Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Relative Self-definition is Fatal

I've gotten in a few deep conversations lately with friends about what is more important: the "why" or the "what". As with most things, I tried to write it down here to attain some sort of clarity on my thoughts about this.

People have a natural tendency to organize themselves into hierarchies. Promotions at work, social status in high school, how much influence one has in a social club. Wherever we go, these structures seem to follow us around and are in large part necessary for the smooth functioning of any organization. Groups of people are best able to move in a single direction and accomplish significant things when there is a structure to the dissemination of intent. A Marine in training or combat lives and dies by this. I spent nine and a half years as a US Marine. Inside the hierarchy of military ranks, the linear passage of time and dependable performance ensure steady progression. My experiences there left me with the feeling that it’s a bad idea to define ourselves by our station in life. I think we should "do the job" and not "be the job". I'll explain more of what I mean in a bit.

I think there is a great danger to evaluating your success by your rank in an arbitrary hierarchy (wherever you happen to be at that time). When you embark on this crusade of relative self-evaluation you'll find yourself competing against others around you. You'll seek to evaluate your station by advancing against those above you while defending yourself against those beneath you in the hierarchy. Just the way I'm phrasing this has probably already struck a nerve with you. Our intuition abhors competing in this manner. But if you self-validate by looking at your station or "rank", this is exactly what you are doing. By using your rank in a hierarchy to fuel your self-image you'll find yourself acting toward others based upon their rank in the hierarchy and ignoring their other traits. You'll be laboring for the admiration of others, and by doing so you'll be binding yourself to their world view and their expectations of you. In essence, you willingly become a slave to them.

So how should we determine success? Success, in my mind, can be determined by how much you love what you are doing and the work that you are producing. Not love of self, which would be vain, but love of the product of your labor and the path that took you there. To evaluate ourselves in this manner requires internal reflection on what we are doing and why we are doing it. I think why we do something matters more than what we do. If you are constantly seeking validation from others, you'll be cutting yourself off from this "why" and focusing on the "what". Even though when focusing on the "why" we often produce an amazing and beautiful product (a good "what"). Focusing on the "what" and how it benefits our standing in a hierarchy would be a form of prostitution. Selling our time and effort solely for the gratification of others in order to raise our status in a, relatively speaking, meaningless hierarchy.

I should speak for a moment about the dilution of local hierarchies. To state that local hierarchies are meaningless might seem a little brash. But I think they are becoming even less important as the world becomes more connected. There's the old cliché statement about "big fish in a little pond". Well, the ponds are becoming ever more connected to each other. As they do, so do the hierarchies within. A pecking order can only have so many chickens in it, when the numbers get too big hierarchies break down. Individuals in large groups become essentially anonymous; hierarchal rank becomes ephemeral and fleeting. Status becomes temporary and driven by the moment. On the Internet, just because a large group of people thought you were wonderful last week doesn't mean they care this week. Our individual brains can't handle the multitude of faces and names we interact with each day in a connected world, let alone try and assign a relative ranking to them. We are beyond the capabilities of what we have evolved over the entirety of human history to be able to handle. I'm guessing from my own experience that we can handle 200 or so ranked people in our minds and maybe maintain familiarity with 1000 personalities. These numbers are minuscule drops in the vast oceans of people available to us through the windows to the online world we carry around with us every moment of our waking lives. Surely recognition of famous people extends beyond that, but just fame does not imply any level of trust or a working relationship. Very often the characters portrayed by famous actors in my own culture are not persons I'd trust, let alone give any level of rapport to the people beneath those masks. Anonymity is a fact of life when living as part of a hyper-connected world. It doesn't matter how famous you are, you're always certain to be able to find somebody that doesn't know you and doesn't care. So what are we to do?

The answer: don't tie your happiness to where you are because where you are is temporary and doesn't matter most other places anyway. I'm not saying don't participate in established structures. A Marine needs to obey orders and is still responsible for those subordinate to him, follow that commitment you made through to completion no matter what. My bosses still determine the work I do for my pay, if I don't like that arrangement I'm free to find another job. Ensure that you work hard on or toward something you love and don't tie your happiness too much to what others think about your work. This kind of professional detachment means that you'll start thinking in innovative ways and taking the right risks to follow your gut. You need to do the work that you feel is important. To attempt to do the work you feel that others might want of you is to condescend to them. It's an attempt to game the game. To do this is to make the decision that what you love is a more pure thing than what they'd love and too good for them, so you're going to just produce whatever junk you think they want as though you can read their minds. I'm not saying this approach never works, but it does lack a purity of intent. And that cleanness of intent matters to me. I think that the truly great and transformative things can only be made this way. It's the only way we can fully commit ourselves to our work and go forth with clear conscience. When we work from and for our hearts, we work for god; an unequivocally greater thing than ourselves. Otherwise, we are just working for a pay check; is that how you want to spend the majority of your waking hours on this earth?