Why living in public is worse for you, but better for others
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Living in public, when done sincerely, is worse for you, but better for other people.
Let me back up.
"I really would like to have the film rights to this book," Robert Redford said to Robert Pirsig, author of Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
"You've got them," Robert Pirsig replied. "I wouldn't have gotten this involved if I hadn't intended to give it to you." As a great review puts it: “Two famous guys talking in a famous city about making a famous book into a famous Hollywood movie.”
Robert Pirsig spends a whole chapter in his book, Lila, talking about the celebrity phenomenon. Why do we love to catapult people suddenly into celebrity, lavish praise and wealth upon them, and then, at the moment they at last become convinced of their worth, try to destroy them?
Pirsig claims that this is directly related to the classic Native American-European conflict of values. Quoting Pirsig:
“The root of the conflict is that you’re supposed to be socially superior like a European and socially equal like a Native American at the same time. It doesn’t matter that these goals are contradictory. So what you get is this tension, this business executives’ tension, where you’re the most relaxed, smiling, easy-going guy in the world—who is also absolutely killing himself to beat the competition and get ahead. Everybody wants their children to be valedictorians, but nobody is supposed to be better than anybody else. It’s bizarre. They love you for being what they want to be but they hate you for being what they’re not. There’s always this two-faced relationship with celebrity and you never know which face will appear next. The old Indians knew how to handle it. They just got rid of anything anybody wanted. They didn’t own property, they dressed in rags, some of them. They kept it down, laid low, and let the egalitarians and sycophants and assassins all look on them at worthless. That way they got a lot accomplished without all the celebrity grief.”
This was the tension Pirsig was having as he was meeting with Robert Redford. He had already been weirded out by his own mini-celebrity.
Fame and fortune don’t bring you closer to other people, he realized, they bring you further away. In fact, Pirsig writes, they split you into two people, creating a sort of zen hell – a hall of mirrors where everyone has different opinions of you and you have to get more and more supportive reflections just to stay satisfied. The mirrors take over your life and soon you don’t know who you are.
Each person you come to, Pirsig writes, is a different mirror. And since you’re another person like them, maybe you’re just another mirror too, and there’s no way of ever knowing whether your own view of yourself is just another distortion. Maybe all you ever see is reflections. Maybe mirrors are all you ever get. First the mirrors of your parents, then friends and teachers, then bosses and officials, priests and ministers, and maybe writers and painters too. That's their job, holding up mirrors.
Then they take away the mirrors. That’s when you go crazy. Kanye West. Miley Cyrus. Britney Spears. They go off the rails because they need the dopamine hit of celebrity.
The idea that wisdom is more valuable than fame and fortune may be cliche, but Pirsig contrasts them in his evolutionary hierarchy. Celebrity is to society as sex is to biology, he says. Celebrity is what forms and moves the culture. While it’s a force in societal evolution, it doesn’t do much for intellectual evolution. Look at some of the people most followed in the world on social media. Justin Beiber. Kim Kardashian. Ariana Grande. Incredible entrepreneurs and movement builders, but not intellectuals.
The Metaphysics of Quality says we should move from lower forms of evolutions to higher ones — so in this case we should move from the social mirrors of celebrity to the world of intellect. Moving that way is a positive development.
To bring this full circle, that’s why Pirsig didn’t allow Redford to make a movie based on his book.
It’s conceivable that Lila could be made as an intellectually-inspired documentary, but Redford didn’t want to make a documentary, or anything close to it. Pirsig posits that social patterns of values, a film, were devouring an intellectual pattern of values, his book. A lower form of life feeding upon a higher form of life. As such it would be immoral. The mirrors were trying to take over the truth.
That’s how Pirsig sees it, at any rate. And by the way, Pirsig wrote all this in the 90s, over a decade before social media.
Personally, I agree, celebrity can be corrupting. In the age of social media, everyone is a celebrity, facing a hall of mirrors and the classic celebrity dilemmas: How much do I live in public? Who’s paying attention to me? Who am I doing this for?
In an unreleased essay on the effects of live streaming, I once wrote:
“Does transparency and a sharing culture encourage me to experience moments in order to share them? Does the focus switch from having the experience to sharing the experience that the whole point of the experience now switches to the sharing of it? We’ve already seen this happening in small ways: tourists going on vacations and spending more time taking pictures of their experiences than on being present in the experience itself. Does our behavior change even more drastically in this instance? Do we select vacation destinations based on the shareability or perceived popularity or enviability of our experience? Does this limit our ability to experience the world in the most authentic way? And at the same time, does the act of photographing and livestreaming and sharing bifurcate your attention so that you’re less present in your real life and too focused on the consumption of your life by others, and in maximizing the attention you get outside of your physical reality?”
