What happens when a whole society of people learns to project an image of success and capability that few members of that society actually possess? Let us create for ourselves an imaginary world – we’ll call it Youtopia – and explore what might happen there.
But first, let’s consider why we might want to project such an image. Personal development enthusiasts regularly teach that projecting such an image will actually make us more capable and successful. Fake it ‘til you make it. The technique works because self-image can be a powerful motivator. It changes how we feel about ourselves and how others feel about us as well. We might begin this process being incapable and unsuccessful, but that changes as we begin to project a new image of ourselves.
In a socially mobile society like that of the US, in which individuals craft their own lives for themselves and must regularly recreate their own social worlds as they move from place to place and from one social class to another, the ability to project an image of success and capability can mean the difference between success and failure in almost any endeavor. So let us travel to Youtopia and see what happens when all of us do this?
First of all, it becomes difficult to distinguish who is actually successful and capable on Youtopia. For everyone will appear successful and capable whether or not he or she really is. And while new indicators of success and capability might be discovered, those indicators would be quickly learned by others on YouTopia, for if everyone possessed the ability to project an image of success and capability, whatever the indicators of success and capability were, they would learn them.
So there will be confusion regarding who is really successful and capable on Youtopia, and in this confusion many people will be promoted to positions they are incapable of succeeding in. What’s more, since investors will also believe the people working in businesses they might invest in are more capable and successful than they really are, they will tend to over invest.
But the investors will also believe one another to be more capable and successful than each of them really is. And investors regularly emulate the decisions of other investors they believe to be successful and capable. So, they will each tend to further over value the businesses they might invest in based on signals they read from one another. Youtopia is beginning to look a lot like the American bubble economy that grew more and more bubbles – dotcoms, housing, finance – as the message of personal development gurus became more integral to business in it.
But we should not ignore the role of the entrepreneur. Insofar as she is capable of projecting an image of success and capability she does not possess, she will be given signals from others that she is more capable and successful than she really is. After all, this is one of the reasons projecting such an image works. Hence, she will be much more likely to start a business she is not capable of succeeding in. And since this would be the same for all entrepreneurs in this personal development utopia, they will all be starting businesses that are unlikely to succeed. And of course, investors will also over value their own capabilities. And this will contribute to them over investing in these over valued businesses.
But as we delve more deeply into this Youtopia of self-esteem, something strange begins to happen. Everyone becomes more successful. More businesses are started, and more money is invested. The higher growth in the economy even brings in more tax dollars for social programs. The problem is that, as we have so recently learned with the housing and financial crash, wealth that rests on an ephemeral cloud of illusions is inflation. And inflated bubbles sooner or later pop.
So long as it is just a small percentage of the population that is capable of projecting an image of success and capability that they don’t yet possess, the technique will tend to be successful for them, providing self-esteem and opportunities. The impact on the economy will be negligible. And the individuals capable of projecting such an image will actually empower others to take control of their own minds.
But the closer we approach to a universalization of this ability, the more the ability to project an image of success and capability becomes a prerequisite to achieving anything in the world. It becomes a social survival skill, like the ability to suppress a fart in public. But suppressing farts in public actually does make everyone better off.
Once this ability to project a false image of ourselves is universalized, we all must learn to do it in the same way that members of court used to have to learn elaborate social graces to maintain their positions. And while those social graces or the ability to project a false image of one self can still have some benefits once it has been universalized, those benefits will be few.
When everyone learns to project an image of success and capability they may not yet possess, we as a society lose the ability to comprehend the people around us. Thus, we will experience some loss of community and increase in anomie and social alienation. It becomes easier for people to deceive us in many ways as well. And because it is easier, they are more likely to. So, the problem is not only that many will start businesses they are incapable of running and that those businesses will tend to be staffed with unqualified employees and that they will then be over invested in, thereby creating bubbles in the economy. Those businesses will tend more and more to sell worthless goods in an effort to deceive a public that is confused by the signals they are reading in others. Does this sound familiar?
Of course, people the world over have in all periods of history attempted to project images of capability and success that were not actually true. But there have been few societies as socially mobile as that of the US. So, there is a stronger incentive to project this image here. And perhaps for this reason it has so recently become an art. That personal development gurus have escaped the crisis in American capitalism unscathed is a wonder. For their arts have been integral to the business culture in which an economy of bubbles could grow to ripeness.
Theo Horesh is a social entrepreneur and freelance writer living in Boulder, Colorado.
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