A little over half a year ago, I was on the phone with my parents. I live about 12 hours away from home and we make time every Sunday evening to catch up. My dad always stays abreast of current events and a lot of times, our interaction serves the dual purpose of my briefing on worldly topics. September of 2016 saw the following:
- Mosquitos in Miami tested positive for Zika
- Police kill Tyre King in Columbus
- ISIS claims responsibility for nine people stabbed in Minnesota
- Miss Arkansas wins Miss USA
- Clinton v. Trump – First Presidential Debate
- Arnold Palmer died
- Angelina Jolie filed for divorce
Clearly there was lots to be upset about, or celebrate in some cases. Granted, some of these are legitimate concerns for people – some aren’t. Anyways, my dad was commenting on some of the things he’d seen on Facebook. People post about the events, saying how much they mean to them and add personal stories which attempt to describe their proximity to the issues at hand both geographically and otherwise.
These days, it is actually astounding when we consider the availability of information from around the world with the tap of a finger. Since I’m in the habit of namedropping noteworthy Canadians, I will mention Marshall McLuhan – arguably one of the greatest visionaries of the twentieth century. McLuhan (1911 – 1980) is credited with the term Global Village – as I understand it, essentially a situation where the center is everywhere at once without bounds – kind of like the ubiquity of headline news.
So besides that, I couldn’t think of a more fitting description for our current media environment than the Global Village. That’s exactly where I’d like to start. If you have a connection to the internet (you obviously do,) a TV, or a newspaper subscription, you are inundated with what is currently getting people’s attention. Based on the volume of people who use specific search criteria, you will ultimately be subjected to “what’s popular” whether you personally seek it out or not. Naturally, what gets the most attention is what is most extreme, either for better or for worse (imagine how many people googled “Mariah Carey” after New Year’s Eve.) For that reason, the media is effectively a funnel with a wide intake for the events of the world, as the funnel narrows, the normal or average stuff falls off. You are left with only the exceptionally good and bad news which is then shunted through a narrow output STRAIGHT to your IP Addresses, TV Screens, and Mailboxes. Since this is what cultivates the most views, it is what makes the most money, since that’s what makes the most money, that’s what makes headlines. I ripped the essence of that idea from Mark Manson’s book; The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, and tried to create a visual.
Regarding the above picture, would you like the good news or the bad news first? The good news is you’re probably not on the far left. The bad news is you’re probably not on the far right. The not-so-surprising news is that based on the media’s criteria for newsworthy people, you are – as E.J. Lotterman would say – vividly average. So when you’re scrolling through Facebook or Instagram, reading Cosmo or People, remember why those people are in there. Their lives may not even align with the actual ideals or values that would make YOU happy. So why does everyone compare their current state of affairs to that of the folks in the public eye? Even if it isn’t a conscious comparison, it occurs, and can artificially -although seriously- rearrange your disposition.
When “Most People” look at the public portrayal of those in the green area of the curve, they feel inferior. They aren’t as rich, they aren’t as beautiful, they aren’t as smart. They become depressed and want for things that they don’t necessarily need or want. When “Most People” look at the public portrayal of those stories in the left, they say “well my situation sucks too” or “I don’t get paid as much as I’m worth.” My dad called this Competitive Compassion – “Look how pretty she is!” and I think there are also sometimes folks who would satisfy my definition of Competitively Compassionate – when was the last time you saw a Facebook post that tried to guilt you into sharing for a cause? To raise awareness for “the indigenous people of… wherever” (Ed Norton quote.)
So how do you position yourself relative to what you’re inundated with in a way that’s healthy? Well for starters, you could look at your current situation and how you perceive yourself. Are you underachieving? Overachieving? Stagnant? What is your identity, and how rigidly do you identify with it?
—I’m about to get long-winded, but bear with me.
I was reading a healthy living book a few years ago by a (then) MD who has since been the subject of much scrutiny from his peers, professional organizations, and was ultimately stripped of his license. One concept stuck with me though regarding long-term care patients, he suggested that people who “identify” with their symptoms are more likely to stay chronically or terminally ill instead of recovering. Someone who identifies with their symptoms says “I have cancer” or “I have pneumonia.” They are resigned and more likely to experience increased severity and longevity of symptoms. On the other hand, someone who recognizes themselves as an entity separate from, but that “has” symptoms is more likely to make a timely and fuller recovery.
