Big Britches and the Beggar’s Bowl

Bowl
Image by wwwarby

Now we know it’s true. The Kellogg School of Management has issued a study (hat tip: Rich Becker) that shows the more social connections one has, the more likely they are to treat others as less than. We see that big britches are a common by-product of doing well online. So all of the big bloggers who protest, “Not I,” really need to take a serious gut check.

Here’s the truth about this phenomena: It is timeless. It’s the stuff of novels and movies. Anyone read Faust lately?

Now we’re just seeing hot shot-itus played out on a very public stage with our colleagues, people who take tens of thousands of followers and the attention that comes with it all too seriously. It’s sad watching success change people, really.

It’s also sad that connectedness makes one feel better than other people. It fulfills a need to feel important. Yet twitter shout-outs, klout scores, blog rankings, etc. provide an empty sense of pleasure.

The whole phenomena is reminiscent of the old buddhist tale of the Beggar’s Bowl. A King eager to demonstrate his power fills a beggar’s bowl with silver, but it is not enough. As soon as the bowl is filled, it empties to the dismay of the monarch. There is always a need for more to fill it. The bowl is a metaphor for human desire.

In the real world, most of my friends are government contractors, ex-military types and general contractors (a.k.a. construction). We don’t really talk about social media, marketing and the Internet much. I come off like Spock when we do.

I’m actually grateful that most of my real life friends are not in the same field, that they have have known me for years, decades even. They keep me honest. I always know where I came from, and where I was 16 years ago when I was still an entry level writer working in yet another DC area trade association.

The truth about personal desire for fulfillment by peer recognition: The greatest successes are when others learned from our work, writing, and advice. When they are able to use our experiences to affect change, strengthen communities and/or make a better, happier world, we become stronger. We grow together, and in that sense, using our time as an investment in each other is the greatest gift possible.

That’s it. It’s help others, or it’s nothing.

Fame, awards, prestige, etc. are short sighted, unsustainable sources of pleasure. Money is necessary to feed our families, but that, too, does not make the soul stronger. Nothing else fills that giant hole in the bowl. Only the socially responsible outcomes seem to work, at least for me.

6 Ways to Right Size that Big Blogger Ego

Ever find yourself or one of your blogging friends suffering from a case of big blogger ego?

Let’s be honest, this happens much more than anyone would like to admit. When you spend all day online with thousands, tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of followers, it can become easy to take everything too seriously. A false sense of importance takes hold.

Here are six easy ways to recalibrate your head based on personal experiences:

1) The Grocery Store Test

Go to your community grocery store for the weekly eats. If you don’t normally perform this household chore, go with your spouse. If anyone actually recognizes you, you probably have a right to feel like a weblebrity. More than likely, you will be just another citizen amongst citizens. And when you talk to them, tell them you’re a blogger or an Internet personality. Note their reactions. You have identified yourself to the normal world as an oddity.

2) Go to Hollywood

Walk of Fame
Image by Mot the Barber

Try telling everyone that you are an Internet star in the marketing blogosphere. Notice how impressed they are. Before you leave make sure to visit Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame. Notice your name isn’t on it.

3) Attend a Different Web Conference

Go to a conference about a different part of the web, one that is not in your community. Since you’re reading this blog, attend something not marketing related like HTML 5, Ruby on Rails, or cloud for the enterprise. See how many people recognize your name in casual networking. If it is three or more, you have arrived.

4) Have Fun at Your Own Expense

If you can’t have fun at your own expense — a little self deprecation — then you have definitely become a legend in your own mind. This is not healthy! Do it for a cause or to lighten up a room where fellow community members are a little star struck. One of the core undercurrents in Dale Carnegie’s Great Depression era books on relationship building is self deprecation. It takes a right sized ego (or false humility) to enjoy a little fun at your own expense.

5) Coach a Little League Team

Or get involved in Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, or 4-H. Basically, get yourself around the same group of kids for a few weeks. Be present for them, and leave that phone in the car.

Hopefully, by the end of the experience, all of those children will have great respect for you and what you’ve done for them. See if any of them talk to you about blogging or the Internet (beyond talking games) through the experience, other than to find out what a blogger is. Somehow, investing time in children means more to them than a virtual career.

