September 1, 2012    Psychology

Why We Can’t Be Authentic and Control Our Own Fate

Most of us want some degree of control over our own success, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to gain that control in today’s Global Village. The efficiency in electronic communication turned every field and market into a global competition. For almost everything we do, we are competing with billions of people from around the world. Furthermore, due to the same efficiency, billions of us all flock to the same best solutions/products/people, rendering the vast majority of the rest in the market irrelevant (and unprofitable/poor). And, it is becoming increasingly clear that what goes “viral” is fundamentally unpredictable. Someone who has created something viral once, cannot be relied on to create another. Even for those who are already famous, if we study the popularity of their individual products/works, a small percentage of them gets a disproportionate amount of success. (This pattern of Power Law is found at every level and subsegment.) So the obvious question we have is: How can we have any control over our own success in this hyper-competitive, unpredictable world?

Take for instance one of the most efficient ways to solve problems: Crowdsourcing. In crowdsourcing, you make an open call to people you don’t even know, living anywhere in the world. You outline the problem you have, and promise to pay a certain amount of money to the person who came up with the best solution. In this process, you are taking advantage of the brain power that is otherwise sitting idle, like your computer when you are not using it. Amateurs and professionals alike compete to come up with the best solution. Given the sheer number of people you can involve, some of them are likely to come up with the solution you need. And, you only pay the winner. This is vastly more efficient than hiring one professional or business without knowing if they would be able to solve the problem. This is bad news for the professionals as they are competing with the vast pool of brains from around the globe working for little or no money. As I said above, each person, even if s/he has come up with brilliant solutions in the past, cannot reliably repeat the same success for every job. But for those who are looking for the solution, crowdsourcing is a reliable way to arrive at a good solution.

Think of YouTube (owned by Google). Even though Google cannot reliably create viral contents themselves, they can count on a certain number of viral contents to automatically appear on their website as they are essentially crowdsourcing content creation. In other words, as a producer of contents/products, you have little or no control over your own success but as a buyer or consumer of them, you do. Thanks to the efficiency of the Internet, you can always find great viral contents/products. Sadly, as a producer, you are just a disposable tool paid only when you happen to come up with the best solution, otherwise ignored or discarded. In this sense, the middleman between the consumers and the producers is the best position to take.

Because of this troubling lack of control, many people are taking desperate measures to succeed, to control their own fate. Lance Armstrong is a good example. As in most other sports, cycling has reached the absolute limits of what our bodies can do. We humans are not going to suddenly grow wings and start flying. All the athletes are already pushed against the cliff edge of physical limitations, yet they need to consistently win in order to control their own careers. What can they do if they have a high need to be in control, like Armstrong does? If the ethical possibilities are exhausted, they have to cheat. In a field like cycling, either that, or they have no career.

The world outside of sports are not far from cyclists’ predicament. Journalists like Jonah Lehrer, Fareed Zakaria, and Jayson Blair are good examples. In the field increasingly under pressure from amateur journalists publishing their pieces on their own blogs, professional journalists who want to get ahead and control their own success have little choice but cheat or at least push the boundaries of what is ethically acceptable. There are significant incentives to take these risks because once they become famous, they could have some degree of control through name recognition, or move up the ladder to be the middleman who can hire others to write for them. They can then afford to be more ethical, and their unethical practices of the past would disappear in history. But to get there is no easy task, so everyone pushes the ethical boundaries.

Even in schools, teachers these days are focused on training their students to perform better at exams instead of actually teaching them something real. Much of what the students learn in preparing for exams is forgotten a few days later. Yet, the teachers and even parents do not care. They are gaming the educational system, and they know it’s not right but they want their kids to get ahead. They too are pushing the ethical boundaries.

And often these ethical boundaries move to create a new norm. For instance, in writing our résumés, we tend to embellish and exaggerate our achievements because we know everyone does it. The reviewers of résumés expect it too. So, in order to be comparable to others, we have to exaggerate.

In all of these situations, we face a dilemma; on one hand, we want to stay true and honest to ourselves, that is, be authentic. On the other hand, we need to deal with the reality of survival. The value of the latter is easier to understand and relate to.

I once emailed and asked the marketing guru Seth Godin what he thought of the difference between Steven Pressfield who says that real writers must force themselves to sit down every day to write even if they don’t want to, and Charles Bukowski who says “unless it comes out of your soul like a rocket, unless being still would drive you to madness or suicide or murder, don’t do it [be a writer]“. Godin’s reply was that Bukowski was “lucky”. It’s true. We live in the world where authenticity can succeed only by luck, otherwise you have to be a cunning marketer who can manipulate the public perception of authenticity. Lance Armstrong is a master of that. Success in today’s world is either about luck or manipulation. Authenticity is rarely found at the top.

Sam Halpern, the man responsible for the words in “Shit My Dad Says“, became an Internet phenomenon partly because it was clearly authentic. There were no premeditated strategies to go viral. It is a good proof of how authenticity and viral potentials are everywhere around us. It was a sheer luck that his words went viral. The chances of him dying without the world ever hearing his words, were far greater. He had no control over that situation.

We then arrive at this unfortunate conclusion that authenticity and control do not mix. If you want to be authentic, you must surrender to the lack of control. Consistent performance or success in life, like that of Lance Armstrong, does not happen by chance. We can pretty much count on those who stay at the top to be manipulating their public image, pushing the ethical boundaries, or outright cheating. Ironically, fame is a highly efficient way to weed out authenticity. If we are looking for authenticity, we can pretty much ignore those who stay at the top.

This is partly why we crave authenticity so much; because so much of what we see in public is manipulated. Sooner or later, we seem to find that every saint like Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods was deceiving us. And, this is also why we can safely enjoy Disneyland, professional wrestling, Jerry Springer, and The Onion, because there is no pretense of anything being authentic, so there is no risk of being deceived. Some people are suggesting that we have “enhanced Olympics” through genetics or pharmacology. It is one way to remove the possibility of deception, but it would become more like a freak show that professional wrestling is.

It is also interesting to question why we seek and cling to authenticity. After all, our attachment to authenticity is what causes pain when deceptions are revealed. We want to believe in authenticity so much that we are willing to take great risks to believe in what/who we perceive as authentic. In our culture, we have countless spiritual gurus and religious evangelists who turned out to be fraudsters. Children believe (or want to believe) that their parents are infallible. Once they become independent, they keep seeking out replacements. We all use authenticity as our emotional crutch to help deal with the uncertainties of life. It feels good to know that some things are certain so that everything else can be valued and judged in relation to them. It can even cascade down to making trivial decisions like whether it’s morally acceptable to eat fish. If the holiness of Dalai Lama is unquestionable, then we can safely assume that whoever he endorses must also be great. If such assumptions were true, it would be quite comforting in every decision we need to make in life. We could feel confident that we are making the right decisions. We would no longer need to doubt ourselves, regret our decisions, or be responsible for our choices. In this way, our belief, or desire to believe, in authenticity is just a coping mechanism. Even if we don’t believe in God, we simply substitute him with other things that can serve as this coping mechanism. God is nothing more than an imaginary symbol of certainty we create to cope with the fundamentally indeterminate nature of life.