Insight: Why We're Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life - Tasha Eurich 2017
The Cult of Self: The Sinister Societal Roadblock to Insight
Part One: Roadblocks and Building Blocks
We have fallen in love with our own image, with images of our making, which turn out to be images of ourselves.
—DANIEL J. BOORSTIN
International Falls, MN—The Dragons’ season came to a close as Paycen’s pair of goals carried the Icemen to a 4—2 victory on Saturday, with five goals scored during a wild second period. The Icemen scored one minute into the second as right wing Loeden lifted the puck over goaltender Keltie’s blocker. The Dragons tied the game when Kaeden and Caiden set up a power-play goal. With Jaxon in the penalty box after drawing Brecon’s blood with a high stick to the nose, the Dragons were patient on the power play. Kaeden fed the puck below the goal line to Caiden, who made a pass to Constandino in the slot for an easy Dragon score.
Okay, so this is a completely made up recap of a hockey game. But the one thing I didn’t make up were the player’s first names. If you didn’t notice them, go back and take another look: Paycen, Keltie, Brecon, Jaxon, Constandino, and yes, Kaeden and Caiden (what are the chances?). I lifted these strange and unusual monikers from the real draft roster of the 2015 Western Hockey League, made up of 68 American and Canadian high schoolers. The ones I didn’t even mention? Kale (yes, like the vegetable), Lach, and four named Dawson (James Van Der Beek would be touched).
So many bizarre names among a single group of hockey players might sound like a simple, if odd, coincidence. But the Western Hockey League is not an outlier. A 2012 Parents Magazine survey reveals that these days, parents are choosing names like Blayde, Draven, Izander, Jaydien and Zaiden (for boys), and Annyston, Brook’Lynn, Luxx, Sharpay, and Zerrika (for girls). And I’m sure you’ve come across some doozies yourself.
In one of the largest studies to date on American naming trends, researchers Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell analyzed the names given to more than 325 million babies born between 1880 and 2007. During the early twentieth century, they found, parents consistently chose conventional names for their newborns. In 1890, 1900, 1910, and 1920, for example, the most common names were John for boys and Mary for girls. In the decades that followed, parents continued to stick with the classics like James, Michael, Mary, and Linda.
But beginning in the 1980s, Twenge and Campbell discovered a rather strange pattern: fewer and fewer parents were going with the old standbys. Between 1983 and 2007, the percentage of U.S. parents who chose common names for their children dropped sharply each and every year—most dramatically in the 1990s and continuing to decline in the 2000s. Here’s a pretty telling data point: in 1880, nearly 40 percent of boys and 25 percent of girls received one of the 10 most popular names—but in 2010, that number dropped to less than 10 percent for boys and 8 percent for girls. “Parents used to give their children common names,” Twenge observes, “so they would fit in. Now, they give their child a unique [one to] stand out and be a star.”
I don’t point this out to judge. Of course, parents can name their children whatever they want (it’s a free country). I point this out because aside from being interesting, this trend is a sign of an unstoppable phenomenon that’s sweeping our world. And it’s a powerful roadblock to self-awareness.
Whether you know it or not, a powerful cult is trying to recruit you. Cults tend to show a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing, and this cult has chosen an irresistible figurehead: you! Frankly, it’s easy to see why the promise that the Cult of Self makes can be too tempting to resist. It lulls us into thinking that we are unique, special, and superior. That our needs matter more than everyone else’s. That we’re not subject to the same rules as other people are. That we’re deserving of things simply because we want them. No wonder the Cult of Self has successfully recruited so many of our neighbors, friends, and colleagues—perhaps it’s even succeeded in luring you. The last chapter was about our internal roadblocks; in this chapter, we’ll discover this insidious societal obstacle. Perhaps more importantly, we’ll learn several methods for resisting its siren song—or breaking free if you’re already ensnared.
TURNING THE TIDE: FROM EFFORT TO ESTEEM
As many grouchy Baby Boomers will point out at the slightest provocation, things weren’t always like this. In the broader timeline of human history, the Cult of Self is a fairly recent phenomenon. For thousands of years, traditional Judeo-Christian values emphasized modesty and humility—the polar opposites of the Cult of Self—as measures of a well-lived life. In the eighteenth century, the United States (which now boasts some of the Cult of Self’s most enthusiastic members) was founded on the very principles of hard work, grit, and resilience. This Age of Effort lasted hundreds of years, arguably peaking with the so-called Silent Generation (born between 1900 and 1945) and the events of the early 20th century—World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. The Age of Effort fostered a collective mentality that shunned the glorification of the self.
But with the start of the self-esteem movement in the middle of the twentieth century, the Age of Effort started to give way to the Age of Esteem. The seeds were first sown with the humanistic psychology movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Carl Rogers, for instance, argued that humans could only achieve their potential by seeing themselves with “unconditional positive regard.” Perhaps more famously, Abraham Maslow proposed that humans have a hierarchy of needs, at the top of which was self-actualization—that is, total happiness and fulfillment. Yet by Maslow’s own admission, self-actualization was incredibly difficult to achieve. Conveniently, self-esteem was just one rung down, and all that was needed to achieve it was a change in mindset. In other words, we didn’t need to become great; all we really had to do was feel great.