6) Visit the Wild

Guanicos in the Chilean Patagonia Mountains

Take a long, non internet connected visit in the wild. Notice how you become attuned to the beautiful nature? As you walk, you notice animals and birds. None of them know who you are, in fact they are more than likely afraid of you. But the sight of these beautiful creatures brings great joy to your heart. As Ralph Emerson said, “In the woods, we return to reason and faith.”

Please add your own right sizing exercise… Have a great weekend, folks!

Me and the Mustard

Mmm...mustard on daikon/carrot pickle (do chua)
Image by Jeffrey W

Much has been said good and bad about using the first person singular — me, myself and I — in social media and other forms of writing. It’s a voice of free expression or the epitome of narcissism.

So what should an aspiring writer do?

The first person voice provides a narrative view or discussion with the author as a keep participant in the post. The author’s point of view is clearly presented. But because of grammar weaknesses, traditional writing courses still frown upon me, myself and I, and encourage third person pronoun usage.

Initially, when blogging became popular first person singular usage was viewed as a breath of fresh air, infusing personality into a world of stiff, formal business writing. The new perspective was delightful, offering unprecedented insights into corporations with well manicured images and boring messaging.

But then Internet fame happened. Some bloggers took the acclaim seriously, and the “Is” flew more and more liberally. Sharing personal experiences became excessive, and writing became an act of self embellishment.

A backlash has begun. Cries of narcissism and even self loathing of narcissistic behavior have arisen. Studies show that while initially popular, narcissists lose traction in deeper meaningful relationships over time. In that sense, blogging provides the perfect cover for the narcissist. The relationship with readers is shallow, yet the admiration is public and highly visible. So close, yet so far away.

Does that mean the word, “I” is the tip-off, a sign of the self-centered soul? No, not necessarily. The first person singular can be used well, to share personal experiences of value, to highlight what one person did, and how those events turned out. It can even be used to express the opinion of the voice, which can be highly entertaining if they are a bonafide subject matter expert.

Like all things, if one intends to partake, healthy moderation makes it go down easier. Since it’s the Fourth of July, consider the traditional hot dog. How good is a hot dog drowning in mustard? It’s not (of course, some reader will protest). Basting a hot dog with too much mustard spoils the taste of the meat, the roll and other condiments. It’s all mustard and that’s no good.

If one intends to blog first person, it takes a deft hand. Like the hot dog, first person is best done in moderation. It should present a point of view, rather than becoming the center of discussion. Frequency is a big tip off. An average of one I per paragraph or less shows an experience, but an average of one I per sentence is pretty blatant in its self centeredness.

What do you think of the first person singular?

Imperfection

Imperfection - Circular Polarizer
Image by Richard Cocks

Have you ever reviewed a piece of your work and shuddered afterwards? Do you get mad when one person criticizes something you invested a great deal of time on, even though dozens of others laud the effort?

Typos, incomplete theory, lack of experience, poor timing, fear of public speaking, a bad decision; just some of the many flaws that can “taint” work. It’s worse when flaws are beyond your control; vendors, friends, etc. You have to live with it.

Elusive perfection can drive you crazy.

Welcome to humanity. Flawed, troubled, imperfect, some learning, some not… We all screw up.

Imperfection is one of the most humbling aspects of life that will continue until it is over, and our ashes are spread across the earth. It is something we all must suffer. This maddening pain can only be relieved by embracing our personal imperfections. There is no escape.

All projects must end, every single one of them with some flaw, some aspect that can be improved. Rare is the perfect effort.

It’s best to look at what could be improved, be happy with what went right, and learn from the experience. Sometimes we must suffer the same mistake again. That may be our journey. This is the stuff of millennia of philosophy, theology, and human storytelling. It is not a unique phenomena; rather, a quandary every human being faces.

Salty Criticism

Sometimes criticism can sting like salt in a wound. Imperfection confronts us.

But can we simply say that our efforts are definitively in the right? It is unacceptable to simply say, “No, that type of criticism is invalid.” It may really be incorrect. But then again, time may reveal that critique was spot on. Our experience (or ego) at that time did not permit us to see it.

