Our society needs citizens capable of thinking and acting on their own. People who do not shy away from critical questions because they’re afraid of being disappointed. Our society needs individuals who are able to distinguish good information from bad information and to make good decisions based on that knowledge, instead of relinquishing all personal responsibility to messiahs, leaders and alpha wolves.
Daniel Domscheit-Berg (2011) Inside Wikileaks
Lenin concludes: “[those] who have no illusions, who do not give way to despondency, and who preserve their strength and flexibility ‘to begin from the beginning’ over and over again in approaching an extremely difficult task, are not doomed (and in all probability will not perish).” This is Lenin at his Beckettian best, echoing the line from Worstward Ho: “Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.” This conclusion – “to begin from the beginning over and over again” – makes it clear that he is not talking about merely slowing down progress in order to fortify what has already been achieved, but more radically about returning to the starting point: one should “begin from the beginning” not from the peak one may have successfully reached in the previous effort. In Kierkegaardian terms, a revolutionary process involves not a gradual process, but a repetitive movement, a movement of repeating the beginning again and again.
Slavoj Zizek (2009) First as Tragedy, Then as Farce
All of the adventures in our lives can be bound and defined by chapters, with main themes and specific meaning. Characters may come and go between chapters, but each chapter is standalone; varying from University, time spent overseas, to partners and lovers. We write these as chapters because once it is over, and the pages are finalised, you can’t go back to it. At times we try to keep a chapter or two open, whether in desire to be able to add a few pages here or there, or just because we don’t know how to close it off. We refuse to finish some of these chapters because we love them so much, because of the stories within them. The problem then arises in the writing of new chapters; for as much as we might want to start a new chapter, we cannot commit to it without closing the old one off.
We know what the new chapter is going to be about, we’ve picked out the characters in explicit detail, we have even written the introduction. This new chapter is exciting, we know where we want to take it, and some of the adventures we want to write about; but we cannot give ourselves to the story, not truly. For each new page that we write in this fresh chapter, our mind lingers on the chapter that doesn’t have an end, the chapter that sits open in our heart. We fear that closing the chapter makes it meaningless, that starting a new one devalues the words on those pages; it doesn’t. Those words were written with love, happiness, tears and sorrow. Nothing can take away the value in those words, for with them carries the weight they were written with; using ink that never fades.
As I sit down, with the new chapter swirling in my head and heart, I try to think of the last words to enter on these old pages, and I hope the characters in it can forgive me.
A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.
Thomas Paine (1776) Common Sense
This was originally written as a personal response to a close friend based on this post, however it deserves open viewing in its own right.
Before I start I just want to clarify a point, when discussing conformism I am really looking at the deeply ingrained trend in society that creates a singular identity that everyone tries to attain; like you must marry, have kids, own a house – the white picket fence American dream. I believe this goes beyond the human need for validation – a bottom-up individual behaviour – to the top-down enforcement of a uniform construct by society. While it is heavily interlinked with the innate desire for validation, it can be argued similar to the chicken-or-the-egg paradox. Has our innate desire for validation by society forced society to develop a uniform identity construct that everyone should prescribe to? Or has the societal enforcement of a belief and identity caused the need for validation by the individual? Whereby the individual is seeking acceptance from society for living slightly outside of the ‘norm’ or construct that society is trying to make everyone conform to.
Deep within humanity we naturally have an ingrained desire to belong and be accepted; it’s a survival instinct – for in days gone by, it was better to belong to a strong clan than be a nomad on your own. From a young age we spend eons trying to fit in, we change everything from out likes, dislikes, clothes, attitude and beliefs in an attempt to ‘fit in’ with those who we, and the micro-society we are exposed to think are ‘cool’. We also spend our childhood and early adulthood looking for validation in our choices from our parents. I would like to highlight a quote from Battlestar Galactica:
Number Six: We’re the children of humanity. That makes them our parents in a sense.
Aaron Doral: True, but parents have to die. It’s the only way children can come into their own.
Expressing the view that until our parents are dead, the children can never reach their full potential. Albeit slightly depressing, this reflects the overly restrictive desire for validation from our parents. Removing death from the equation, when we stop seeking validation for our decisions and only seek internal validation, we can achieve a greater life, and lead happier lives. This parental validation theme is also deeply ingrained in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’ whereby Mr Fischer, who has lived his life in his father’s shadow, desperately seeks his father’s validation; giving the protagonists an easy way to manipulate his actions and beliefs.