Not surprisingly, self-esteem began to catch on like wildfire. In 1969, psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden published the international best-seller The Psychology of Self-Esteem, in which he confidently concluded that self-esteem had “profound consequences for every aspect of our existence” and that he “couldn’t think of a single psychological problem—from anxiety to depression, to fear of intimacy or of success, to spouse battery or child molestation—that is not traceable to the problem of low self-esteem.” To say that Branden oversold his thesis is like saying that Kim Kardashian feels pretty good about herself.
Though Nathaniel Branden is often seen as the father of self-esteem, a man named John Vasconcellos took the movement to a whole new level. After he was sworn in to the California State Assembly in 1966, the first move of the law student turned politician with a childhood history of depression was to introduce legislation for the California Task Force to Promote Self Esteem and Personal & Social Responsibility—to the tune of an astounding taxpayer-funded $735,000 (roughly $1.7 million today).
The task force’s first order of business was to empirically establish that high self-esteem reduced crime, drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, child and spousal abuse, and welfare dependency. There was just one tiny, insignificant issue: they couldn’t. In fact, the task force was forced to grudgingly admit in its own report that “the associations between self-esteem and its expected consequences are mixed, insignificant, or absent” and that there was no relationship “between self-esteem and teenage pregnancy, self-esteem and child abuse, self-esteem and most cases of alcohol and drug abuse.” Though no one wanted to admit it, the idea that self-esteem predicted life success was, to put it bluntly, a total and complete farce. Yet in a statement of stunning disregard for the scientific method, Vasconcellos disavowed the task force’s findings, saying “we all know in our gut that it is true.”
Enter psychologist Roy Baumeister, upon whom journalist Will Storr aptly bestowed the title “the man who destroyed America’s ego.” Baumeister began studying self-esteem early in his career and was initially one of the movement’s biggest believers. Over time, however, his skepticism grew. He couldn’t understand why people like Vasconcellos claimed that people with low self-esteem were violent and aggressive—his experience had been just the opposite. But never one to rely on experience alone, Baumeister dug into the science, and in 2003, he and his colleagues published an unequivocal indictment of almost three decades—and over 15,000 studies—of self-esteem research.
Their review was chock-full of evidence that the relationship between self-esteem and success was virtually nonexistent. For example, military cadets’ self-esteem had no relationship with their objective performance as leaders. College students’ self-esteem didn’t give them superior social skills. Professionals with high self-esteem didn’t enjoy better relationships with their co-workers. And in an even bigger blow to Nathaniel Brandon and his disciples, boosting the self-esteem of the unsuccessful hurt their performance rather than improved it. Baumeister and his colleagues’ obvious conclusion was that self-esteem was neither “a major predictor [n]or cause of almost anything,” least of all success and personal fulfillment.
I haven’t even gotten to the really shocking part. Baumeister’s research revealed an inconvenient truth that challenged the very assumptions upon which the entire movement was built. Low self-esteem wasn’t actually an ailment from which most Americans suffered in the first place. At the same time self-esteem proponents were “bemoan[ing] the lack of self-love,” self-esteem levels were steadily and almost uncontrollably rising. The real social ill was that most people felt too good about themselves (often without any objective reason).
And it got worse. Baumeister’s review showed that people with high self-esteem were more violent and aggressive. When their romantic relationships were in trouble, they were more likely to walk away, be unfaithful, or engage in other destructive behaviors. They were also more likely to cheat, drink, and do drugs. All of this was literally the opposite of what the California Task Force had been arguing.
Though it’s been decades since Baumeister and his research team uncovered the sham that is self-esteem, we can’t seem to shake our obsession with getting more of it. Why? The bottom line, I believe, is that it’s far easier to feel wonderful and special than to become wonderful and special. And just like in Garrison Keillor’s fictional town of Lake Wobegon, we continue to spoon-feed our children the idea that they are just that.
In the northwest of England, at the confluence of two ancient rivers, lies the enchanted town of Barrowford. In the seventeenth century, the area was known as a center of witchcraft, with 10 of the so-called “Pendle Witches” having been hanged there on a warm summer day in 1612. But today in its verdant hills, valleys, and winding cobblestone streets, another strange magic is afoot.
To the average visitor, Barrowford might look like an ordinary, if quaint, bedroom community dotted with upscale restaurants and antique stores. Little would they know that Barrowford boasts a very interesting feature: it’s the town where children are never naughty. Don’t believe me? Then how do you explain Barrowford Primary School, where the head teacher, Rachel Tomlinson, insists that there is no such thing as a bad child? Each one of her 350 students is, she says, “special and unique.” For that very reason, teachers don’t raise their voices or provide discipline of any kind. Punishment, says Tomlinson, only “robs the victim and the perpetrator of the things they need.” Instead, apparently all that’s needed to get the best out of these boys and girls is to remind them of their specialness—unconditionally and often.