It reminds me of the David Foster Wallace bit in his book, Oblivion:
“My whole life I’ve been a fraud. I’m not exaggerating. Pretty much all I’ve ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people. Mostly to be liked or admired. It’s a little more complicated than that, maybe. But when you come right down to it it’s to be liked, loved. Admired, approved of, applauded, whatever. You get the idea. I did well in school, but deep down the whole thing’s motive wasn’t to learn or improve myself but just to do well, to get good grades and make sports teams and perform well. To have a good transcript or varsity letters to show people. I didn’t enjoy it much because I was always scared I wouldn’t do well enough. The fear made me work really hard, so I’d always do well and end up getting what I wanted. But then, once I got the best grade or made All City or got Angela Mead to let me put my hand on her breast, I wouldn’t feel much of anything except maybe fear that I wouldn’t be able to get it again. The next time or next thing I wanted. I remember being down in the rec room in Angela Mead’s basement on the couch and having her let me get my hand up under her blouse and not even really feeling the soft aliveness or whatever of her breast because all I was doing was thinking, ‘Now I’m the guy that Mead let get to second with her.’ Later that seemed so sad. This was in middle school. She was a very big-hearted, quiet, self-contained, thoughtful girl — she’s a veterinarian now, with her own practice — and I never even really saw her, I couldn’t see anything except who I might be in her eyes, this cheerleader and probably number two or three among the most desirable girls in middle school that year.”
It’s hard to live in public and not be conscious of what people think, and to try to influence the story, to self-glorify. But self-glorifying comes with its own problem, as Pirsig writes:
“Any effort that has self-glorification as its final endpoint is bound to end in disaster… When you try to climb a mountain to prove how big you are, you almost never make it. And even if you do it’s a hollow victory. In order to sustain the victory you have to prove yourself again and again in some other way, and again and again and again, driven forever to fill a false image, haunted by the fear that the image is not true and someone will find out. That’s never the way.” “
One way of describing this is that constant sharing with a broad audience encourages us to love more public than specific. To continuously rotate and seek the love of strangers over the love of real people in our lives. If we are seeking to live a meaningful life, we must think carefully about whether we want to prioritize being loved and known publicly or loved and known specifically. While there may be benefits to sharing broadly and opening your life up to an audience, without also being known specifically, it can feel quite hollow. Living our lives in this way may give us what we want, but not what we really need.
Quoting Jonathan Franzen:
“And this is why love, as I understand it, is always specific. Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on the self, on the self’s own moral or spiritual well-being. Whereas, to love a specific person, and to identify with their struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of yourself.”
Keeping your identity small, not living in public, is better for you. And yet. Is it better for other people?
Here’s an argument I can make about why living in public is actually better for society.
John Stuart Mill, the philosopher, talked about the importance of life experiments as a way to find more truths. The more experiments we do, the closer we get to uncovering truths, and if we share our experiments, other people can learn from them. Living in public, or observing others living in public, is a way to do that. People often learn the most from people they’ve never even met.
It’s strange. I find myself cautious of sharing on an individual level, and yet encouraging it on a societal level. In other words, I don’t want to live in public. But selfishly, I want others to.
People are scared of being judged harshly for being different, but the paradox is that as more people put themselves out there, the more these differences can become normalized, or we can see these differences as a part of a community that is larger than ourselves. We can see ourselves in other people and it makes us feel more comfortable about these parts of ourselves. While this can be negative, if the behaviors we are suppressing actually should be kept at bay, on the whole, people need to feel connected to others, and want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Public sharing can accelerate this type of connection.
Could encouraging people to share their stories result in a more transparent, less judgmental society? It doesn’t seem to be happening. Seems like everyone is faking it all the time. Ironically, they create fake instagrams “finsta” so they can be their real selves, while using their real instagrams to post fake content.
And yet, if you want your ideas to spread, it’s not enough to make the ideas compelling. Just like products have to be marketed, ideas have to be sold.
Alain de Botton has another take on why popularity is important, and even goes so far as to say that the true ambition of every important truth-spreader should be to win universal acknowledgment:
“Popularity is hugely important because it means that an idea or a value is alive in the minds of large numbers of people. Popular culture provides the repertoire of all the moves for reaching people: It’s funny, very honest about negative reactions, rude, and extremely interested in sex. It admits that we’re more excited by a sex scandal than by a government legislation; by gossip than by abstract reasoning; by fashion rather than by justice. Rather than reject the notion of popularity, we should pay close attention to how things get to be popular and try to see how more helpful ideas could be embraced with equally widespread enthusiasm.”
The greatest ambition is to make the truth popular. We need the most useful ideas to learn all the arts of populism. It may be idiotic and lamentable that this is what human nature tends to be like. But since it is what human nature tends to be like, rejecting it is not a useful option. Anyone who seeks to protect the truth from vulgarization is, in effect (though with noble intentions), guaranteeing that it cannot be powerful in the world.”
There’s also a weird paradox here. There’s a war of ideas. If wise people’s thoughts don't spread, other’s thoughts will. And the people who want their ideas to spread the most are rarely the ones who should be spreading ideas.
So. The tradeoff isn’t just between a rich inner life and an influential external one, it’s between a private life and having the future of our morals lie in the hands of those who shouldn’t be guiding them.
Pirsig would bristle, and yet his great goal, near the end of his life, was for his ideas to spread, and his greatest lament was that they didn’t. The episode with him and Robert Redford illustrates this perfectly. He originally declined to have his work adapted, citing the integrity of his art but also likely his soul, and yet, near the end of his life, one of his dying wishes was for his book to finally be captured on screen. One could say this is a selfless move.