Why does Kim Kardashian instagram naked selfies on a random Monday evening?
Why do we poo-poo the selfie culture and yet turn ourselves into circus monkeys with props in a photo-booth at some random party?
Why must we believe that the customer is always right when she’s just another flawed human being doing the best that she can?
Why are marketers spending billions of dollars trying to personalize customer experience?
Selfies, personalization, bespoke experiences, the cult of celebrity….where is this coming from?
I grew up in a culture where collective identity overrides individual identity. Your values are your family’s values, your choices are for the betterment of your family, not for the pursuit of your own vanity. You are not driven by passion. You are driven by duty. In turn, your family is part of a biradari (literal translation: brotherhood; liberal translation: community). Your family’s honor and respect are measured by how well it fulfills its duties towards the aunts and uncles that make up this community; every tea party, every family dinner, every wedding an opportunity to comply, an opportunity to affirm the norms of the brotherhood. In this culture, the pursuit of acceptance is the unsaid law of the land.
I resisted this culture the entire time I lived in Pakistan. My poor mother had to explain to her biradari why her twelve year old had an eye brow ring, didn’t attend weddings because she didn’t believe in the institution and picked fights with uncles over women’s rights. I recall reading Atlas Shrugged when I was 15, and feeling a tremendous sense of vindication and relief – there were others like me who believed in individual excellence and uninhibited individual expression through creation of value and beauty in the world.
Choosing to live in the U.S. wasn’t just an economic choice but a philosophical one. To me, it represented a culture where the individual is celebrated above all else. Parents encourage their children to find their own path and optimize for their own happiness. There is space and time to discover oneself and create value from that place of self-awareness. And it’s been all of those things for me.
And yet, over the last two years I’ve become aware of something corrosive that’s come along for the ride on this adventure of self-exploration and expression.
And that is self obsession. I see it in myself. I see it in my friends. I see it in my co-workers. I see it in random people I meet at social events.
My goals. My travel. My spirituality. My stress. My happiness. My story.
Somehow self-awareness morphed into navel gazing. Self-reflection became blatant narcissism.
I don’t think the answer lies in one culture or another. Both are essentially the same with the line of “Self” being drawn in a different place. The outcome I’d like to explore is to remain an individual with a strong sense of self, but with a purpose that’s Other-oriented, where Other is not just a connection of blood, love or money, but a connection of empathy that should exist between any two living beings.
This journey begins with creating awareness (with ruthless honesty) of who I am serving with my time, my energy and my money. Once that is apparent, the next step will be to make durable life changes to orient towards service of others as the core mission, while staying true to myself.
Very scary. And also feels exactly right.
P.S. And no selfies!