But if, on the rare occasion that the magical praise-spell breaks and a child does misbehave, teachers are given but one method of recourse. They are permitted to send the child to another classroom, at which point they may only point out, “You know I think you’re wonderful, but your mistaken behavior shows me that it would be best for you to have some time here, where these children can help you to stop making that mistake.” Rather amusingly, the teachers’ sole nuclear option is to tell them (ostensibly with a straight face), “you have emptied my resilience bucket.”*1
The children of Barrowford Primary are given this unconditional praise regardless of how they perform in the classroom, with Tomlinson’s pupils telling a team of visiting inspectors that “no one minds that we don’t do our best work.” One year, when students received their Key Stage 2 standardized test results, the school sent them home with a letter explaining that academic evaluations can’t possibly measure all of their special and wonderful qualities and that regardless of their scores, Tomlinson was proud that they had all “tried their best during a tricky week.”
And such self-esteem stoking hasn’t created a miracle of high achievement any more than hanging those poor women in 1612 rid the town of witches. In fact, in September of 2015, the school was handed the worst rating possible, deemed “inadequate” by British government inspectors. Other experts have labeled Barrowford’s educational philosophy a “fantasy.” Tomlinson’s response to the criticism was priceless in its delusion: though she was disappointed, she was also “very positive and excited about the future.”
Barrowford’s misguided approach was designed to produce an army of children whose self-esteem is preserved at all costs. And again, in this the school is not alone. We’ve all heard the examples: sports teams where everyone is a winner, like one branch of the American Youth Soccer Organization that hands out roughly 3,500 awards each season (this works out to at least one award per player). Others prevent students from losing altogether, like the schools in the U.S. and Europe that banned all competitive sports. There are the elementary schools where failing grades and red pens have been outlawed because they’re too “negative,” or where students spend time working on daily “I Love Me” lessons. The high schools with 30 valedictorians who ship their students off to colleges where grade inflation is an ever-increasing problem.
This gingerly treatment of young egos is even alive and well in America’s most prestigious and selective institutions. For example, in 2001, a whopping 91 percent of Harvard students graduated with honors, and in 2013, at least half of all grades awarded were A’s. But in 2015, 72 percent of students polled didn’t think that grade inflation was a problem. As the proud sister of a Yale graduate, I found myself especially relishing this story, until I learned that Yale has experienced similar problems: a 2012 ad hoc committee on grading found that 62 percent of all grades given were an A or A—, versus just 10 percent in 1963. Entertainingly, many Yale students and faculty believed this pattern was simply the result of “a more consistently excellent student body.”
This is all evidence of a sweeping problem I call the Feel Good Effect, though its consequences are far more pernicious than the cheery name suggests. In the workplace, for example, the best-case scenario is that people who see themselves as special and amazing annoy those who have to work with them. In the worst case, they are woefully ill-equipped to deal with the tiniest bit of criticism, crushed in the face of the smallest screw-up, and devastated by the minor setbacks on the path to their predestined greatness. Comedian George Carlin has a great bit about this. “No child these days,” he says, “gets to hear these all important character building words: ’You lost, Bobby. You’re a loser, Bobby.’ They become used to these kid gloves and never hear the truth about themselves until they’re in their twenties, when their boss calls them in and says, ’Bobby clean the s*** out of your desk and get the f*** out of here, you’re a loser!’ ”
This is equal parts hilarious and harsh, but Carlin makes a truly excellent point. In the real world, not everyone gets to graduate with honors—and in fact, the more delusional we are about our skills and abilities, the less likely we are to succeed. Take one study, which found that when college freshmen were overconfident about their academic abilities, they also had poorer well-being and lower engagement in their schoolwork throughout their college experience than students who were more realistic.
The Feel Good Effect also hurts our relationships. In one of the most comprehensive studies of its costs to date, researchers assessed 100 college students’ views of their personalities, comparing their self-ratings with trained psychologists’ ratings of them. The psychologists viewed young men with accurate self-perceptions as honest and smart. However, for those young men who gave themselves unrealistically positive ratings, the psychologists described them as “guileful and deceitful, distrustful of people and having a brittle ego-defense system.” Similarly, young women who were accurate were seen as “complex, interesting, and intelligent,” and those whose self-images were unrealistically positive were seen as “defensive” and “thin-skinned.” And it wasn’t just trained psychologists who saw differences between the delusional and the aware. When asked to evaluate the overconfident, even their own friends thought they were “condescending,” “hostile,” and “self-defeating.” The realists, on the other hand, were seen as “charming” and “poised.”
By blinding us to the truth about our skills and abilities, the Feel Good Effect even causes us to make life choices which, as good as they may feel in the moment, can really hurt us in the long run. Take the classic reality-TV cliché: a young pre-med student skips her final exams to drive 10 hours to audition for the reality singing competition du jour. Yet rather inconveniently, she’s also a horrible singer and never makes it past the first round. Here, the choice that resulted from her overconfidence got in the way of her far sounder future plans.
But what if you’re not delusional but merely positive—the kind of person who sees the world through rose-colored glasses? An optimistic temperament predicts persistence, so it’s not surprising that entrepreneurs and founders tend to be more optimistic than the average professional. But when optimism is unfounded, those rose-colored glasses can really obscure insight. The odds, for example, that a small business will survive for five years after being founded are 35 percent. But 81 percent of entrepreneurs believe that their odds of success are 70 percent or more, and an incredible 33 percent see their chances as “dead certain.”
