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Warning: The post today is more philosophical then practical in nature. It represents even more fuzzy ideas than usual. Readers should proceed at their own peril.
But I’m with Brooks and his words of warning against the cult of self-fulfillment. The more executives, entrepreneurs, and talented individuals I get to know, the more convinced I become that true happiness, a genuine sense of satisfaction, comes, as Brooks suggests, not from “finding” yourself but from “losing” yourself — in a company you believe in, a cause you are prepared to fight for, a commitment to solve a problem that has defied solution.
In other words, “we” is bigger than “me” — the true measure of success is not the value you create for yourself but the values that define your work and how you lead and live.
This comes out of Brooks attack against the common advice given to graduates in commencement ceremonies to “find themselves”:
Worst of all, they are sent off into this world with the whole baby-boomer theology ringing in their ears. If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture. But, of course, this mantra misleads on nearly every front [Emphasis added].
I tend to agree. I think these two ideas should be examined from a wider perspective. Two expanding thoughts.
I wrote a few weeks ago about the myth of leadership. The idea that we need to wait for some external force (hero or leader) that will come and save us all is ingrained in our culture. We just need to wait for the prophecy to be fulfilled. This passivity is also ingrained in the advice above. Your passion is out there – you just need to find it! Like a treasure sitting at the bottom of the sea waiting to be found. “Find yourself” means that “you” are somewhere and it is just a matter of looking. It implies a passivity and acceptance. I prefer George Bernard Shaw’s advice:
“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
And this leads to the second thought. In another wonderful HBR.org post, Justin Menkes, writes about how Management Thinking May Be Blinding Leadership:
For over a century, reductionist thinking has offered an excellent means for generating clear, concise, and evidence-based answers to important questions. It is also perfectly suited for rendering compelling statistical evidence to support these answers… Reductionism’s widespread acceptance and application has generated countless advancement around the world that have vastly improved the human condition, and it remains the foundation of the scientific method taught to all grade-schoolers as the fundamentals of “real science” today. But the study of complex dynamic systems has uncovered a fundamental flaw in this method, as South African philosophy professor Paul Cilliers discussed in his 1998 book Complexity and Postmodernism. A complex system is not constituted merely by the sum of its components, but also by the intricate relationships between these components. By “cutting up” a system, the reductionist method destroys that which it is trying to understand.
The focus on “the individual” (in the wider sense of the word) has been a corner stone of western thinking for the foreseeable past. And it has led to great advancements for individuals and societies. It is time, to add to this magnificent concept another level of complexity and understanding of emergent properties. No man is an island. No real life social phenomenon occurs in vacuum. It is all about connections, interdependencies and relationships.
In this sense, calling people, as the emphasis in Brooks quote illustrate to think only about themselves, ignores the idea of emergence out interconnectedness. And this is where it correlates with Shaw’s advice. Create yourself not only means being active it also means that there must be a relationship with others. A creation, by definition, is connected to something external. It is about change in the broader sense of society. It is about a relationship with the world that creates value. It is about absorbing things from your soundings and molding it to something different, unique and special. The “you” in this process is not found but emerges from an active progression of integrating yourself with the world around you.
So, are you finding yourself alone or are you creating yourself with others?