Have you ever wondered why so many people in your organisation are constantly stressed-out and on the edge of a burnout or fundamentally disengaged? Have you ever asked yourself if that is normal?
Is it really the case that work is by its very nature hard, mostly unpleasant and a sacrifice we all have to make in order to make a living? Is work really no more than a sad fact of life we put up with because it pays the bills?
I believe there is more to work than that.
As long as we have existed, humans have come together to achieve things we could not achieve alone. Throughout the ages, we have tackled difficult, dangerous and unpleasant tasks together in groups, tribes and all kinds of organisations. We did not just do that for the reward. In fact, a lot of extraordinary work was done not for extrinsic motivators such as money, titles, status or power, but for intrinsic motivators such as being part of something bigger than ourselves, doing something meaningful, making a contribution, or in the words of President Kennedy: we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
Humans like to work, and love to work together. It’s a deeply ingrained social drive. It’s part of what makes our lives meaningful and worth living.
Yet, that’s not what most workplaces feel like.
Because of our obsession with the economic aspects of work: money, value chains, productivity, etc. and how that makes us organise and manage the work we do, we are actually working against the natural drivers that engage and inspire people to do great work. Instead of helping people achieve their best and wanting more we make it harder.
But we can change this. If we recognise and embrace the natural drive that people have to get together and do great work we can tap into much more energy, creativity and willingness to explore and innovate than we do at the moment.
To do so we need to add a social perspective to our approach. We need to realise that organisations are not just there to produce economic value. Organisations are social structures, full of people with a need to participate, to feel proud, to have a purpose, to grow their potential and to contribute.
It’s my mission to help bring this social perspective to organisations and show them how they can inspire and support their people to do great work and enjoy doing it.
Expectations, narratives and choices are some of the superpowers we can use to give our lives direction, purpose and impact. But like all powers these superpowers come with downsides, risks and consequences we should be aware of before using them. No power worth having can be used for beneficial goals only, and all powers have dark and undesirable side-effects when used indiscriminately. That shouldn’t stop us from developing our powers, however, it just means we must understand the pitfalls and downsides, learn how to avoid them and how to spot them as early as possible so we can take corrective action.
Using power means deliberately trying to change the world to our liking. Changing the world – even in a very small way – creates resistance. The world itself has inertia: it takes energy to overcome the status quo, as the status quo is often the most stable state at that moment. Once the world starts moving, more and more people will start to notice and have their personal resistance triggered, as they, too, may like the world as it is right now and prefer it to stay just where it is.
One absolutely necessary step in our journey is to make sure we are not knowingly hurting other people. The more we develop our powers, the more important such an ethical baseline becomes. Not that we can always avoid hurting people, the world is too big and complex to accurately predict all consequences of our actions. Yet as soon as we know or even suspect that our actions may adversely affect other people it is time to slow down, reflect and consider other ways of moving forward.
Such an ethical baseline is there for our own good, too, not just to protect others. For me, the whole point of personal growth is to help us lead more fulfilling and satisfying lives. Sustained fulfilment and happiness can only come from caring about other people and from trying to contribute positively to their lives. That is the very foundation of the social side of our nature. Gaining advantage over other people at their expense may give temporary satisfaction, sure enough, but in the long run this satisfaction will fade and turn into something far less positive.
We are all part of the social fabric and our well-being is inextricably tied up with the good of the groups we belong to. We must, therefore, always consider the bigger picture when we design our own journey forward. And get it wrong from time to time. That is perfectly OK, as we should not expect to have the complete picture, ever. But as soon as we become aware of any damage or pain caused by our actions, that’s when we stop, reflect and adjust our narrative. That is how we learn and grow as human beings.
So, let’s take a look at each of the powers I’ve blogged about before and explore how to use them safely and effectively. Even though their dark sides will never completely disappear, awareness is more than half the battle. Properly equipped with warnings and guidance we should be good to go, and start taking control of our destiny.