And alas, such unwarranted optimism persists even in the face of cold, hard truths. Management professors Thomas Åstebro and Samir Elhedhli reviewed data collected by the Canadian Innovation Centre, a non-profit that helps entrepreneurs bring their ideas to market. The program evaluates new business plans and subsequently assigns companies a grade from A to F; on average, and more or less consistent with real-world failure rates, 70 percent are given a D or F. But almost half of these entrepreneurs persisted anyway. Many even doubled their efforts, wrongly thinking that hard work could improve the viability of their unviable business. In literally every case, it didn’t.
We’ve now seen that willful blindness to our shortcomings can set us up for failure. And yet the self-awareness unicorns in our study showed a remarkable pattern: in a few specific situations, they strategically put on their rose-colored glasses, and it provided them with tangible benefits. To quote one such unicorn, a brilliant project manager who recently dealt with a devastating medical diagnosis, “You can visit denial-ville, but you can’t build a house there.”*2 She told us that when she found out she was sick, she needed a few days of blissful ignorance to store up the energy to face her new reality. But then she picked herself up, dusted herself off, and bravely and realistically began her fight.
How do we know when to put our glasses on and when they should come off? A good rule of thumb is that when we need to bounce back from constant challenges, or where we can succeed through sheer persistence, the Feel-Good Effect can be helpful. This is especially true in professions like acting, where rejection is part of the job description. It can also be true in the “publish or perish” world of science. As Daniel Kahneman notes, “I believe that someone who lacks a delusional sense of significance will wilt in the face of repeated experiences of multiple small failures and rare successes, the fate of most researchers.” But there is one hugely important caveat: before you put on your rose-colored glasses and head down the path of persistence, make sure that your path actually leads somewhere. If, to use the above example, you’re simply a terrible actor, no amount of persistence will get you to the Broadway stage. You have to read the signs that your path could be a dead end and be ready to change course if you’re not getting anywhere.
There is one last type of situation where temporarily donning our rose-colored glasses can be a good idea. I was giving a self-awareness workshop to a group of professionals when I met Katie, a shy, bespectacled accountant who spent the entire class solemnly taking notes. At the end of the session, though, she seemed reluctant to commit to putting the feedback-gathering techniques she’d learned into practice. I sensed there was more going on, so I approached her after class. I learned that Katie was a partner at a professional services firm, and that the last month had been excruciating. Her firm had just brought in a new partner who seemed dead set at undermining her. Katie had also just been appointed as trustee of her parents’ estate in the midst of an all-out family war. Quite simply, with all the things going on in her life, Katie didn’t have the bandwidth to focus on self-improvement—she was just trying to get through this crisis and emerge unscathed.
Sometimes life can hand us challenges so difficult that we need rose-colored glasses to help us get through them. Our unicorns echoed this sentiment: one put his self-awareness journey on pause when he was unexpectedly fired. Another found her divorce so devastating that some strategic blissful ignorance got her through the worst parts. But if our unicorns indulged in a little self-delusion from time to time, it was only temporary. When they were ready, they bravely faced the music and resumed their self-awareness journey.
As a final point, it’s worth noting that there’s a fine line between feeling good and willfully ignoring the signals around us. Even though there are a few situations where keeping our rose-colored glasses on is the best option, most others—especially things like a new job, a big promotion, a company turnaround, a merger or acquisition, a blow-out fight with a loved one—require you to take them off no matter what. Where failure is not an option, you don’t have the luxury of blissful ignorance. Unfortunately, as you’re about to read, there is an epidemic afoot that is threatening to further throw that delicate balance to the wind.
ME, MY SELFIE, AND I
It was the most perfect start to a morning I could remember. After I’d worked six months straight without a break, my husband had surprised me with a birthday trip to Hawaii. Our busy schedules only permitted us three days away, but as we settled into our rented cabana with our freshly prepared omelets, we felt like we’d booked into paradise forever. The sky was clear, the warm sun was enveloping us, and the sweet scent of gardenia mixed with the salty smell of the ocean. We had nothing to do but sit and enjoy the perfectly unobstructed vista of blue sea rolling onto white sand.
I was smiling at my husband, who was basking in his quickly accumulating spousal brownie points, when suddenly a shadow fell over us. That’s strange, I thought, there weren’t any clouds a moment ago. Before I had the chance to squint at the sky, I heard a shriek and a giggle. An attractive young couple in their early twenties had come to a halt right in front of us. We said nothing as they laid out their towels right in the middle of the view we’d been so peacefully enjoying. As they pulled off their shorts and T-shirts, revealing toned, tanned bodies clad in designer swimwear, I shook my head in minor irritation as little kicks of sand landed in my omelet.
After blankly staring at the ocean for a few minutes, the young woman jumped up. Apparently, it was now time to commence an activity with which you may be familiar: Beach Selfies. My husband and I didn’t try very hard to mask our chuckling as she dramatically flipped her hair, pushed her sunglasses to the tip of her nose, and pursed her lips into the all-too-familiar Duck Face.
