In the new world of work, modesty is no longer a virtue

Let’s talk about me. This focus on “Me” is a new development, especially in the UK. Traditionally, the British have been modest about their achievements.
Take the Industrial Revolution. It was pure luck. It could have happened anywhere. Penicillin? Serendipity. The jet engine? Somebody else would have eventually come up with the idea old chap. Nothing to really shout about.

The ego in Britain was historically kept in check by self-deprecation and this became a hallmark of British culture and comedy. The class system may have had something to do with it too. Positions were fixed and there wasn’t much point trying to change things when destiny was largely determined at birth.

But more about “Me.” In the United States people are taught from birth that meekness is a weakness. Maybe this developed due to the early need to fight wild Indians or bears. Who knows. Whatever the cause, fluidity and forwardness has been feature of American society since its inception. America is more egalitarian than Britain and hard work can therefore pay off. Nowhere has this been truer than in New York, where boasting rarely results in a roasting and putting oneself ‘out there’ has always been a basic requirement, not only for work, but for finding love and happiness too. Now, it seems, the rest of the world is loudly following in New York’s footsteps. Extroverts are in the ascendant and introverts just never make things happen. But why is this? I think the reason is twofold.

First, in the world of work, the cogitative elite has become globalised and this has resulted in a hugely competitive landscape where you are only as good your last project and everyone is, so the theory goes, after your job. The world is now flat. It’s quarterly and globally accelerated capitalism and there is no time for hanging around or sticking your dim light under a damp bushel. To mix the metaphors even further, it’s a totally different kettle of piranhas out there these days.

Now it’s all about shouting the loudest to get seen – and to get paid. It’s all about economic free agents, road warriors, personal branding, LinkedIn profiles, high profile internships – often bought at charity auctions – and loading your digitalised CV with search engine friendly keywords. Even our physical work environments have become loud. Walls that were once white are now painted in strong colours or plastered in professional graffiti, supposedly to stimulate our creative thinking. Where once we had quiet and reflective private offices we now have casual open-plan layouts, supposedly for the same reason.

If you think this is an exaggeration then you obviously haven’t heard about Facebook’s Menlo Park office, which has all this and more. Even the meeting rooms have extrovert names and the signs say things like: “Move fast and break things.” Everything is now social and team based and if you don’t enthusiastically join in there is the suspicion that there’s something wrong with you.

But what if you don’t want to be the life and soul of the daily office party? What if you don’t want to talk, but prefer to be left alone to think or indeed code? It’s as though a bunch of kindergarten kids have taken over the whole world.

The second reason that modesty is now a travesty is technological, although this links with and strongly supports the forces of globalisation. We now live in a world where it’s much easier to sell yourself to a global audience and to tell the world how wonderful you are– even what you’re up to right now. And because things are so hyper-competitive, this often means wild exaggeration and a heavily image-enhanced portrait. A booming Type-A job title like “CEO’ also helps, even if the company you work for is just you in a spare bedroom

Of course, you can’t just blame the individual for this ego inflation. At school we are all told that we’re all ‘special’. There are classes for the ‘Gifted and talented’ and experts tell us that anyone can be a genius. And governments encourage this too by insisting that anyone can and should go to university.

A consequence of all this is the increased emphasis on the person. Personal technology means it’s now more about our individual whims and wants. We can now have our newspaper and our cup of coffee our way (i.e. personalised). Technology, such as television, that was once communal has become individual.

This is obviously a good thing, because we can now all watch what we want to watch when and where we want. But one result is that we no longer have to compromise and sometimes accept what other people want to watch, which is not especially social. Overall, I believe, this is starting to create an intolerance of others, including other peoples’ likes, dislikes, opinions and foibles. But who cares, because you don’t really need anyone else nowadays right?

Something similar is happening with friendship. Peer pressure is now networked so one needs to constantly sell oneself and what one is doing. You need to be constantly having an enormous amount of fun and hanging out with people even more beautiful (i.e. even more photo-shopped) than yourself. In sum, it’s a world where fame and fortune are fleeting, so you may as well get your job application, funding foray or date in before everyone else.

Demographics impact here too. In some places there are more single women than single men, so the stakes of each date get higher. And the same demographic force applies to the availability of jobs.

But here’s the thing. Our newly extrovert nature, along with our newly found connectivity and digital friendships, are hiding a dark side. We are now alone more than ever. Our connectivity is a sham. We are indeed connected more than ever, but connected to what or whom? To people with whom we can share our deepest hopes and fears? I fear not. We have exchanged intimacy for familiarity and our so-called friends are about as long-term and resilient as our jobs. As for everything becoming social, this is true on a very superficial level, but underneath I believe the very opposite is happening.

I don’t know about you, but it somehow felt better back in the days when the meek were in line to inherit the Earth. One somehow felt that something of substance might be happening in those quiet offices and hushed corridors of power.

I’d trade a quiet, mild mannered meek for a noisy, narcissistic geek any day.

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2 Responses to In the new world of work, modesty is no longer a virtue

  1. Pingback: On loneliness when you have heaps of friends « MTA Optima Blog

  2. on a similar note; here’s TED talk by Susan Cain (20min)
    keywords: Introversion, Extroversion, Solitude, Group Dynamics, Social Stimulation, Character, Personality

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