The Burden of Expectations
Expectations are a powerful force shaping our interactions with the people around us. Our instinctive urge to meet expectations is strong and tends to push us right to where we are expected to be. If those expectations happen to be aligned with our own sense of direction and purpose in life it is perfectly possible to find happiness and fulfilment doing what is expected of us by others. If they are not aligned, however, instead of helping us, those expectations become a counter-force, pushing us away from the life we want to lead and the goals we set. Misaligned expectations are a burden: a relentless force of resistance we constantly need to push against to move forward.
But proper alignment is only part of the solution. In spite of their awesome power to propel us forward, expectations can run into real-world factors we have little or no direct control over. We cannot alter or ignore the laws of nature, for instance, and even the laws of society are hard to escape from. We may have a virtually unlimited capacity for learning and growth, but we are all born with certain talents and proclivities, and lacking others, so it is not necessarily true we can become anything we want to. Someone who is tone-deaf is unlikely to become a musical genius, and a small, frail person is not exactly heavy-weight boxing material. When our own expectations and those that other people have of us become unrealistic or ignore our actual situation and true potential they can become a heavy burden and put us under a lot of stress.
There is a deeper lesson to be learned here, one that requires awareness, self-knowledge and some out-of-the-box thinking. As a general rule, when we become aware of the burden of the expectations we are under – whether self-imposed or from our environment – and we discover that the source of the stress is the unrealistic nature of those expectations, we should not immediately discard those expectations. The exact form of what is expected may not be possible, but maybe there is a way to reframe the aspiration. Maybe there is a way to retain the journey and its ultimate goal by changing some of our assumptions and interpretations of what the end-point would look like. We may never become birds (unless genetic engineering takes a gigantic leap forward in the next few decades) but there are many ways we can learn to fly. We may never learn to play a musical instrument, but we could invent a whole new way of creating music only we could come up with. Just remember this rule of thumb when examining the expectations we live under: when they feel impossible, unrealistic or internally contradictory, first look at the assumptions they come with. In many cases our stress is caused by the limiting assumptions we associate with our expectations, more than by the nature of those expectations themselves.
A more subtle, but no less pervasive, shadow-side of expectations lies in our mind’s tendency to compare our situations against the ideals encapsulated in the expectations we are driven by, and almost by necessity falling short of them. The real world is never perfect and the more idealised the expectations we compare ourselves against have become, the more our minds will conclude we must be failing, since our lives do not (completely) match our expectations.
This expectation ‘gap’ is a constant source of unhappiness and suffering in the world, even though it is just a game our minds play with us. Expectations, as powerful as they are, are not real, nor should they ever be taken as absolutes. They are a direction, a force to help us move closer to where we want to go. We may never get there, but that is not the point. As long as we are getting closer we are making progress, which is all that matters. Letting our expectations drive us forward without driving us crazy requires a mental balancing-act between relentlessly pursuing our ideals and being emotionally detached from actually achieving them. It’s not that we don’t want to achieve them, far from it, it’s just that we are at peace with not actually reaching them, as long we have the satisfaction of getting closer and becoming more aligned with our own narrative and journey in the process.
Finally, it is important to remember that expectations, like our lives, are not static. They evolve over time, through a combination of what we put in – our words and actions – and how we interact with everybody that relates to us: through gossip, social media, and their words and actions combined. Any interaction taking place in the social spaces we are part of can modify people’s expectations of us.
Expectations, therefore, require constant maintenance. To stay on course, we need to make sure the expectations that drive us still match our own desired journey and destination. Where they don’t, we need to step up and take action to correct that. This means we must actively monitor how other people behave towards us, so we have a good idea of how they see us and what they expect from us. We must then use this information to seed modified expectations against any changes we observe, as early as possible, to prevent unwanted expectations from lodging in people’s minds.
As with striving to close the gap between expectations and reality, this process is never finished and the alignment is never perfect. And in the same way that not reaching perfection does not invalidate our striving for it, not completely managing all expectations that influence us should not deter us from continuing to work on improving their alignment. One way to look at this part of the process is as a dance we engage in with the people in our social circles: a dance to music that we produce collectively with moves and steps we invent together as we go. Part of our social nature is our ability to synchronise with each other by engaging in social activities together. Managing collective expectations taps into this ability. In the same way that we can enjoy the dance for the sake of dancing, we can learn to enjoy managing expectations as something that enriches our lives and energises our journey.