Then things crossed the line from amusing to annoying. With her hips back and her chest forward, she pranced and posed, squinting at her screen every 30 seconds to review the shots. “She’s got to stop soon,” I whispered to my husband, attempting to skim the sand from my breakfast. “Five minutes.” “Ten,” he predicted. We were both wrong. When she finally finished—a full 15 minutes later—she sat back down as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened, lay back on her towel, and went to sleep, completely oblivious to the open-mouthed stares from everyone in her general vicinity.
Beach Selfie Girl’s behavior is hardly unique, and this episode is just one example of the exponential momentum that the Cult of Self has gained with the explosion of social media. One of our unicorns described a friend who routinely takes 40 to 50 selfies a day; once, when they were out to dinner, the friend spent the entire meal snapping photos of himself. At one point, he excused himself to go to the restroom—where he took even more selfies and posted them on Instagram, all before returning to the table.
We all know someone who suffers from Selfie Syndrome. Symptoms include a once-unthinkable level of self-absorption, resulting in delusions including (but not limited to) the belief that people care what you ate for breakfast, that today is your child’s half-birthday, or that you are having the best vacation ever. It might even be fair to say that in many respects, for many people, Selfie Syndrome has crossed the line into a kind of widespread, low-grade narcissism. Certainly, almost all of us have encountered full-fledged narcissists in our personal or professional lives. You know, those people who are so convinced they’re the center of the universe that they can’t seem to see past themselves to the people around them.
But what we don’t always realize is that paradoxically, an intense self-focus not only obscures our vision of those around us; it distorts our ability to see ourselves for what we really are. Indeed, research has shown that in general, there is an inverse relationship between how special we feel and how self-aware we are. One need not look far to find examples: the people who post the most selfies on Facebook, for instance, seem to have the least awareness of how annoying this behavior is to the rest of us.
When we examine the “impersonally personal” nature of social media, the idea of narcissism running rampant makes sense. In most online communication, we don’t see the other person’s reactions or facial expressions, which makes it easier to be detached, self-centered, and unreflective. Researchers call this the “moral shallowing hypothesis,” where our ultra-brief online interactions lead to rapid, superficial thought, which makes us see ourselves, and others, in a more shallow manner.
Of course, this isn’t to say that anyone who takes selfies or uses social media is a narcissist. But scientifically, there is no question that these things are related, and there is ample evidence that narcissism is on the rise. For example, in a study of tens of thousands of U.S. college students, Jean Twenge and her colleagues found that between the mid-1980s and 2006, narcissism increased a full 30 percent, as measured by statements like “If I ruled the world it would be a better place,” “I always know what I’m doing,” and “I will never be satisfied until I get all that I deserve.”
And lest you pin this trend entirely on Millennials, it’s not just those of us born between 1980 and 1999 who show this pattern. Another long-running study that analyzed high schoolers’ responses to the question “I am an important person” found that in the 1950s only 12 percent agreed, but by 1989 (that is, when Gen Xers were in high school), that number jumped to roughly 80 percent. And remember the study from the last chapter, where 25 percent of high-school-aged Baby Boomers put themselves in the top 1 percent in their ability to get along with others?
Selfie Syndrome isn’t a generational phenomenon, nor is it confined to the arguably more self-centered cohort of adolescents. Our growing “me” focus can be found everywhere from contemporary literature to social media, even in the Oval Office. One study that analyzed State of the Union addresses between 1790 and 2012 found a decrease in the use of other-related words like his/her and neighbor, and an increase in self-focused words such as I, me, and mine. Similarly, my own Google Ngram*3 search of more than 15 million books revealed that while the use of the word me decreased nearly 50 percent between 1900 and 1974, it increased more than 87 percent between 1975 and 2008!
Right now, you’re probably thinking of a particularly narcissistic Facebook friend or self-absorbed celebrity. But I encourage you to also ask how you use social media—whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Snapchat, or anything else that’s been invented since this book was published. Ask yourself: When you post a picture of your perfect vacation, what’s going through your head? What image of yourself are you trying to project? What are you hoping to achieve? Few of us think about our social media habits in such rational or analytic terms. In fact, they usually feel so natural that we don’t think about them, which is precisely the problem.
This suggests a bigger question: Why do we use social media in the first place? Even though social media is supposed to be social, one 2015 study found that maintaining our relationships can often be the last reason we use these platforms. At the top of the list is sharing information about ourselves, which is often called self-presentation. Now, on its own, self-presentation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But an interesting pattern has emerged suggesting that as self-presentation increases, empathy decreases. Since the year 2000, right around the time when sites like MySpace, Friendster, and other precursors to Facebook exploded, people started becoming less empathetic and more self-centered. Research shows that compared to college students in the early 1980s, today’s pupils are 11 percent less likely to agree with statements like “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me” and “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective.”
At this point you might be wondering whether this is a chicken-or-egg situation. How can we conclude that social media is causing narcissism? Isn’t it just as likely that narcissistic, un-self-aware people are simply more likely to use social media? These are important questions, and there’s actually evidence that both are true. Let’s start with the second question: Do narcissists use social media more? Studies from both Western and Eastern cultures show that narcissists indeed use social media as an outlet for their inflated self-views, spending more time posting self-promotional content like selfies.
