Scott Rosenberg discusses Jefferson Pooley’s essay about the American idea of self.
Pooley traces the history of personal authenticity through the lens of a mid-20th-century American intellectual tradition — thinkers such as David Riesman and Christopher Lasch. He outlines “the contradiction that is at the core of the modern American self,” which “could be summed up as: Be true to yourself; it is to your strategic advantage.” Our culture, Pooley writes, summons us to “embark on quests of self-discovery that promise to affirm our uniqueness”; then the “self-improvement industries and especially advertising” hitch along for the ride, or hijack the quest for their own ends. The same culture also commands us to “stage-manage the impressions we give off to others as the essential toolkit for success” — to cultivate our personal “brands.”
Choosing to be as Pooley puts it, “instrumental about authenticity” — being yourself because, man, it sells — creates a paradox. It’s like the paradox of the businessperson who learns to meditate on the futility of striving because it helps him close deals. You can make this kind of thing work for a while, but sooner or later it will catch up with you.
The way around the problem is to be in the moment. Be who you are at that time. Paraphrasing a science fiction writer (Roger Zelazny): Closing the sale today doesn’t matter in geological time, but because you are not a rock or a glacier, why should you care about geological time. In 100 years we’ll all be dead, but it’s not 100 years from now, it’s today. And next week won’t be 100 years from now either. It’ll just be next week.
Be who you are where you are when you are there.