An old story tells of three stonecutters who were asked what they were doing. The first replied, “I am making a living”. The second kept on hammering while he said, “I am doing the best job of stonecutting in the entire country.” The third one looked up with a visionary gleam in his eyes and said, “I am building a cathedral.”
It is the second man that is the problem. Workmanship is essential […] but there is always a danger that the true workman, the true professional, will believe that he is accomplishing something when, in effect, he is just polishing stones or collecting footnotes.
The functional work becomes an end in itself. In far too many instances [they] no longer measure their performance by its contribution to the enterprise but only by professional criteria of workmanship.
Social media has made it more difficult than ever to keep the accomplishments of others in perspective. It seems like every other day someone gets a new job or closes a big deal.
Face-to-face interactions have an honesty to them that just isn’t possible on Facebook or Twitter. One source of this honesty is obvious: facial expressions add an important dimension to conversations that is lost online.
The other source of honesty is not so obvious, and is the focus of this post.
Face-to-face conversations are sequential, while social media is event-driven. Three seconds is an awkward lull in a spoken conversation — that’s when you scramble for a wildcard topic like the weather or sportsball to drown out the silence. Humans hate silence so much that we most of us go crazy in a few minutes when exposed to it. We instinctively fight to fill this void. It’s why police officers do paperwork for hours in front of the people they arrest, waiting for them to fill the silence with potential evidence.
This is why we instinctively reach for our phones the moment we conjure up a humorous idea for a tweet, get a piece of good news, accomplish something, or see a well arranged dinner plate. We just want to fill a perceived void in our online lives. As a result, every stream of information we consume online is full of funny, accomplished people. The more of this stream we consume, the more it seems like everybody is killing it 100% of the time, when really we’re just seeing the 1% of people who have had an interesting minute or two in their life today.
It’s the reason why it seems like all the crazy people live in Florida, our fourth most populous state. CNN just makes more money telling you about outliers than reporting on the millions of ordinary people like you and me. It’s the reason why large countries like the US, Russia, and China seem to win all the gold medals at the Olympics. (The Olympics is this event where we take a bunch of outliers and sort them by standard deviation.) You’re just going to have more outliers in a large sample size. Thanks to algorithms like Edgerank, and the time we spend curating what we post on social media, most of the posts we see online are outliers.
Real life moves at one minute per minute. Depending on how many people you follow, your online life might move at one hour per minute — every minute, you hear about an hour’s worth of accomplishments. When people don’t realize that their online lives run in a different timescale than the one they live in, negative thoughts tend to build up inside them. They include:
- Feeling like you can only tell people good news
- Feeling like someone is more successful than you could ever be
- Feeling like you’re inferior to someone else
I think this problem is especially bad on a college campus, where expectations are high and ambitions higher still. I frequently meet students who think I or someone else is really accomplished, smart, or some other adjective. This incredulation is easily dispelled with a dose of honesty, and it really frustrates me when people are unwilling to be honest about their achievements because they want to maintain the impression of “killing it all the time”. This unwillingness to be honest hurts everybody because it makes it hard to empathize with each other, break bad news when it happens, and mentor the next generation of people in our fields.
I’ll end this post with an interesting experience I had with my optometrist, a young lady in her late twenties. Every time I go in for my checkup, I’m amazed by how deftly she manipulates this intimidating piece of machinery:
Whizzing through the dials in a furious dance, she uses what is essentially a binary search to determine if my contact lenses are properly calibrated. She’s an archetypal doctor, from her crisp verbal commands to her immaculate posture and professional manners. She just kills it all the time, every time I see her. Frankly, it’s slightly intimidating how perfectly she does everything.
On my last visit, I asked her how long it took her to learn how to operate that machine. I was expecting her to say something like “oh, a semester”, and continue with the procedure.
Instead, she giggled like a schoolgirl, slumped back in her seat, let out a small sigh.
“Oh my gosh, it took me FOREVER!” she said as she rolled her eyes back in exasperation. “I had the toughest professor ever — I actually failed the test the first time!”
We had a short, lively conversation before she finished the test and sent me on my way. It was the most down-to-earth, human conversation I’ve ever had with someone in a profession I deeply respect, and I left her office feeling inspired.
All she did was admit that she was once a student, just like I am today.