Wrong or not, criticism is a reality of the human condition, and the more public and well known you become, the more you will receive. But even the most humble of workers and family members suffer from the bruises of criticism. That’s why when in disagreement, it is often best to state our point of view – factually to the best of our ability — and move on.

The great fight is not worth it. In essence, take it with a grain of salt. Learn what you can. In time, things may make more sense. Or the critic was simply wrong.

This sector is one of opinion with many degrees of opposing views. If everyone agrees with you, you’re not talking to enough people. But it is important to remember that every single one of us — critic, critiqued and observer — are flawed. Imperfect.

Depending on how you view flaws and criticism, imperfection simply is. Or it is simply painful.

What do you think of imperfection?

Beware of Pedestals in the Attention Economy

The Devil's Horns

Danah Boyd wrote a fantastic post last week about Internet fame and its negative impact on individuals. It is easy to buy into the rock star kool aid when people frequently sing your accolades (and fallacies) online and at events, especially when popularity is valued by society as an achievement. But accepting a pedestal as an individual, and viewing a personality in a higher light presents numerous difficulties, many of which are hard to surmount for those who don’t expect to ever receive such accolades.

As the attention economy strengthens, we have failed to provide a balanced view of attention, and how to truly address it. The Boyd post talks about Kiki Kannibal’s trials and objectifcation as a teen Internet celeb, and then Boyd’s own experiences. Having had a turn at microfame, it is easy to identify with Boyd’s comments.

When Now Is Gone came out in 2007, there were so many people saying how great it was, touting the accomplishment of publishing a book, and me as the author (please forgive the rare digression into first person). The lavished perception of brilliance was intoxicating. My wife Caitlin wanted to kill me, and this was the beginning of a long year of difficulties that almost cost us our marriage. Fortunately, we worked things out.

Looking back, I had a timely intervention just weeks after the book came out at the hands of the Fairfax County Police. It came in the form of my third reckless speeding ticket in six months. Speeding to make appointments and work tasks seemed necessary because I was so busy (and important) in my own mind. Virginia DMV had a different take, and felt it would be better if I didn’t drive at all for three months, and suspended my driver’s license.

Employees drove me to appointments, and I spent many, many hours in the DC Metro system. It was virtually impossible to think I was a hot shit personality while I took the bus and metro to meetings. Big blogger boy on the back of the bus. Yeah.

This forced humility was one of the best things that has ever happened to me. As the attention continued, the license suspension reminded me not to take it seriously. And when people became overzealous, I pointed out that I put my pants on one leg at a time, just like they did. Later in 2008, I did a stint of volunteer service at Alexandria County jail; again, a great reminder of where I could be if my self centered speeding and possibly worse manifestations of selfishness had continued. But for the grace of God, as they say.

Applied to the Larger Attention Economy

It has been hard watching several peers succumb to the big Internet influencer hype, a result of the attention economy. Perhaps my reaction has been stronger and more severe than most, partly because I knew these people before they assumed their pedestals, and partly because I see the worst in me when their behavior takes a more ego-centric bend. Truthfully, it scares the crap out of me.

So many of these so called rock stars have fallible sides which we don’t see, or turn a blind eye towards. This is no different than the recent difficulties Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lance Armstrong are experiencing in the larger public limelight. These two men have done great things, but because we put them on and they accepted such high pedestals, their very flawed defects have decimated public trust.

We need to be careful about turning great acts into great myths and legends. Our culture creates unsustainable images that cannot help but disillusion and disappoint both the people who assume these pedestals and their fans. There are no social media Gods, but there are illusions that can cause us to become distracted and lose months, even years of time chasing things that don’t really matter.

In the end, it is our actions that make us noteworthy as people, both good and bad. Greatness is a daily act. So is failure. In an attention economy you can live on a success for a long time, but sooner or later, you have to do something else worthwhile. We have an equal opportunity to do good or act poorly every day, and in fact, rare is the person who isn’t human and doesn’t do a bit of both. That’s why it’s important to beware of pedestals.