In the book Quiet, Susan Cain masterfully discusses the implications of our societal shift from a “Culture of Character” to a “Culture of Personality” as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution. Her use of the term ‘culture’ is particularly powerful to me. Personally, I have always been aware of negative societal shifts and thought of them as very old issues that, once set into motion, became like a genie that could not be put back in the bottle.
Ultimately, collectively, we cannot turn back the clock to kinder times. We must find our way individually among the hedgerows of our current labyrinth.
The single, most tragic consequence of our cultural shift of focus from character to personality is the loss of true individuality. In a world so focused on persona, self-editing—in multiple forms—rules the day. Who are we if we haven’t been defined by others?
What would happen if we defined ourselves? What if we decided what we should think or feel, or what should really be important to us?
Here’s a challenge:
STOP BEHAVING AS THOUGH LIFE IS A SOLO PERFORMANCE
Influencers, social media, falling in line with the majority in thoughts and feelings…all are toxic to true individualism, but why should we care?
I mean, it does feel better to be part of the group, and what’s wrong with beautiful people leading (apparently) beautiful lives, or aspiring to be like them?
It’s true, it doesn’t feel great to be outside of popular opinion. It’s tough to stand up for what we think if what we think doesn’t align well with the majority. We risk being outcast. If there’s one thing a culture of personality seems to communicate best it’s that we all need to just fall in line. If you try to march to a different drum, it better be preordained acceptable. Image is everything, even at the expense of your personal happiness and fulfillment.
The things that ‘matter’ have become increasingly shallow and meaningless.
My husband and I recently spent time in Costa Rica for our 30th wedding anniversary. We descended over 500 steps to arrive at the most amazing waterfall. My first thought? Shed the clothes (yes, I had a suit underneath) and jump in! As I enjoyed the briskness of the water and looked around feeling incredibly grateful to be a brief part of the awesome power of a 700 meter waterfall, I noticed a young woman nearby on the bank. Hard not to, she was quite beautiful, wearing a very pink bikini, and holding a selfie stick. Unfortunately, she was too self-involved to notice she was hoarding the only point of easy access to the waterfall, even as people were forced to navigate a series of rough volcanic boulders around her to gain access to the water. She never acknowledged a soul, including her boyfriend who kept prompting her to come into the water with him. I’m certain she got what she came down 500 steps to get, and it’s true she was the most physically stunning human being at the waterfall that day. But she never got in the water. In fact, she never seemed to offer a second glance at the awesome waterfall that served as her selfie backdrop. Personality in this case was overly managed, while character needed a lot of work.
Wholly manufactured lives and experiences are a commodity that is both bought and sold in our culture of personality. It doesn’t matter that pink bikini didn’t get in the water, only that her image carries the perception that she did (the perception being that she really enjoyed it in a way ‘average’ people are incapable of). In a culture of personality, buyer’s remorse comes in the form of an increasingly detached personal identity, closely followed by an increasing dissatisfaction with life in general, a life that consistently fails to live up to unrealistic, fabricated ideals.
A culture of personality doesn’t care about you. Fabricated images and experiences aren’t intended to make you feel better about yourself as an ‘as-is’ individual. On the contrary, they intend to prompt feelings of inadequacy that will lead you to buy-or-try whatever is being sold, something that’s ‘better than you’. The amusing but sad truth is, not even the person peddling that garbage is that thing. They are performers and a liars, most often for their own financial gain or vain image promotion.
Because image is everything.
Even though we cannot put the genie back in the bottle, there is a remedy at the individual level. Be kind to yourself and stop swallowing the personality pill. Find happiness in the ways that suit you, not others. Celebrate those aspects of ‘you’ that make you special and set you apart. Cherish and value your own thoughts and opinions. Have you ever found yourself in fundamental opposition to a group opinion, but kept silent for fear of ridicule? Stop it. Why should we be a world of clones? Why boast the merits of individualism if we aren’t willing to allow individual attitudes, expressions, or beliefs?
And if you’re on the opposite end of the spectrum: if you are that person on your cellphone at the stoplight that is now green, stop it. Stop being ignorant and inconsiderate of all the people behind you waiting to make the light. If you are the person sizing everyone up who walks through the door, stop it. You should ask yourself why outer appearances mean more to you than inner character. Look past your own nose. In short: consider others. You aren’t the only person on the planet.
No matter what culture we live in, our thoughts, ambitions, and actions constantly collide with other souls and we should be cognizant of the fact. If we are kinder to ourselves we won’t find the need to change who we are or manufacture an image to please others. Likewise, if we are kinder to others we instantly make the world a better place for them. Character is what truly matters. Don’t buy the hype, put the selfie stick down and step away.
Be the Exception to be Exceptional.