Let’s now go back to the first question—is social media actually causing our self-absorption? Here, there is also supportive evidence. One study randomly assigned participants into one of two groups, who each spent 35 minutes online. The first group spent time editing their MySpace pages (really takes you back, doesn’t it?) while the other plotted the route they took to school on Google Maps. When researchers measured narcissism levels in each group, participants who had spent time on MySpace scored significantly higher, suggesting not only that social media does increase narcissism, but that it has a virtually immediate impact.
Of course, people who love selfies and unique baby names usually fall short of being diagnosable narcissists—a personality disorder characterized by an exaggerated sense of self-importance, a need for power and admiration, and a failure to recognize the needs of others. Research shows that narcissists tend to have brief but intense friendships and romances that end once the other person sees their true nature. They feel entitled to things they haven’t earned and are unable to tolerate criticism.
In the work world, while narcissistic leaders can be confident setting a clear vision, they tend to overrate their performance, dominate decision processes, seek excessive recognition, show less empathy, and are more likely to behave unethically. And while they think quite highly of their leadership abilities, they are actually rated lowest in effectiveness by their teams. Narcissistic CEOs in particular have been found to be less responsive to objective performance feedback than non-narcissistic ones, often with devastating effects. In a fascinating study, when researchers Charles Ham and his colleagues measured the size of CEO signatures in SEC filings in S&P 500 firms (with a sizable signature being an indicator of narcissism), they found that the larger a CEO’s signature, the worse the company performed on a number of indicators (lower patent counts and citations, poorer return on assets, over-investment, lower future revenues and sales growth).
In additional to its social and professional consequences, even low-level (i.e., non-diagnosable) narcissism can chip away at our self-confidence. Think about the version of yourself that you present online. If you’re like most people, you might present an airbrushed, “hoped-for” version that gives an overly favorable impression of your life. These effects have been documented everywhere from Facebook status updates to dating profiles to the Twitter feeds of congresspeople during election years. For instance, we tend to use fewer negative words in social media than in other forms of communication, and half of status updates are posted with the goal of creating a favorable impression.
Paradoxically, this incessant promotion of our hoped-for self can be ego-crushing, especially when the “actual” and “hoped for” versions don’t match up (“my Paris vacation photos sure look perfect, but what no one knows is that my husband and I spent the whole vacation fighting and I think I might want a divorce”). When we’re trying so hard to convince everyone how successful or happy or attractive we are, not only are we often not fooling anyone; we’re reminding ourselves of how unsuccessful or unhappy or unattractive we really feel.
To see how damaging social media self-inflations can be for our self-image, let’s examine the case of 18-year-old Australian model Essena O’Neil. She recently became something of a poster child for the Cult of Self resistance movement when she shocked her millions of Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr, and Snapchat followers by announcing that she was shutting down her social media profiles. O’Neil told her fans that she’d spent most of her life addicted to the exposure, approval, and status that her followers gave her, and her endless pursuit of others’ adoration had actually taken an enormous toll on her self-confidence. The more she posted, the more obsessed she became with perfection, and, in turn, the more frustrated she became when she never attained that ideal: “I spent hours watching perfect girls online, wishing I was them. Then when I was ’one of them’ I still wasn’t happy, content or at peace with myself.”
O’Neil has since launched a website called “Let’s be Game Changers,” where she curates resources to expose what she calls the “fakeness” of social media. At the time of writing, O’Neil’s website doesn’t have a single photo of the model, and only a short blurb about her, which is entitled “Me?” Sometimes the people who break with the Cult of Self are those we least expect. Let’s talk about how we all can do it.
FROM SELF-ABSORPTION TO SELF-AWARENESS: RESISTING THE CULT OF SELF
It may not surprise you, given what you read in the last chapter, that most of us don’t think we’re narcissistic. The good news is that only 4 percent of the population actually fits the diagnostic criteria; the bad news is that the remaining 96 percent of us can display some narcissistic behaviors, at least some percentage of the time. Since this book is all about making the brave decision to confront the truth about ourselves, I’ve included an assessment in appendix H to help you gauge how many such behaviors you currently exhibit. But no matter what your score, if you want to move away from self-absorption and toward self-awareness, it’s worth examining the following three strategies: becoming an informer, cultivating humility, and practicing self-acceptance.
As you go about your daily life, how much time and energy do you spend focused on you? It’s probably more than you think. One study found that we spend up to 60 percent of our talking time discussing ourselves, and when we’re on social media that number jumps to a whopping 80 percent. But our unicorns are different. Overwhelmingly, their conversations (online and offline) focus more on others—friends, co-workers, the events taking place in the wider world, etc. One appropriately noted that “the world doesn’t revolve around me.” Another explained that his approach to interacting with others involves “being curious about something outside of myself.”
But is focusing on other people even possible when most forms of social media seem to exist for the sole purpose of self-promotion? Let’s start by looking at the big picture. Researchers have discovered that people who use social media generally fall into one of two categories: 80 percent are so-called “Meformers,” who like to post messages that are all about telling everyone about what is going on with them. The remaining 20 percent are “Informers,” who tend to post non-self-related information—helpful articles, amusing observations, funny videos, etc. Informers tend to have more friends and enjoy richer, more satisfying interactions than Meformers.
