Is it about me, or my mission?

What do the notorious former marketing director of American Apparel, Ryan Holiday, and renowned Dutch reformed theologian Bram van Beek have in common? They both have written a book about the danger of egocentricity. 

Blame it on social media – again?

Social media offers endless possibilities to promote ourselves and serve as outlets for our vanity. It enables us to humble brag about our professional achievements on LinkedIn, share evidence of our successful ‘friends & family’ life on Facebook, and demonstrate our cutting-edge lifestyle on Instagram. 

However, looking at our current society and world history, it seems we as human beings always have been prone to self-centeredness and self-promotion. Social media therefore merely enables us to express something that is already deeply rooted in us.

Even the importance of filtering is not new.

Centuries ago, European royals frequently commissioned new paintings of their potential brides or grooms, when they were contemplating issuing a marriage proposal. The reason was that they thought the existing ones could not be trusted because they might have been painted too flattering on purpose.

What is wrong with egocentricity?

Ryan Holiday defines ego (centrism) as ‘An unhealthy belief in our own importance. Arrogance. Self-centered ambition’.  

The question of course is if egocentricity is inherently bad. What is wrong with solely focusing on our personal well-being? Why should we care about anyone but ourselves?

Great questions, questions that all religions and leading philosophers have been engaged in, and questions that consequently cannot be answered in a short blog post.

A more pragmatic question to ask is, if we assume we would have a choice between being egocentric or not, what would the best choice be? 

Coming from different perspectives, both Ryan Holiday (stoic philosophy) and Bram van den Beek (Christian theology) highlight the emotional void we face if we center our lives around ourselves. A void that stems from our lack of authenticity because, paradoxically enough, egocentrism forces us to let our lives be determined by others.

‘To be or to do’?

Ryan Holiday poses the fundamental question of whether we want to focus on who we want to be or what we want to do.

‘To be’ refers to a position, e.g. being successful, influential, powerful, etc. ‘To do’ refers to the activities we do.

Focusing on who we want to be, means opting for a position and choosing a course of action that brings us closer to the position we aspire to have. This could be for instance a job title, a role, a certain income level, etc. Achieving this position requires us to do what others expect from us in terms of behaviors…

Focusing on doing means that we let our course of action be determined by what we consider to be intrinsically important. It is something dynamic. A purpose that is outside us.

Position or Purpose?

If we review the differences between a position and a purpose, it becomes clear that having a purpose is vastly preferable to having a position. A purpose is more flexible, provides energy, and has the potential to inspire others.

  1. Flexibility – A position is fixed, but a purpose is flexible. A position needs to be defended, often in zero-sum game situations (‘Either I have the job, or John will’). A purpose can be pursued in a variety of ways. If one option does not work, plenty of others may still be open. If a particular organization, geography, or target group is not receptive to your purpose, you might be able to find other ones who are more receptive.
  2. Energy – Having to hold a position requires energy to maintain and expand it. Pursuing a purpose provides energy – if only because of the positive experiences you are likely to encounter along the way. Success breeds success!
  3. Inspiration – People in leadership positions attract attention due to the nature of their role. Everyone wants to engage with people in C-suite positions in organizations due to the power and influence they exert, as well as the impact they can have on the future of members of the organization. However, this is often temporary at best. Once these individuals are no longer in their roles, they are quickly considered to be irrelevant by the people who see them as vehicles for their personal aspirations. ‘The king is dead, long live the king’. A purpose on the other hand inspires followers. Followers who will follow the purpose, not the individual.

What about my career?

Some people might be afraid their careers will suffer if they focus on a purpose rather than on themselves. However, that is not necessarily the case.

First of all, the question is what success actually means. If it means holding a well-paid position to do something you do not like, how successful are you really? At the end of your career, would you rather like to talk about the most senior corporate job you had, your net worth, or about the impact you had on others?

Secondly, focusing on a purpose does not imply not being successful. Despite his widely depicted moral and ethical flaws, Steve Jobs for instance was incredibly successful because his purpose was to make Apple (as well as Next and Pixar) as successful as possible. 

I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run – in the long-run, I say! – success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it”

Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Picture credits: (1) The U.S. National Archives | (2) Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein the Younger

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