How Special Are You?

In a great editorial piece, David Brooks reflects on how we have developed an exaggerated sense of self-importance. Case in point: Only 12 % of people in the 50s thought they were important. By the 90s, 80% believed they were. What a profound shift this is. We have gone from being realistic to narcissistic in the space of a few decades. And it shows no signs of slowing down. There’s a lovely phrase he uses – we’ve become praise addicts, used to being told how good, how considerate, how helpful and how accommodating we are. All the while, we are moving in precisely the opposite direction. Less social, less helpful, less considerate. We’ve replaced real world friendships with virtual friendships that let us imagine that we are social butterflies.

In a workshop session at college, we had to estimate the number of flat tiles we could stack one on top of the other before they collapsed. I remember how most of us consistently underestimated what we could manage. We would say 5 and do 7 or 8. I am sure that this generation would not approach it the same way. What isn’t clear is whether higher confidence leads to greater achievement. From what Brooks has to say, performance degrades with overestimation. Fear actually makes us more aware and alert about consequences. And it provides the adrenalin burst to perform. In Andy Grove’s famous phrase – ‘Only the paranoid survive’, there’s a great deal of truth. Complacency breeds sloth and inefficiency.

I think the volume of advertising messages has been a contributing factor as well. If all we see are messages subliminally telling us how special and how unique our choices are every single day, we reach a stage where we begin to believe the hype. Wear a pair of Nikes and think that we are actually as good as Federer or Jordan. Drive an Audi and rule the world. We are beginning to mix up our material possessions with actual achievement. Nothing could be further from the truth. We’re measuring our value by the money we make and what we can flaunt, rather than where we can make a real contribution.