Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Unbearable Wrongness of "Being"

If you listen to a people try to describe themselves, almost all of them will use the phrase “I am …” Which seems innocuous enough on its face. After all, it is natural and appropriate to describe your physical characteristics with the relative immutability that the phrase “I am” implies. When you say “I am tall,” “I am fat,” or “I am a blonde,” most of those traits will remain unchanged absent some drastic intervention.

However, when describing something much more intangible, such as your personality or your proficiency at something, the phrase “I am” is far less helpful.

For example, someone with a health self-image might say, “I am good at my chosen profession.” And, in a sense, it may not inaccurate to say so. That person may very well have the credentials, the experience, and the track record that leaves no doubt that he or she is, in fact, quite good at her job.

What is lost, however, is that it is not being good at your job that made you successful at those tasks. It is being successful at those tasks that made you comfortable enough to be good at your job. And, if you are the type who is inclined to build up an unhealthy supply of ego, treating your successes as flowing from your inherent awesomeness will make you treat the prospect of future success as a fait accompli rather than a goal toward which to work. Probably the most important lesson I learned in five years at Georgia Tech was the fact that I was not inherently smart, and therefore success would come on its own – it was a very necessary ego check for a cocky teenager, and one I’ve tried to keep in mind each time I succeed in life.[1]

The same holds true in matters of morality. Probably the worst way to describe yourself is to say “I am a good person.” You may very well do many good things, but here again, describing yourself as inherently good confuses cause and effect.

Moreover, some studies have actually shown that those who consider themselves as inherently good people tend to engage in a form of “moral licensing,” where individuals who have engaged in morally upright behavior in one area of their lives feel entitled to cut corners in another area:

Earlier this year, researchers at Northwestern reported that subjects who wrote self-flattering stories later pledged to give less money to charity than those who wrote stories that were self-critical or about someone else. In another recent study, participants who recalled their own righteous deeds were less inclined to donate blood, volunteer, or engage in other "prosocial" acts. They were also more likely to cheat on a math assignment.

Why might this happen? According to Monin, now a professor at Stanford, there are two theories. One is that when we've established our rectitude, we interpret ensuing behavior in a different light: I just proved I'm a good person, so what I'm doing now must be okay.

However, doing the opposite by indulging in a negative self-image is hardly an improvement. When one says things like “I am not good with money” or “I am a bad husband,” what sounds like an admission of a personal failing is, in reality, a way of shirking moral responsibility for one’s actions. It’s a way of conflating those personal failings with truly immutable characteristics, and thereby allaying any blame for the harmful actions that flow from those characteristics.

After all, no one blames a person who is short for not being able to reach the top shelf; by extension, no one should blame a person who is lacking in tact for saying offensive things. However, the truth of the matter is that the two things are very different: a short person will never be any taller, no matter how much effort that person puts in. But a person who, through a combination of environment and habit, has developed a tendency to be a bit of an ass can actually put in the effort to think about the potential effect of what he says. He may decide that the effort isn’t worth it or that censoring oneself ultimately does more harm than good, but the salient point is that “being” more or less considerate is a decision, not a description.

Granted, this is a gross oversimplification of human behavior. As alluded to above, everyone is a collection of years and decades worth of learned responses in response to external stimuli, which tend to harden into each individual’s psychological make-up and disposition. Likewise, few will quibble that successful professionals are good at their jobs, notwithstanding a pedantic argument about what we mean by such a description.

All the same, it is worthwhile to avoid describing yourself by what you are in favor of what you do. When you say, “I’ve been successful at my job” or “I try to do right by people,” it conveys the same message about what you’ve done in the past, while hopefully serving as a reminder that tomorrow’s achievements are a promise to no one, and must in fact be earned anew. And when you say things like “I’ve screwed over the people I care about” or “I’ve tended to drink a bit too heavily,” it’s a way of admitting your faults, but it’s also a way of remembering that the choice of whether or not to repeat those faults remains in your control.

[1] Granted, the fact that the most I took from Tech was a bit of motivational self-help gibberish probably isn’t the most desirable outcome. There go five years of calculus and electrical circuit analysis, all gone to waste.

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