The ability to choose is an essential human capability. We make choices all the time. Every move or non-move is a choice. Every reaction, or lack thereof, is a choice. We cannot escape choice: being endowed with discernment and decision-making faculties, every time we become aware of a possible choice, we are forced to choose. Even deciding not to choose is a choice, so choice is inevitable.
The inevitability of choice may feel like a burden to us. It means we cannot just prance around and follow our impulses and ignore the consequences. Because we have the power of choice, we are – inescapably – responsible for the consequences of those choices (or non-choices) we make. We may even feel guilty when things don’t turn out as we expected and our choices inadvertently hinder or hurt other people. Guilt, however, is a negative emotion which makes us less responsible for the consequences of our actions, not more, as it tends to paralyse us. Instead of observing and judging the consequences and then responding in a way that maximises the positives and minimises the negatives, we get so obsessed with the negatives we fail to respond at all.
The beauty of choice, and the antidote to guilt, is not that we always get it right and that we never cause harm with the choices we make, but that we always have the power and the opportunity to make better choices next time. Choice empowers us to learn from our mistakes and keep trying to make better choices. And every time we make a deliberate choice to do better we exert that power and give a new twist to the world. A twist that is ours, since we chose to do so.
Deliberate choices are those moments where we stop, take stock, and purposefully continue in a way that is in harmony with our beliefs, aspirations, and purpose. Such choices become inflection points: from the infinite variety that was possible before we made the choice most of them will now fall away, no longer possible. Our choice has just reduced the infinite complexity. It is still infinitely complex – that is the nature of infinity – but we have pruned it; bent it – ever so slightly – to our taste and desire.
What amplifies this power is when our choices are not just deliberate but also consistent. By making consistent choices – which doesn’t mean always making the same choices, but basing them on the same guiding principles or framework – our influence on the world becomes a shaping force with increasing power and effect. A series of small but consistent choices are like the pushes one gives to a swing: they may not be powerful on their own, but timed right and aimed accurately they build momentum and make the swing go far and wide.
The narrative we spoke of before is a powerful framework for making consistent choices. Using our own narrative in this way gives us two tools to work with.
It gives us a framework for evaluating the choices we have. For every option we can see we can ask ourselves: “is this helping me further along my journey, or is it taking me away from it?” In most cases, checking against our own narrative helps us rank our choices in order of alignment.Usually we would want to go with the most aligned choice, but it is advisable to do a reality check first to see if there are no consequences or side-effects that would make this choice less desirable. But in general the preferred choice would be the most aligned one, unless it presents seriously undesirable consequences.
It gives us a way to assess the outcome of our choices by regularly asking ourselves: “Am I progressing on my journey? Do I see improvement or progress in those areas most relevant to me and the narrative I am committed to live to?”
Even if our choices do not immediately lead to the desired outcomes – and they often won’t, as the terrain ahead of us is largely unknown and we need to explore and learn before we become better at making the right choices – with the narrative to guide us, by deliberately making our choices we are empowering ourselves to be the author of our own story, the director of our own drama, as well as the main actor in it.
That’s the power of choice: shaping the world to the best of our abilities to match the narrative we want to live by, instead of being a powerless, passive passenger and mostly observer of world that passes us by.
We are a storytelling species. It’s how we make sense of the world. It’s how we share our experiences with each other, which is how we bond, stay together and evolve together. As far as our experience of reality is concerned, unless we can turn it into a story we can not really say we have experienced it in a meaningful way. If a tree falls in the woods it probably always makes a sound, even when there’s nobody there to hear it come down. But without a human being there to witness it, experience it and turn it into a tall tale to share about a giant crashing to the ground and the impression that made on the observer, the tree might as well have gone down in silence. The medium carrying the fall’s physical sound is the air, the medium carrying its metaphysical sound is the narrative – and as far as humans are concerned that metaphysical sound is all that matters.