On marketing companies, they make us envious. They make us believe that we need something in particular to lead a good life, or to fit in, further enhancing a conformist attitude. Further ingrained within marketing and society and what marketing capitalises on is the idea of ‘status’. Where under conventional thinking, those that drive around in that nice Porsche are desirable, as it is a status symbol. The desire to own the latest iPhone, despite only having few advantages, causes metric tonnes of pointless electronic waste every year. This envy of status fuels consumerism and conformist society.
We get better at setting conformism aside as we grow older simply because we become more accepting of self-validation; we become more aware and steadfast in our own beliefs – choosing to use them as the basis for our actions and decisions rather than those of society.
You express the belief that you do not want to be seen as kind, because ‘kindness can be perceived as a weakness […] It’s not seen as a quality to aspire to or that breeds “success” ‘. Which is exactly the kind of backwards thinking that is generated by the ‘to be successful you need to be ruthless’ social ideology. I take this moment to look back on the classic late 90’s movie ‘Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion’ which resonates the theme that success does not equate to money or assets; it is in the eye of the beholder. Success is what you define it. To me, success lies in simply changing a life for the better; to inspire someone to be the best version of themself.
Tangent. In my eight months in Timor Leste I was on the go from 630 am until 1 am every day. I finished 35 books, my Master’s degree, I learnt Spanish, made massive leaps in my own fitness and health, and saved alot of money; but the success that still touches me and makes me proud, is that my worst employee, went from wanting to quit at the first opportunity and being incredibly terrible at this job, to wanting to excel above all else in his work and personal life. He did a backflip on his attitude towards life and when I spoke with his supervisor about it – even he was surprised – and he attributed it to my leadership and attitude, and quoted him as saying ‘I want to be really good at this, because if the boss can do it all that stuff, so can I’.
On new years eve, when you receive text messages from people saying ‘thank you for all of your help this year, you’re a fantastic boss’. That, is success.
I also tangent with a quote by John Holt that I stumbled upon thanks to Catarina Fake:
Leaders are not what many people think–people with huge crowds following them. Leaders are people who go their own way without caring, or even looking to see whether anyone is following them. “Leadership qualities” are not the qualities that enable people to attract followers, but those that enable them to do without them. They include, at the very least, courage, endurance, patience, humor, flexibility, resourcefulness, determination, a keen sense of reality, and the ability to keep a cool and clear head even when things are going badly. This is the opposite of the “charisma” that we hear so much about.
This quote caused the biggest change in my view on leadership; despite already having a Diploma in Military Leadership, and countless hours of leadership training. It also altered my view on the way we should approach life. If we continually concern ourselves with what others think of us, over what we think of ourselves, we will get nowhere; living life by proxy. The expectation is that we should live our lives by gathering followers; to quote T.I.S.M: ‘As a mistral employee once told me, you’re only as good as your fans’. Thus, we stop defining ourselves and we let ourselves be defined by the company we keep.
I spent a long time concerning myself with what others thought of me, only to realise that was not what defined me. In his novel ‘Walden: or, Life in the Woods’, Henry David Thoreau wrote that “Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate”. If we busy ourselves to the gathering of followers and then concerning ourselves with what they think of us, we can never truly discover what our own beliefs are; the confusion between what we think we should believe in and what we do is ever present. Only when we discard concern for external validation do we define our internal beliefs.
Even if we have not yet found what are beliefs are, constantly pandering to the opinions of others and society will only prolong that discovery.
Only internally can we find true validation. In saying all of this, we should not be afraid from time to time, to ask for advice and the opinions of others. Nor should we be so steadfast in our opinions that we don’t make accommodation for variations, or keep an open mind; this however, is a further tangent for another time.
I leave you with a quote from a friend of mine, who was picking on some of her urban hippy friends for raising chickens. An old man walked passed and said “once everyone had chickens”. I think that’s a powerful observation in itself, that the benchmarks for “normality” and “mainstream” are dynamic. That’s what makes your call to do the things that make you happy all the more persuasive, because today’s ‘weirdness’ is tomorrow’s ‘mainstream’ and vice versa.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.