My first serious girlfriend said that her motto, the creed which she lived by, was “go with the flow” (indeed, it was her high-school yearbook quote). She was (and is) such a sweet person. Such a good person: kind, loving, patient, wise. But, truth be told, I remember being viscerally repulsed by her yearbook quote, and, since I was arrogant and obnoxious at sixteen, I probably told her as much. Probably said something really mean. Something I’ve conveniently forgotten. Regardless, I remember thinking that even though my life was a complete mess, even though I was flunking out of school, even though I was totally confused, even though I was angry all the time for no good reason, even though I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, I could, nevertheless, be sure of at least one thing: I did not want to go with the flow!
Much of my twenties were consumed by a quixotic (and, in retrospect, rather ridiculous) attempt to live a life less ordinary. But when I look back now, at all that crazy counter-cultural stuff I did, I find that most of it was shockingly ordinary. When I swap war-stories with people my age, after a few beers, we invariably discover that we’ve got the same twenty stories from our twenties. Buddy of mine calls them twin tales. Because they’re so hard to tell apart. Proper nouns being their only distinguishing feature. Coming to terms with your own ordinariness is a bitter pill to swallow when you’ve been raised to believe that originality is a cardinal virtue. But it’s a bitter pill that most of us have swallowed. After all, the commonplace nature of my generation’s counter-cultural war-stories is hardly their most unflattering feature. The worst thing you can say about us—the thing that many of my friends still fail to acknowledge—is that the crazy counter-cultural stuff we did wasn’t particularly counter-cultural.
Nor was it particularly radical. As Thomas Frank makes clear in The Conquest of Cool (1997), much of what passes for counter-cultural behavior since the 1960s is in fact an integral part of the “flow” of Consumer Culture. So I guess you could say that I’ve been going with the flow for quite some time now, regardless of my intentions and pretensions. Even at the height of my twenties—when I was an obnoxious, self-righteous, left-wing vegan, with blue hair and tattoos—my individual-centered approach to social change pretty much ensured my complicity. As the poet Tony Hoagland puts it at the end of “Hard Rain” (one of his best poems): “I used to think I was not a part of this, / that I could mind my own business and get along, / but that was just another song / that had been taught to me since birth— / whose words I was humming under my breath, / as I was walking through the Springdale Mall.”
The personal isn’t necessarily political. That said, society does benefit when individuals decide to, say, quit smoking, get in shape, or learn how to control their anger. But the benefits accrue primarily to the individual in question. Those close to the individual—such as partner, children, family members, close friends—also benefit; however, outside of that sacred circle, the benefits are largely negligible. Trying to solve the world’s problems with a program of individual-centered perfectionism is like trying to solve the problems of the poor with a program of trickle-down economics.
If the Devil’s greatest trick was to convince the world he didn’t exist, Consumer Culture’s greatest trick was to convince us that we could be radical without being political. The people running this system aren’t threatened by your tribal tattoos, your hard-core haircut, your skateboarding, your edgy music, your veganism, your yoga, your recreational drug use, your bisexuality, your dreads, your piercings, your kinky taste in porn—or anything else you do by yourself, or with other consenting adults, in the privacy of your own home. You may see a radical subculture, but they just see another niche market.
Being Original vs. Being Yourself
If a time machine like the one described in David Fiore’s Hypocritic Days (2014) was discovered tomorrow, and I was asked to write a travel brochure for the 21st-century West next week, I’d be sure to mention individualism as one of our era’s big attractions. The freedom to be yourself, do your own thing, choose your own profession, move to a new place, break with tradition, make a new family, be a little weird, have a little privacy: we take these things for granted far too often. Many of our ancestors would kill for what we have. Many of mine died for it. Many of yours too.
Still, individualism is a human thing, and, like all human things, it’s flawed. And it comes with a cost. Sometimes a hefty cost. So don’t get me wrong: I know full well how much trouble the emancipation of the individual has caused. But I would nevertheless argue that the freedom to be yourself is one of our culture’s greatest accomplishments. It’s well worth fighting for, despite its drawbacks. At some point, however, in the not-so-distant past, we seem to have collectively forgotten what it is that we were fighting for all along, what it really means to be authentic, what it really means to be yourself—and I think I know why: we’ve confused being yourself with being original.