Narratives help us categorise and order reality to make it comprehensible and manageable for us. We use stories to assign significance to what would otherwise be random events. But narratives are not static. They do not just describe and categorise their content: they bring their content to life by including movement and momentum. Our stories mimic our experiences by operating in time: they have a beginning, a middle and an end. Stories capture and inform the reality we experience by adding a sense of direction: an intentionality of movement that imbues our journey from beginning to end with a deeply felt significance.
To have any direction at all, stories must contain action; they must be about things happening and – to give it human significance – things being done either to make those things happen or in response to them happening. From a narrative perspective we are all much more living doings than living beings. We are much more a process than a thing. Our nature is defined by movement, transformation and progression: from birth to death, from food to tissues and energy, from desire to action, from fear to flight or fight, it’s the processes far more than the objects that form the essence of our lives.
All this living doing is both circular and progressive: circular in that life comes and goes in many interconnected cycles; progressive in that – at least in our human perception – it seems to have a direction, goals and purpose that makes it move forwards and outwards rather than just around and around. The cycles repeat, but are never quite the same the next time around. Life evolves, species come and go, life becomes more complex, more intricate, simple forms combine to form larger ones… It is not just that we observe direction and progression in the world around us. We impose it on that world in our need to give it structure and meaning. Life would be unthinkable and unbearable for us if it had no direction. We need a sense of purpose and goals – something that drives us forward and things to aim for – and a sense we are actually moving in the right direction. We can endure almost any hardship on our journey as long as that journey is taking us somewhere. A journey that is not moving towards some goal or destination is not even a journey: it’s an aimless wandering in an endless wasteland with no sense of progress to measure our movements by.
That’s why our stories are crucial to us. They impart the world around us with order, intentionality, purpose and agency. Our stories allow us to make sense of the world, even if that sense is just a figment of our own imagination. We ‘make’ sense rather than ‘find’ it: it is a construct of the human mind, not something pre-existing waiting to be discovered by us. And as we make sense by creating stories, our stories energise us by giving us the will to continue our journey and keep moving forward.
In order to improve ourselves we need a sense of direction: we need to have something to move towards, something that compels us forward and makes it possible to turn mere busy-ness into an actual journey, with a start, milestones, progress and ultimately a destination. Since we are (largely) the authors of our own stories, it could be argued that the actual direction we journey in doesn’t really matter – it’s all a fiction anyway. For the purpose of self-improvement, however, and for living an empowered and fulfilling life the direction we travel in does matter and requires thoughtful consideration. The power to choose our own direction, walk our own path and write our own story is at the core of our human condition: we may not have the power to change the conditions in which we are living but we do have the power to live through those conditions in the way we decide for ourselves. Exercising that power is what makes us active agents rather than passive objects in the currents of the river of life.
I am not suggesting that simply by creating our own story and direction we are in any way guaranteed to reach the goals we set ourselves or come even close to fulfilling our chosen purpose. But by not crafting our own narrative we do not have any goals to aim for and even if we should accidentally and unintentionally some outcome, it would never feel like our own purpose and lack the sense of fulfilment that comes from a journey chosen ourselves and travelled voluntarily, with the commitment of our own volition to keep us going.
That is the power of narratives: to make us feel we are on a journey that is taking us somewhere, rather than being thrown around by random forces without any sense of direction or progress. Narratives encapsulate the human powers of sense-making and intentionality. The world may be chaotic, bewildering and ultimately indifferent to our plights, but our personal and collective narratives turn the chaos into orderly structures, turn bewilderment into meaning and enlightenment, and refute the Universe’s indifference by empathically stating that our lives matter because we choose to make them matter.
We are an intensely social species. From the moment we are born to the moment we die we rely on other people for our survival and well-being. Our survival instincts are closely connected to our social needs and behaviours and one of our deepest needs is to belong: to someone, to a family, a group, a society, a country, … Our sense of safety and well-being is so strongly tied to the groups we identify with that being thrown out of any of those groups is traumatic and painful, mentally comparable to the amputation of a limb or other physical injury. Our hearts break when a loved one dies or breaks up with us; we get sick with loneliness and homesickness when we are separated from our families and homes for too long; our immune systems fail us when we feel isolated, alienated and unwanted. We need to belong to something to survive.