It might not come as a surprise that our unicorns, to a person, were Informers. But when I began drilling down into this topic, I was shocked to learn that they also spent more time (almost 20 percent more) on social media than non-unicorns. They just spent that time very differently. Instead of logging on and posting a selfie, an update about their upcoming vacation, or their latest professional achievement, they used social media as a way to truly engage and stay connected with others. One unicorn, an entrepreneur in her fifties, told us: “Social media allows me to see what people I care about are up to. I don’t post on Facebook often, but I do try to share something uplifting or funny or different a few times a week. If I post a picture, it’s more likely to be an eagle in a tree or a sunset. Something beautiful that I can share with others.” Like other unicorns, her social media goals aren’t to rack up “likes,” but rather to inform, entertain, and inspire. As another unicorn, a manager in his mid-forties, put it, “sometimes the Kanye Wests of the world need public validation that ’yes, you’re great.’ I don’t find myself needing that.”
The message here is clear: to move from self-absorption to self-awareness, try being an Informer—that is, focusing less on you and more on engaging and connecting with others. For the next 24 hours, then, my challenge to you is to pay attention to how much you talk about yourself versus how much you focus on others—both online and offline. When tempted with a “Meformer” conversational topic or post, ask yourself: “What am I hoping to accomplish by doing this?” Be warned, this won’t be easy at first. Since I began working on this book, I’ve used this technique and been surprised at how strong the pull toward self-absorption can be. It has unmasked a lot of behaviors that I was previously unaware of. I have since made an effort to change the way I’m showing up, especially online. When you try this exercise for a few days, I’d bet money that you’ll discover something that will surprise you.
Focusing on others, however, won’t help us fight the Cult of Self on its own. We also need to take a more realistic view of our own qualities, or in other words, cultivate humility. Because it means appreciating our weaknesses and keeping our successes in perspective, humility is a key ingredient of self-awareness.
When she was a little girl, Angela Ahrendts dreamed of being a fashion designer. She’d spend hours gazing at the gorgeous photos in her mother’s magazines and sewing her own clothes. When she entered college, the place where her youthful dreams were supposed to turn into realities, she began to wonder why the other fashion design students seemed so much more talented than she was. One day, a professor took her aside and gave her some advice that, while well intentioned, must have been difficult to hear. The kind of person who can talk about fashion but isn’t able to produce it? “We call that,” he told her, “a merchant.”
It’s probably fair to say that most ambitious students, upon being told they’re simply not good enough to fulfill their dreams, would disappear down a whirlpool of self-delusion. “What does my professor know, anyway?” we’d demand of anyone within earshot. “She’s always had it in for me.” But not Ahrendts. Growing up as one of six children in New Palestine, Indiana, she was taught to work hard and remain humble. As a result, she had the self-awareness to realize the professor was giving her great advice.
And she took it. She became a clothing merchant. By 2006, Ahrendts had become CEO of Burberry. She transformed the luxury brand’s design and retail and digital presence and, in doing so, orchestrated an impressive company turnaround in the midst of a global recession. Along the way, she racked up a boast-worthy slew of honors, having landed on Forbes’ Most Powerful Women list four times in five years, being named one of Fortune’s Businesspeople of the Year, and receiving the Outstanding Leadership Award from Oracle, to name a few.
But it isn’t Ahrendts’ style to boast about these achievements. And when Apple CEO Tim Cook was interviewing her for the role of SVP of Apple’s online and retail businesses, she made a point of stressing to him that she was neither a technical guru nor someone with any experience in the world of consumer electronics. Yet Cook knew he didn’t need a tech wiz or a retail expert to turn around Apple’s struggling retail division. What he needed was a team player; a selfless leader who could engage and inspire.
So what did Angela Ahrendts’ first few months in her new role look like? Where a more self-absorbed leader might have tried to make a splash with an aggressive vision that may or may not have been the right decision for the company, Ahrendts embarked on a tour of more than 100 stores, call centers, and back offices with one simple aim: to listen. Her next step was to begin sending weekly personal messages to her 60,000 retail employees—not with the goal of telling them about herself or her plan for the division, but rather to get them more involved in the decisions that affected their world. Ahrendts helped her employees see themselves as “executives…who are touching customers with the products that [Apple] took years to build.”
Her surprising lack of ego and inclusive leadership style have confused some members of the press, prompting Jennifer Reingold of Fortune to ask, “What the heck is Angela Ahrendts doing at Apple?” But her results speak for themselves. Financially, 2015 marked the company’s most successful year ever, with revenue expanding 28 percent to $234 billion while her employee retention skyrocketed to 81 percent—Apple’s highest figure ever recorded. Oh, and she is now the most highly paid employee in one of the planet’s most iconic and valuable companies, with an estimated annual package worth more than $25 million.
