. In the end, impressing others has nothing to do with becoming an impressive person or doing meaningful work. Impressing others is really about boosting our ego, and is short lived. To really be happy with oneself and to know that one is making a difference, one must set out to do meaningful things to help others rather than oneself.

The End Goals of our Goals

Colin Wright focuses on self awareness throughout his book Considerations and he turns that inward focus toward our goals and desires for life.  Specifically he writes about bucket list items and goals we aspire to reach.  What Wright explains is that we often set up goals with the hopes of impressing other people. Our goals are chosen not because we actually want to achieve them or because we desire the things that come with reaching that goal, but instead we choose our goals based on how impressive they sound or how they will make us look relative to our peers. When comparing actual goals to bucket list items Wright states, “…rather than cataloging goals we actually have aspirations to achieve, we list things that are very impressive and intense-sounding for the sake of being associated with those types of activities.” What Wright is establishing is the idea that we are not focusing on ourselves in goal setting, but what others want or expect from us.

 

Wright continues to explain the difference between choosing goals that are for yourself rather than for others and ends this chapter in his book with the following, “in short, make sure your goals are for you, not for others’ perception of your. This applies to all goals, not just those on some sort of bucket list.”

 

I want to share this quote, or perhaps the entire section of Wright’s book, with every high school and college student in the country. So often it is easy to have expectations in your mind about what success is, but that vision of success does not always align with who you truly are, and what you truly desire.  Pushing towards success by achieving what others have decided is a worthy definition of success, as opposed to understanding and creating your own definition of success, can lead you down paths that are not enjoyable and do not lead to happiness.

 

For me, a major challenge throughout college was developing the self awareness to understand what visions of success I had and where those visions came from.  Growing up watching Top Gear had build success in my mind as a fancy sports car, and growing up in a nice house gave me certain expectations for how success translated into a home.  Evaluating myself and what my definition of success was allowed me to understand what was important in life and what was not. Once I decided that I did not need to achieve a certain monetary level of success, drive sports cars, or live in a giant house, much of the stress I felt melted away.  It is difficult to look inward and understand what sets the foundation for the goals we have, and it is even more difficult to begin to develop those goals on our own without feeling the pressure of what society and family expect from us.