Human beings, being both smart and adaptable, have developed many different ways of building social structures and keeping them together. We have stories, rules and rituals; physical markers such as tattoos, scarring, paint and clothes; physical barriers such as walls, moats and boundaries; all ways to strengthen the bonds between the people inside the group and set them off against and protect them from everybody else.
Social bonds – even those fortified and propped up by cultural means – may be strong but they are not unbreakable. In fact, because of the complexity of human interaction, with our many layers of feelings, emotions, motivators and believes, coupled with a deep-seated tension between the needs of the individual and the needs of the collective, the bonds we form are never completely certain, are tested often, and can break quite dramatically and suddenly. This volatility of our social bonds puts a constant pressure on us. We cannot afford to ignore it, lest we miss some subtle change in the attitude of those around us and find ourself suddenly on the wrong side of a social shift. So we are constantly on edge, socially speaking, gathering intelligence from our own social interactions and those we observe around us to gauge how secure we sit in the groups we identify with. This is why we gossip and love talking about other people behind their backs, this is why we love comparing notes with our friends about what’s hot and what’s not. This underlies the addictive nature of getting likes on Facebook and posting selfies and pictures of our breakfast on Instagram. We are constantly testing if we are still part of our ‘in’ crowd, if we are still safely within the bounds of what our own groups find acceptable.
But we don’t just need to know whether we are still acceptable and accepted, we actually need to anticipate the shifting moods and favours of the crowds we hang with and the people we depend on. To make sure we remain part of our social safety network we need to know what is expected of us. We need to know how other people see us and expect us to behave. We need to understand the subtle signals our peers use to show they are part of the same group. We need to know this in enough detail and depth to enable us to live up to other peoples’ perception of us, so we don’t surprise them or disappoint them, which could cause them to reject us and leave us isolated and alone.
This need to live up to how other people perceive us is the power of expectation.
Because being accepted by others is so intimately interwoven with our deepest survival instincts we all constantly monitor other people – especially those that are important to us – to work out what they expect us to be like and then model ourselves to those expectations, so as not to disappoint them. We all don the masks others like us to wear to avoid exposing sides of us that could cause them to turn against us.
This is not a conscious process, at least for the vast majority of people. Almost all of us constantly and seamlessly adapt our public personae to the expectations of the people we interact with without thinking about it; without even being aware of doing it. It is an almost completely automatic process that is always on, subtly (or not so subtly) modifying our behaviours to closely match the model other people have constructed in their minds of who we are.
We should not mistake this for a deliberate deceit. The personae we adopt in our social interactions are not roles we consciously play to fool those around us. It is almost the other way round: those personae – the versions of us other people expect to see when they interact with us – play us in a very real sense of the word. They do not just regulate our behaviours, they also influence our thoughts and perceptions. Our social personae influence our emotional responses and mental models. They cause us to think like the character we’re inhabiting, notice what that character would notice and ignore what that character would prefer not to see. Experiments have shown that under peer pressure people will subconsciously change what they believe to be true in order not to fall out of sync with those around them. In other words: we tend to become what other people expect us to be.
Does that mean we are powerless in the presence of others? Does it mean we are simply doomed to play variations of ourselves dictated by other people’s perception of us? Are we really, then, just actors on other peoples’ stages, doomed to play the parts others hand to us, helplessly repeating the lines they want us to utter?
Not necessarily! There is a way we can use the power of expectations to our advantage, and must do so if we want to take control of our mission in life. That way starts by realising that other people’s expectations of us are not a given but arise and evolve over the time we are in contact with them. The are not static but fluid, subject to change and influenced by many factors, some of which we can actually control or at least strongly direct to our own purpose and intentions. From the very first impression people have of us – which is often shaped before they actually meet us, based on hearsay, gossip, and other publicly available information about us – to the much more detailed and more firmly embedded mental models they construct about us as they see us more often and observe us in much more detail: what other people expect from us is partially of their own making, and partially shaped by how we present ourselves to them.
