‘we are a culture that conflates happiness and success’

A new craft has emerged in the digital age: to capture, polish and publish a perfect life. We crop, recolour and hashtag our posts to embellish them, and to direct the impressions our readers take from them.

Chompoo Baritone recently created a clever set of posts. It pokes fun at Instagram users and the application of this craft to make their lives seem more glamorous or exciting. It removes the dull, useless detail that means nothing or little, or detracts from the focus we set. We cut out what we don’t want others to see. Photographers have been doing this for years. Here is a link to the work ‘‘How people lie about their lives in Instagram’.

Li(f)e craft
Li(f)e craft

The concept of the double life, the one we lead and the one we aspire to, is not new. Adam Phillips in Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, beautifully summarised by Brainpickings in this post, spells it out.

We may need to think of ourselves as always living a double life, the one that we wish for and the one that we practice; the one that never happens and the one that keeps happening… We make our lives pleasurable, and therefore bearable, by picturing them as they might be; it is less obvious, though, what these compelling fantasy lives — lives of, as it were, a more complete satisfaction — are a self-cure for.’

And,

Our utopias tell us more about our lived lives, and their privations, than about our wished-for lives. In our unlived lives we are always more satisfied, far less frustrated versions of ourselves…’ – Phillips

Brands create and feed us images and experiences of that perfect, unlived life. It’s the not having that frustrates, and creates desire. We’ve coined the term FOMO to label that cognitive over-saturation of perfection in what we see of others – it stands for fear of missing out.

Is there anything wrong with a bit of digital li(f)e craft, at an individual level? Is it motivating, self-reinforcing or depleting? Does social media allow us to amplify a serial self-perfection-promotion that’s more mask than is good for us? Is there a shadow rising, born from this intoxication?

Carl Jung investigated how we live our lives through the persona. The persona is the mask we use to present ourselves to the world. What Jung called individuation, or healthy adult personal development and adaptation to the world, is a process of tearing away the mask that conceals our true selves and only presents what the world most wants to see from us or expects of us. It is the ‘Instagram’ self, the one we want others to believe, love, admire, envy.

The mask becomes a shadow if it is only a manifestation of the unlived life, and nothing more.

Establishing your own interface with the world, not only what others want to see, is realistic, more flexible and easier to manage. It helps to navigate adult society without colliding or hiding from the true self. To present what is not perfect or conflated or shaped by ‘likes’ is risky but rewarding over time – in place of momentary happiness there may be a semblance of longer lasting fulfilment. It is the bedrock for resilience, psychological congruence (or a lack of dissonance) and meaningful engagement. It also opens up the space for connection, development and feedback that relates to you, not your fantasy life. I think brands are starting to reach that tipping point. The perfection they once poured out is gradually being replaced with something more authentic, something with real people in it. The ever-happy, giggly personalities issuing the odd “awe” are not accessible, nor are their relentless selfie-pouts and animated hand gestures. People need to from relationships with people who deliver to needs over time. The rest is just a short-lived theatrical tease, closing on the curtain call.

Too much digital li(f)e craft, over-fascination with and broadcasting of perfection, a mask, through aesthetics or ‘happiness’, leaves the narrative we build about our lives wanting. So the risk is that the narrative is inauthentic. The mask covers rather than connects.

We live in an age where we are exposed to multiple sources of information and perspectives, we can collect, digest, influence and be influenced. You no longer have to be the big company, a politician on the news, or simply be rich to have influence and audience. You can build a following through what you believe, say and do. We are empowered because we are connected, to information, to others. We have a myriad of tools at our disposal for articulating and engaging the authentic self, through the medium of our choice, at the exposure that matches our personal comfort levels.

Continued self-promotion and craft without meaningful engagement is bound to have a shelf life. Just like it has for brands. Opening up an authentic face for your brand, for you, is powerful. We can craft and drive our influence and presence in the world without bombarding our ‘fans’ with perfection. We can offer more.

In a world that’s flying into new horizons and perspectives, with more access and connection than ever before, old rules (broadcast / push / bombardment) promoting ‘self’ or the unlived life are running out. They have increasingly less attraction. This age offers, paradoxically, a real opportunity to be authentic.

The digital divide once scared me. I was afraid of who could access the real me, and what they could do with that. And then I remembered Jung and all he had to teach. I was reminded that the narrative of your life is built through exposure, exploration and authentic engagement. That’s risky as you must reveal some of your true self, not the utopia of the unlived life. But other options for me lacked depth and sustainable fulfillment. They seemed to shelter and limit growth. Growth is something we need in this digital age, learning, growth, renewal, curiosity, connection, collaboration.

Life has shades beyond Instagram fixes. If you enjoy your digital craft, that could be harmless enough. We all do it to some extent. But never lose sight of navigating your own exposure to the world, at the comfort and through the mediums of your choice. Take a few risks on your authentic self. There’s more out there than our special (imaginary) unlived life.

‘There are people in this world who cannot tell you what they think and what they believe. They simply don’t know. They are programmed to be the person they think someone in authority — a hiring authority, for instance — wants them to be.’

Liz Ryan

Who am I?