If, like Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State (2004), you think that to be an individual, to be yourself, you’ve got to “do something that has never, ever been done before . . . throughout human existence,” you’re bound to go through life profoundly disappointed with yourself. Because this is an unrealistic goal, a silly ideal. You’re setting yourself up for failure. We can’t all be original. Just as there’s a limited amount of beachfront property in the world, there’s a limited number of people who can be first, unique, singular, and truly original (sui generis). To some extent this is a function of the limited number of geniuses in the world. But it’s mostly a function of dumb luck: some people just happen to be the first one to think or do something new. After all, someone has to be first.
In his classic essay on the subject—“On Thinking for Yourself” (1851)—Schopenhauer stresses that being the first one to think a particular thought isn’t what’s important. What’s important is that you make a thought your own. What’s important is that this newly discovered idea enter “into the whole system of your thought” as “an integral part, a living member”; “that it stand in complete and firm relation with what you already know; that it is understood with all that underlies it and follows from it; that it wears the color, the precise shade, the distinguishing mark, of your own way of thinking.” Epictetus makes a similar point in The Art of Living: “one of the best ways to elevate your character immediately is to find worthy role models to emulate. . . . Invoke the characteristics of the people you admire most and adopt their manners, speech, and behavior as your own. There is nothing false in this. We all carry the seeds of greatness within us, but we need an image as a point of focus in order that they may sprout.”
I’ve had people tell me a couple of times in the last decade something along the lines of: “I feel like a fraud, like an impostor, despite my successes. Guess I have that Impostor Syndrome everyone’s talking about. Guess I need some therapy or drugs to fix this, make me feel better about myself.” When people tell me this, in my head, I’m often thinking to myself: “um, well, yeah, so far as I can tell, you kind of are a fraud.” But the solution isn’t to fix the way you feel; it’s to fix the way you are. It’s time to become the person you’re pretending to be.
Being Liked vs. Being Loved
In The Prince (1532), Machiavelli famously maintains that it’s better to be feared than loved. I’m pretty sure my wise old mentor had this in mind when he told me, the night before my first job talk: “Remember, John, don’t make waves! When it comes to hiring committees, it’s better to be liked than loved.” In other words: DON’T BE YOURSELF!
Of course I ignored my mentor’s advice. Because I’m dumb. Because being careful and cautious has never come naturally to me. Regardless, I paid for my arrogance: took me quite a while to find a job. But I did, eventually, and I’ve since sat on numerous hiring committees—and seen the truth of my mentor’s words on countless occasions. Nobody on the hiring committee gets their first choice. Not even their second choice. The person who gets the job is, more often than not, the one who was everyone’s third, forth, or fifth choice: the person who everyone liked but nobody loved.
The same is not true in other domains—such as politics, religion, literature, activism, and moral reform—wherein zealous minorities have proven far more effective than tepid majorities. In these domains, it’s better to be loved than liked. The political impotence of the environmental movement is a case in point. Despite widespread support, it has been remarkably ineffective in North America, in part, because the people who care about the environment invariably care about something else more—such as racism, feminism, abortion, free speech, pornography, terrorism, religion, or Wall Street. Environmentalism is everyone’s third, forth, or fifth choice. It’s the cause that everyone likes but nobody loves. If you strive to be liked by all you’re sure to be loved by none.
If you strive to be liked by all, as people-pleasers habitually do, you’re probably misrepresenting yourself in big and small ways all the time; you’re probably sending out a lot of mixed and confusing signals; and you’re probably attracting all sorts of people who aren’t particularly well-suited to you. This is precisely why people-pleasers so often find themselves surrounded by people they can’t stand, people who wouldn’t like them much either if they knew them better. To be liked, you have to be vanilla ice cream; to be loved, you have to be one of those weird flavors your grandmother can’t stand. To be liked, you have to be all things to all people, a human chameleon, like Zelig; to be loved, truly loved, you have to be whatever it is that you are. To be loved, you have to be yourself.
—John Faithful Hamer