If we are not aware of this expectation mechanism it can easily become a self-reinforcing forward-feeding loop: people’s expectations of us cause us to behave in accordance with those expectations, which confirms what they expected, strengthening their mental model of us, making it even harder for us not to live up to it. If we are not careful we can get caught up in this dance of expectations and expected responses that we end up portraying and bringing to life a fictional version of who we are, rather than expressing our true nature and authentic behaviour. If we do this all the time, we have become ‘domesticated’: we forget we even have an authentic self, and would feel lost and incapable of action if the expectations that guide us would all of a sudden disappear.
If we are aware, however, and we understand the pressure those expectations exert on us, we can harness their power and use them to our advantage.
To do this we must first of all have our own expectations about ourselves clearly defined and very clear in our minds in every interaction we have with the people around us. Instead of accepting other people’s version of us, we need to work on our authentic version: the fiction closest to who we want to be, and how we want to be seen. We must imagine every encounter with other people as an opportunity to show them that authentic version and prepare ourselves to act, speak, and embody that version of ourself so consistently and convincingly that the people we interact with have no choice but to adjust their expectations and mental model of you to what you portray. Paradoxically, to counteract the forces of expectations pushing us away from being our authentic self, we have to practice and rehearse being authentic until it becomes spontaneous again. This is the ultimate form of method acting: playing the role of who you want to be until you are no longer playing it.
Getting the role right of being ourself is especially important for that first face to face meeting with people. People will have some expectations about our behaviour before they actually meet us, based on publicly available information, but that initial mental model will be rather sketchy and tentative. By providing them with clear, convincing and consistent behaviours in those first crucial moments of that first meeting we have a reasonable chance to shape their expectations of us to closely match how we want them to see us. And once those expectations are in place, to be our authentic self, instead of having to fight against unwanted expectations, all we have to do is meet what is expected of us, which works to everyone’s benefit: we don’t have to fight unwelcome expectations, and they feel much more comfortable because we keep behaving the way they expect us to.
That, in a nutshell, is the power of expectations: setting them right at the start of our interactions with people and carefully maintaining them to ensure that what people expect of us is what we want them to expect will make those expectations a powerful force to help us along on our journey and live more closely the narrative we desire to live; letting those expectations build up by themselves and ignoring them in how we behave around people that matter to us can easily turn that same force into an opposing one that will try to push us back into those other people’s narratives rather than allowing us to live our own story.
It’s easy to feel powerless in this vast and complex world of ours. After all, we are only small individuals out of billions of people. How would we ever think to have any significant impact? More often than not we let ourselves be moved along the currents of the world around us, without really thinking about where they might be taking us. We feel we are lost in a rapid of fast flowing events and random moments, and should be lucky to just keep our heads above the water. And even when we feel lucky to be alive, there’s still this constant nagging feeling that there should be more to life; that this frantic struggle to survive cannot be the sum total of what our life is about. Even when we are relatively successful and come out on top, if all we do is staving off the inevitable end a bit longer, it leaves us with a deep-felt sense of unease and lack of fulfilment.
It doesn’t have to be like this. We don’t have to feel powerless, directionless, and empty. Even when thrown about by the raging waters of life and pulled inexorably forward, we can make choices. More choices, in fact, than we can imagine. Life’s waters are complex, chaotic even, which means there are many moments where possible futures branch off from the mainstream; where even a slight change of direction can lead us to somewhere completely different. It’s in those moments of divergence – the places where one stream becomes 2 or many – that our choices lie. Where the present has many futures, it’s our act of choosing – deliberate, conscious choosing – where we can make a difference. Choice is the power each and every one of us has over the infinite complexity we participate in.
To wield that power with purpose, that’s what gives our lives fulfilment. To experience how we bring about a different future than the one we thought we were caught up in, that’s what make us feel we matter. And to make our choices deliberately, with forethought and as much consideration as possible – even when fully aware that we can only know so much and see so little of what those choices will lead to – that’s what gives us a sense of direction.
To get there we must practice three things: awareness, sense of direction and strength of purpose. With those strengths at hand we can turn our choices into deliberate ones: each choice, however small and seemingly insignificant, a tiny stepping stone on the path that leads us forward to a future of our own making. Deliberate, considered, conscious choice enables us to ride the raging river of life and use its power and speed to our advantage. Deliberate choice transforms us from helpless castaways desperately clinging to driftwood and straws into pilots of out own destiny – working with the river not fighting against it, accepting its vagaries and rapids as gifts and opportunities.
