Insignificance Is Career Bliss: Step Away From the Light

3 years ago
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“We moved from what cultural historians call a culture of character to a culture of personality. During the culture of character, what was important was the good deeds that you performed when nobody was looking.”—Susan Cain, Author and Lecturer

Not too long ago, a visit to Sydney to meet an ambitious sector leader of an up-and-coming organisation was a chance not to be missed. The idea was simple, a catch-up over coffee to learn a thing or two about their thoughts on our sector’s future.  

The four-hour trip to Sydney was uneventful, though pleasant. However, the meeting itself proved stilted and awkward, beginning with the leader saying, “I’m not quite sure why I’m here, and I don’t normally agree to such things.” The discussion lasted all of 15 minutes, and uncharacteristically ended with a selfie.

The next day, that selfie was on this person’s social media account for all their followers to see. It became apparent that the meeting actually had capital for this leader after all. We played a part in not only promoting their personal brand—we authenticated it.

If you’ve had a similar experience, feeling gaslighted is quite reasonable. This catch-up seemed unnecessarily transactional in a manner that was a zero-sum-game.

Yet, thinking about the incident further, we as humans have always retold stories about ourselves. Take a stroll through any museum’s old portrait collection, and you’ll see that many of these works accentuate what’s positive about the subject: power, success, wealth and health are common tropes.

In more recent times, our ability to re-edit our public image has become infinitely accessible—a social media account, and an online graphical tool is all you need.

It’s also no wonder then that on average we spend approximately 2.5 hours a day chasing that dopamine hit in the next personal social media buzz. It’s perhaps not a surprise that brain scans of heavy social media users resemble scans of drug and gambling addicts.

Personal brands are subjective and vague—a recruitment agent telling you that your personal brand was the reason you didn’t get an interview, is probably signalling something else. Still, perception whether online or offline, is powerful—it opens doors and creates career opportunities.

Thomas Gilovich and Kenneth Savitsky came up with the phenomenon called the ‘spotlight effect’ in a study in the 1990s. Their research found that people overestimate how much people notice us, and more importantly, notice about us. Essentially, we assume that people are actively watching what we do without thinking about it—this is a prescription towards paranoia.

This sense that others are always watching and judging you is not constructive to your career development. You cannot do your best work when always thinking about what other people think—your career (and life) is not another co-design workshop. The truth is, others are actually too busy worrying about their own lives.

That sector leader we mentioned at the start of this story, they probably meant no harm, though maybe they were somewhat anxious. Perhaps their fantasy social media life, and concocted public image—which they controlled—played a role in their behaviour.

Sometimes it’s worth learning from the elders we have the privilege to care for; they’re focused on their family and friends, they have hobbies, they’re neither striving to build a personal brand, nor are they re-editing themselves on social media.

There’s one striking thing about them—they’re happy.

Merlin Kong is Interim Director of the Centre for Workforce Development & Innovation, Leading Age Services Australia.