There is no question that humble people like Angela Ahrendts are objectively more successful, in part because their focus on other people makes them more liked and respected. Because they work hard and don’t take things for granted. Because they admit when they don’t have the answers. Because they are willing to learn from others versus stubbornly clinging to their views. As a result, people on teams with humble leaders are more engaged, more satisfied with their jobs, and less likely to leave. This is true particularly for senior leaders, where narcissism is especially dangerous if they cannot learn to temper it.
Yet the virtue of humility is often the exception rather than the rule in our Cult of Self society—both in the world of business and outside it. I see three reasons for the sad state of affairs. First, people often confuse humility with low self-worth, and thus label it as undesirable, even though the opposite is true—because it means appreciating our weaknesses and keeping our successes in perspective, humility is actually a necessary ingredient for self-awareness. The second reason humility is in short supply is that to gain it, we must tame the powerful beast at the epicenter of the Cult of Self: our ego. Finally, humility requires accepting a certain degree of imperfection, and most goal-oriented, Type A people rarely give themselves the permission to do so. (For a quick assessment to determine your level of humility, take a look at appendix I.)
But does humility mean that we should hate ourselves for our inevitable faults? Or that we should constantly harp on our weaknesses to avoid getting a big head? Thankfully, the alternative to boundless self-esteem doesn’t have to be self-loathing but rather self-acceptance—our third approach to fighting the Cult of Self. Where self-esteem means thinking you’re amazing regardless of the objective reality, self-acceptance (also called self-compassion by some researchers) means understanding our objective reality and choosing to like ourselves anyway. So instead of trying to be perfect—or delusionally believing they are—self-accepting people understand and forgive themselves for their imperfections.
Encouragingly, self-acceptance delivers all of the advertised benefits of self-esteem with few of the costs. Though the two are identical predictors of happiness and optimism, only people high in self-acceptance hold positive views of themselves that aren’t dependent on external validation (that is, they don’t need excessive praise, or hundreds of Facebook “likes,” or metaphorical gold stars to feel good about themselves and their contributions).
And self-acceptance isn’t just a good idea in theory—it has very real benefits for our success and well-being. In one study, Kristin Kneff and her colleagues asked job-market-bound undergraduates to participate in a mock interview for a job they “really, really want[ed].” When the interviewer asked the students to describe their greatest weakness, those high in self-acceptance reported feeling significantly less nervous and self-conscious afterward—had it been an actual job interview, they likely would have performed much better as a result.
So how can you increase your self-acceptance? One step you can take is to better monitor your inner monologue. Organizational psychologist Steven Rogelberg and his colleagues showed how helpful self-accepting self-talk can be in a study of senior executives attending a weeklong leadership program. At the end of the week, each participant wrote a letter to their future self about the lessons they learned and the changes they wanted to make. The researchers coded each letter as either self-accepting (which they called “constructive”) or self-critical. The executives who used self-accepting language were more effective and less stressed than the self-critical ones (and fascinatingly, the self-critical leaders were also less creative).
We’ll revisit this idea in the next chapter when we talk about recognizing and stopping rumination, but for now, especially if you’re feeling bad about yourself—guilty, fearful, upset, unable to cope—take notice of whether you’re being self-critical (“There I go forgetting to set my alarm! What is wrong with me? Why can’t I do the most basic things, like be on time?”) or self-accepting (“That was a mistake—but I’m only human and these things happen”). A helpful question to ask can sometimes be, “Would I say what I just said to myself to someone whom I like and respect?”*4
Making the decision to humbly but compassionately accept ourselves takes courage. As one of our unicorns, an architect by training who is now a global technology director, explains, “The problem is not being aware of yourself but loving the person you find out you are.” Can this process be uncomfortable? Sometimes. But often, discomfort means you’re making progress. Another unicorn, a mid-career marketing manager for a consumer products company, put it this way: “The more committed you are to building self-awareness, the more empathy and grace you learn to extend to yourself.”
There are few better examples of humility and self-acceptance than unicorn George Washington’s farewell address, arguably one of the most revered presidential speeches in modern history. As he is saying goodbye to the country he helped build in the twilight of his life, he notes that “I am unconscious of intentional error, [but] I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many.” He goes on to ask American citizens to extend him the same grace he’s giving to himself: “I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will never cease to view [them] with indulgence and that…the faults of my incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest.”
We’ve now explored the often unseen obstacles to self-insight—both the blindspots that keep us from seeing ourselves clearly and the social forces that feed the beast of delusion. Now we can start learning to improve it. As you’re about to learn, this requires us to abandon many of our preexisting notions about what it really means to be self-aware. So in the coming chapter, we’ll debunk some of the most common follies and misconceptions about internal self-awareness and learn what we should do instead.
*1 Journalist Allison Pearson delightfully imagines what would have transpired if such a philosophy were applied in Britain’s diplomatic relations circa World War II:
*2 Throughout the book, unicorn quotes appear near-verbatim; I’ve made some small changes to improve readability without altering their meaning.
*3 Google Ngram is web-based search engine that tracks the frequencies of words and phrases found in books printed between 1500 and 2008 in eight languages.
*4 If you’re interested in learning more methods of increasing your self-acceptance, I strongly encourage you to visit Kristin Kneff’s website: http://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/.