Making our choices deliberate ones requires a guiding framework: something to help us assess our options and select the ones most likely to progress us on the path we choose to travel. We need a belief-system, with values, goals and priorities. Growing up, there are plenty of belief-systems on offer: the cultural constructs of our families, peers, co-workers, teachers, bosses, politicians, religious leaders, …. If we passively adopt what those others offer us – without question or challenge – our choices are theirs, not ours, but they will be applied to our life and steer it where others want it to go.
To really make our choices our own, we need to go on a journey first; a journey into our own feelings, emotions, traumas, habits … That is a journey of discovery, discernment, adjustment, and focus. Do it well, and we will emerge with a belief system that is now truly ours. It will suit our temperament, it will fit us like a well-tailored suit, and most of all it will facilitate a sense of flow, a sense of synchronicity, when we decide and act in harmony with it, and the world starts to arrange itself accordingly.
When we find that momentum and use our choices to carry us forward on our chosen journey, that’s when we become the authors of our own life’s narrative. That’s when we can say “This Is My Story – I wrote this and I live this”.
I have seen quite a few rather angry debates online lately about the concept of ‘cultural appropriation’ – apparently people that grew up in a particular culture get upset when people from outside that culture publicly display symbols, artefacts, clothing and rituals they ‘have no right to’, being outsiders and not part of the culture they are displaying. Can anyone really claim to ‘own’ a culture? Does it make sense to demand of others to stay away from elements of cultures they didn’t grow up in?
We all grow up in one culture or other. Being human, our ‘natural’ environment – the one we evolved to adapt to – is the culture of the people we grew up with. Even though it may feel we are born to the culture we belong to, there is no known genetic predisposition for any particular culture. Any newborn, from anywhere in the world, when it is immediately placed in another culture than that of its parents, will grow up belonging as much to that particular culture as any of its peers. In other words, culture is acquired: learned and internalised through the continuous exposure to the beliefs, assumptions, and behaviours of those around us.
This means cultures are shared: it’s only through other people that a culture exists that we can belong to together. And cultures are diffuse : while it may have been true in ancient times that cultures could exist in near-perfect isolation, almost all of humanity is in contact with other cultures nowadays and elements of those other cultures get assimilated over time; either indirectly through stories, regular contact, the need to co-exist, or more directly through inter-marriage and other forms of people more or less permanently joining a culture other than the one they grew up in.
Humans have always traveled, it seems, and in our travels we have had to adapt to wildly different circumstances. Our ability to create cultures was a crucial skill in this process, as it enabled us to learn from each other and rapidly share, refine and scale crucial survival skills across our groups and communities. But with all that traveling and trading we did, the inevitable process of cultural learning has led to the continuous exchange of ideas, memes, beliefs, practices and behaviours. Even cultures that have remained fairly isolated over thousands of years show traces of cultural exchanges with tribes or travellers they have occasionally interacted with, either through direct contact, or through stories and objects brought back by scouts and travellers coming back after venturing far from home.
So can any element of a culture actually be exclusively claimed by a single group? Or is culture by its very nature a treasure trove of human adaptation and learning, intended for and of potential benefit to anyone genuinely interested in the wisdom each culture has to offer?
I certainly would like to think so. But I also understand that the way culture and identity are intimately interconnected can cause an emotional reaction in people.
Our history knows may examples of people that were overpowered and overrun by other cultures. Very often the conquered people had little choice: either adapt to the new rulers and try to blend in, or vanish completely. Culturally, the effect is the same: blend in long enough and there may not be enough left of a culture to distinguish the conquered people from their conquerers. The people may survive, but their culture dies.