What are your strengths? Do you list them on your LinkedIn or Google+ profile? Most of us do. And this showcase often sounds a lot like, well, the businessperson next door. We have an idea of what makes us desirable and wanted at work, so that’s what we look for in ourselves and that’s what we profile.

But these days you may be more attractive for what stands you out, what makes you different. And yet when I ask the question: ‘What stands you out?’ I almost always get a great response for a game of personal strengths buzzword bingo. Liz Ryan is right – a lot of people will tell you they are who someone wants them to be.

When I am assisting others to profile themselves, and I realize I am on a straight path to winning a bingo championship, I take the time to ask these questions:

  • What was in the working day where you woke up and were excited to get started?
  • What was in the day when you come home feeling great?
  • What were you doing when you forgot the time and lost time?
  • How do people describe you? What words do people use, think of all the examples you can, informal and formal.
  • How do you make life better through what you do?
  • Tell me what you do, pretend I work as far away from your industry as possible, and wouldn’t understand any jargon at all. Think about your first language being my third.

As they talk I just record their spoken thoughts, keywords mainly. I try to note their actual words and not my version of what they are saying, or my summary of it.

When you both look at the notes afterwards, you start to get a sense of a person and not just a list of strengths. A few preferences emerge, a few values spill out and suddenly you see there is a human, there on the page, waiting for a sentence or two in which to show up, uniquely. When you pull this into a bio with a bit of narrative, it unmistakably belongs to just one person, one human, not a scorecard.

Digital guru Brian Solis says that effective engagement is inspired by the empathy that develops simply from being human. So when you craft or update your bio online, take a little time to ask yourself, in place of ‘How I am strong?’:

How am I human?

It’s a good starting point for engagement.

In previous blogs I’ve posted about the skills we need for a prosperous digital present and future, and the ones that are likely to be in short supply. I’ve been asking the question of how we drive our own value propositions over time, one, because there is more choice and focus if we do it for ourselves, and two, because we can, thanks to our context of rapid change and technological advancement.

IMG_1304

Today I came across an article written about Andrew Ng, which deepened my insight. Ng is the founder of Google Brain, a deep-learning research project supercharged by Google’s vast stores of computing power and data. Ng also co-founded Coursera, the largest provider of open online courses or what we know as MOOCs, with partners Princeton, Yale and top schools Europe and China. In his interview for the article, he said that ‘follow your passion’ is probably the worst career advice you could ever give or get. His reasoning?

Ng says we are very rarely good at something when we start out, and yet we have to be good at something to be passionate about it. He does believe we can become good at almost anything. In place of following a passion when choosing where to focus your energies, we should look at what opportunity there is to learn and what the possible impact is.

‘The world has an infinite supply of interesting problems. The world also has an infinite supply of important problems. I would love for people to focus on the latter.’

The key in preparing for the future is also moving away from the repetitive and routine. This is where I think his work chimes with Seth Godin. Highly repetitive and routine tasks lend themselves well to eventual automation. That means a loss of jobs. Young people who can identify and make the most of opportunities to learn and have impact – solving real and important problems – and who seek out non-repetitive and non-routine, are on the right path.

What I like about Ng’s approach is that he also believes that innovation and creativity are teachable. They are not ‘unpredictable acts of genius’ so much as processes that are systematic that we can all improve on. Ng runs his own workshop on the strategy of innovation.

‘When you become sufficiently expert in the state of the art, you stop picking ideas at random. You are thoughtful in how to select ideas, and how to combine ideas. You are thoughtful about when you should be generating many ideas versus pruning down ideas’.

Building people for the non-routine, the human, the creative and the innovative – that’s what we’re seeking out. And we need scalable ways of doing that. Ng believes this is possible. We’re just not there, yet.

IMG_0558An authentic self is what we seek to articulate across our social media platforms. That establishes our presence, and presence is a precursor to influence. Influence is the new currency online. However when we share what we believe in and what we endorse, we take a risk.

There are unprecedented levels of social self promotion taking place online, and lets face it, sharing something that others like makes us feel good. Liking or sharing is akin to stroking, and we all like a bit of stroking. It’s a simple feedback loop, often quite immediate, and showcased for all to see. We come to know over time the type of content that gets shares and likes and ‘engagement’. Which begs the question, in world where all this activity is deemed ‘good’, over time do we end shaping our sharing of self to what gets most stroked?

Game changers, free thinkers and other mavericks have never traded on being liked. They push boundaries, change the rules, introduce new ways of seeing and believing, sometimes uncomfortable ones. The hardest part of an authentic online presence is putting out what might not get likes, but rather stirs controversial comments. It takes courage to say what you mean, because not everyone will like it, that’s your risk.

Don’t be tempted to show up only in ways that feed the populist version of ‘like’. Push the boundaries you believe in. All the great shape shifters do. And their ultimate influence is worth so much more, because it started with something they believed would make a difference, something they thought about and felt strongly about.

The digital world has introduced a new playing field. And it’s not all about being liked. Aim for more than being popular and engaging, aim to influence because you believe in a new way of thinking or doing things that will make a difference. That’s digital leadership.