One of the more fascinating aspects of watching humans in life is how variable their performances are. Some succeed way beyond expectations. Others produce middling results or even fail despite having prodigious talents.
In the old days, this might be explained by the degree that one is committed to hard work. Hard workers succeeded and lazy fools did not. And of course, the greatest achievers worked hard and smart.
There is a reason why the idea sticks. It is right — at least in part. Unless one is working on a fool’s missoin, hard work does pay off.. So let us examine that idea bit closer. Assuming hard work is the key to success, what induces some to work harder than others? Why do some develop an aversion to this rather simple commitment when it so obviously pays off?
Is it just a moral failure? Is it that some succumb to temptation to indulge, while others, who are stronger, do not? Perhaps. But then, what makes a person strong enough to withstand those temptations? Where does the strength come from?
As an aside, one is reminded of Oscar Wilde’s famous quip, “I can resist everything, except temptation.”
After some reflection I think it has to do with a simple decision paradigm that one makes about the story lines in life that are unfolding. What is happening is either “me” or “not me”.
“This is me!” is an emotional claim to a given context. It is a celebration of connection. An affirmation that gives a person something to hold onto as time goes by. It comes with risks. And I will come back to those risks in a moment. But the “this is me” celebration is a peak experience. And we need peak experiences.
“This is not me!” is a rejection that opens the door and frees the decider to move on. While it may appear to be negative, it is not really so. The rejection creates a barrier to temptation and mental space. It creates possibilities for focus. – an important tool.
Of course, we do both and the two decisions are iterative. Embracing one identity implies rejecting others. If I embrace the idea of being honest, I will say “this is not me” when the opportunity to steal arises. So far so good. So what goes wrong?
Psychologists often point the finger at childhood development. Children who suffer from being ignored or abused suffer long term decision making impairment. Why? Children tend to blame themselves for everything that goes wrong around them. So an ignored child very easily comes to the conclusion that “This is me. I am not worth attention”. An abused child may conclude “This is me. I deserve to be punished.” From this starting point, connecting and disconnecting are fraught with complication.
Alternatively, a child may not be challenged. In this case, the child may easily come to the bogus conclusion that one need not decide anything. He or she can be whatever he or she chooses at a given moment. Then when life demands decision, that youngster will make mistakes.Oops! We often say that the person “has some growing up to do.”
Most of us are able to transcend this at least to a certain extent. We may say “yes” to something that is transformative (perhaps a caring relationship). Or we say “no” to the abuser or the context that hurts us. And we are able to move on.
But troubles persist if we lack that strong connection to ongoing peak experiences. A person in that situation may latch onto a “this is me” connection simply out of desperation. We might call it the “Emma Bovary syndrome”. Emma being the fictional character created by Gustav Flaubert who embraces immoral and doomed escape form a boring marriage through adultery. Yes, it ends in tragedy for all concerned. Though one has to admit that Emma did work hard at her affair. As I said, hard work is not always the ticket to nirvana.
With few peak experiences, we also might latch onto ephemeral contexts. Perhaps a school, or a group of friends at a given time of life, or an era. When the context is over, we can become quite lost without it. Or we may latch on to a context that injures us. An addiction, perhaps. And in either case, we can remain stuck even when we realize the futility of the connection. After all, we have decided that that is who we are.
This is why Csikszentmihalyi posited that we should choose to be only what we are creating. The rest deserves a “this is not me” rejection. In other words, the contexts in which we create are meaningless in themselves. They can be attractive, but the attraction is ephemeral. Even harmful or painful contexts are simply distractions from creating meaning.. They are just the backdrop for the story.
As humans, we have the capacity to create context. BTW, other animals do not appear to do this. In doing so, we add value to ourselves and to others. Csikszentmihalyi says “just do that!” That is the strongest “this is me” commitment, and I would argue the one most likely to offer long term peak experiences (or you might call it happiness). Confidence that this is who we are makes us stronger. It makes hard work less daunting and more likely to pull us in. We generate what Csikszentmihalyi called”flow”. And while in the flow, we get smarter.
One last point. We know from Dan Kahneman that our satisfaction from experience has more to do with our memory f it than the experience itself. When on internalizes the “me” experience, one adds a new dimension to memory – memory of what I create in my mind. This added dimension is a source of happiness that lies untapped or at least not systematically used for most of us.
This is a nuanced understanding of identity and it is not intuitive. It takes some reflection to understand its value. And that is why many of us never quite get there.