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Friday, December 23, 2016

Power, Money, and Prestige

Readers, I want to be clear about something. I have nothing against power, money, and prestige (PM&P). To be honest, I admit that I feel around exemplars of PM&P similar to the way I feel around celebrities. That is, I don’t want to show that I’m super excited to see them. I don’t want to show anyone around me, nor do I want to show myself, either. 

That had to be said. I mean, really. Who can resist PM&P completely? And why should they be resisted? We all probably agree that some combination of PM&P, if not all three, is a recognizable type of success. However, here’s the thing. PM&P is not to be courted directly. Not for real, lasting success. PM&P are all very well, but not as ends in themselves. They’re okay as offshoots. Like ATP in the Krebs Cycle. Or happiness. Happiness is another thing you can’t really seek directly. It’s a byproduct of worthwhile activity and general life choices and mindset. Same with PM&P. Don’t take it from me, though. Take it from people with PM&P. To a one they’ll tell ya they weren’t gunning for that stuff. They were pursuing their interests, interests that also aligned with benefiting others, usually, and weren’t at all hung up on success, or PM&P. 

I realize you are actually “taking it from me” even though I say not to. Because you are reading my words. But presumably you get my drift. I could name a couple people I know who have PM&P and tell you what they’ve made or done and why. And it wasn’t simply because they wanted to win, or to have everyone think they are the greatest, or to have enough money to smother Kellyann Conway. They earned it by being invested in work that was meaningful to them, and by excelling at that work. Adam Grant talks about this in Give and Take, which is still on my mind. While both givers and takers can amass PM&P, the takers often go down in a tremendous fall. Grant talks about Enron Corporation and its disgraced head Jeffrey Skilling being a big taker. He certainly amassed PM&P, but then it all fell apart and he was left with notoriety. Food for thought these days, no?

Related to this, although at this moment I can’t remember why, is my conversation with my friend A. It was all so clear while I was walking the dog. Then I lived out the rest of my day, with shopping and driving people places and an a senseless political argument on Facebook with an obdurate and rude person who I unfriended, and now I’ve lost the sense of what I wanted to say. Anyway, A and I were talking about dealing with competitive feelings. It’s easy to get into a state, when comparing yourself with others, by assuming their lives are much better than yours and that somehow they have some secret to handling life that you are desperate to get in on - and at the same time are desperate to avoid letting them know you feel desperate about that. However, A said, that moment you allow yourself to talk openly to a friend and you learn that she is just as concerned about her child’s strange behavior as you are about yours, you realize you are not the only one with those uncomfortable feelings. You realize we are all just trying to make it through, and we all have our challenges.  

Which reminds me of a conversation with the college student about the book The Happiness Effect by Donna Freitas. This book is about the pressure everyone, especially teenagers, feels to present a happy, polished self on social media. Then, because they all read everyone else’s social media feeds, they feel bad because their lives don’t feel as happy as their friends’ curated online lives make them out to be. 

I pointed out that this is an old problem - or a natural tendency - the tendency to show different selves to different people and in different situations. The difference now is that those things are made concrete on social media. 

The cure is honesty. Focusing on meaning and purpose. Forgetting about PM&P. Anne Lamott might call it “radical honesty.” I'm not that touchy-feely, though. That phrase - blech. However, the point is, recognizing that we don’t have to go around bleeding on just everyone, but that we do need a few close friends and family members who we feel comfortable dripping on every now and then. When we let them bleed on us, too, then we can face those things that make us insecure, the things that make us long for PM&P. Because let's be real. That hankering after those things is about insecurity. Even though we can all look around and see a shining example of a person with PM&P who, nevertheless, needs to trash the people around him, we still too easily delude ourselves into thinking if we had just a bit more, we wouldn't worry so much. For most of us, that's just not true. 

In closing, I would like to offer the following ideas about success, courtesy of a young person. Then I will dismount my high horse. 

  • Success is about achieving goals. But it is also about more than that. 
  • Success is about being happy. But maybe that’s not exactly true.
  • Success is filling the void with friends. 

Add to those my maxim, “It is almost always better to exercise.” 
Eat in moderation. 

You (and by you I mean me) are now well set up to enjoy the holidays. See you in 2017. May it be a better year than 2016.

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