I think that distress about other people ‘appropriating’ cultural elements is actually the distress of people that fear – rightly or not – they are at the losing end of a cultural assimilation process. We can’t deny that the globalisation that Western Europe unleashed upon the Earth in the past 600 years or so has not been particularly beneficial to many (if any) of the non-European cultures that came under the yoke of the colonising powers. Local cultures were seen as primitive and inferior, and either violently suppressed or systematically ridiculed, marginalised and discouraged. At the same time, artefacts, symbols, ideas, fashion, and even habits and behaviours of those ‘inferior’ cultures were shamelessly stolen, copied, twisted, parodied and then incorporated into the dominant culture as if they had invented or created these things themselves. I can fully understand the anger and frustration downtrodden and marginalised people feel when they not only see their autonomy, dignity, and quality of life being taken away, but at the same time have to watch on as the very things they define their cultural identity and their life’s purpose and meaning by are publicly displayed and copied by people who don’t even try to understand the true meaning and significance of what they are appropriating.
I understand, I truly do. And I would be the last one to want to inflict such anger and frustration on people. I am fortunate enough to have been born on the privileged side of the human divide – being European, white, educated and (relatively) rich. I do acknowledge that many of those privileges were created through the wilful and systematic destruction and theft of the wealth of other people by the previous generations of the society I am, by birth, a part of. So I don’t want to add insult to injury by digging through those other peoples’ cultural treasures to shamelessly take whatever I think is useful of interesting to me. That would be disrespectful. And it would be wrong.
Nevertheless, I am a lifelong seeker of wisdom and enlightenment. I know there is profound wisdom to be found in the many cultures of this world: deep, life-changing, time-honoured wisdom in many different forms. And I would love to learn of this wisdom, try to understand and fathom its depths, and learn from it, so I can be a better human being because of it. That’s all I am asking for. Or is that inappropriate too?
I do have a suggestion that may help change the perspective of those that feel they need to protect the essence of their cultural heritage from outsiders. Maybe it’s possible to separate your own experience of your culture – how you live it, use it, obey its rules, and contribute to its continued existence – from how outsiders experience it. Maybe you can come to see that sharing your culture with others doesn’t mean you are losing it, or diminishing its value. Even if those others completely misunderstand it and use or abuse it in inappropriate ways, that doesn’t reduce your culture’s wisdom and value to you and your community. That can never be taken away from you. That inner experience is unalienable yours. It’s your birthright.
And there is an even more hopeful perspective. There are examples in history of empire-building cultures that absorb so much of the cultures they conquered that they can hardly be called the same culture after they won their wars of conquest. The Mongols became Chinese in China, Muslim in Persia, and unmistakingly Indian in India. As long as there are enough people left to carry on their cultural traditions and transmit their cultural wisdom, the process of cultural exchange can work both ways, resulting in a new culture that combines both the conquered and the conquerors into a brand new culture that the original conquerors would hardly recognise themselves in.
Having recently traveled through Egypt to look at the ancient ruins that can be found all through the land there, two of my favourite examples of conquerors blending in with the people they conquered are the Nubians from Egypt’s southern borders taking over the country, in the process becoming almost more Egyptian than the Egyptians, while still maintaining some of their own traditions, and the Ptolemy’s, the Greek conquerors ending with the famous Cleopatra, who may have seen themselves as essentially Greek but adopted so many of the ancient Egyptian beliefs and practices it is hard for us modern people to see their Greekness; they look much more Egyptian than Greek to us.
So, before you argue your cultural heritage is yours, and yours alone, and should be kept safe from those who would appropriate it without having any right to it, consider this: maybe by giving outsiders access to your cultural wisdom you are not diminishing your self or your culture, but spreading it and extending its influence. Maybe, by letting elements of what your people learned over countless centuries infiltrate into the often shallow and short-sighted thought-systems of your oppressors, you are changing them, slowly, imperceptibly but inexorably, until they have become a different people altogether. Maybe this can be your revenge on those who so ruthlessly conquered and cruelly oppressed you: that their own progeny, their children’s children’s grandchildren, become nothing like their ancestors, and would not want to be seen to be like them. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate victory? That they who thought they could conquer and vanquish you through sheer force and violence, are instead conquered and vanquished by your patient and continuous infusion of their culture with the wisdom they so sadly lacked, until they – not you – become nothing but a minor and questionable footnote in our future history?