My wager would be that the folks who identify with their symptoms often use them as crutches or excuses for not pursuing more ambitious or aggressive modalities of treatment like “I’m too tired to exercise today, I’m exhausted.” or “I don’t have an appetite, I can’t eat.” While those who are unwilling to submit may convince themselves that they are not themselves when they are sick, and they may seek more challenging methods of therapy if suitable, or force themselves to eat so that they feel more like the healthy version of themselves. It is in this matter I bet, that they can ultimately will themselves into that former, healthier version of themselves.
So how does this parallel with your identity? Well the people in the above example who identify with their symptoms use them as excuses to keep themselves in their current state. If you’re not hungry, you don’t eat. If you’re too tired, you don’t exercise or visit with family. If the treatment makes you nauseous or uncomfortable, you don’t progress. All of those things sound like a perfect recipe for remaining stagnant in your current state to me, but I’m not a doctor.
Someone who is unhappy with their current situation will use a lot of the same types of answers to “protect” themselves and stay within their comfort zone. They hate their job, but will not seek alternative career direction. “I’ve come too far to change now” they might say. Or “I’m actually getting pretty good at this, and I don’t have to try as hard as I used to.” As American writer Richard Bach once said:
“Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they’re yours.”
If you always make a case for the things that keep you where you are, then without question, there you’ll be. For most people my age, people impose limitations on themselves with respect to their current professional identity. Face it, it’s getting easier for you, you’ve accomplished some things where you are, and built enough relationships that you have a bit of influence on the people you work with. After a while it becomes more comfortable (easier) to protect your current beliefs, than it is to say “I don’t know” or to test the boundaries of your limitations. If that’s the case, what are you taking on that makes you better at that job? Do you spend any time away from your job or office that keeps challenging you in ways that your day to day doesn’t? If you are, have you used any of that outside learning to create an actionable plan with measurable outcomes?
These are all questions we need to ask ourselves, among others which sometimes have uncomfortable answers. As Manson would say, the more uncomfortable the answer, the more likely that it’s true. In the event that those answers do make you uncomfortable, it’s wise to try and address them. Ambition causes you to seek out challenges, and challenges stimulate growth. It’s also possible that you seek to improve your identity as a mother or father, husband or wife, teammate, or anything else that suits your circumstances.
In Manson’s book, he suggests that perhaps the reason people cannot determine or realize their own capacity for growth is that they give too many of what he recommends not giving in the book’s title. When you are spread too thin, or you care about too many things (it is possible, after all) to focus on what’s really important to you, you make excuses for things not going your way. You simply can’t pursue your own ambitions if you don’t have goals specific to your own growth, or set aside time to challenge those limitations you might have imposed on yourself.
You see, everyone has problems. Your day to day life, career, and relationships are all riddled with problems. I understand that the word “problem” itself has a negative connotation, but let’s take a step back. Your current “problems” may be the reasons you don’t like your job, and those are negative. The same things that make you feel like your duties are below your pay grade comprise your problems, just like the ones that make you feel like you’re doing two people’s job at once. Are these problems you want to have? Or would you rather have problems that challenge you in new or different ways? Problems that challenge you to be resourceful and stretch beyond your current comfort zone in order to find the answers are positive problems.
Ultimately in Manson’s opinion, it comes down to determining what your problems need to be, or what problems you want to have. Create a scenario where you have problems that you enjoy solving, obstacles you enjoy overcoming, challenges that promote growth and breed satisfaction, and you will be on your way. Choosing the problems you want to have however, should also be aligned with your values. Will solving those problems give you a greater deal of true fulfillment? How will you choose to measure your degree of success?
If you’re interested in learning more about this process, I would recommend picking up Manson’s book. I did, and I couldn’t put it down. I also sincerely feel that it’s given me a greater deal of perspective to my personal journey and refined my ideas regarding goal setting.