The price of perfect: The mythology of the digital age

The airplane stops. Everyone turns on their smartphone. There is a lot of Facebook. A man passes my wife’s bag from the overhead storage. “Thanks,” I say. “How is your day going?” Suddenly he looks suspicious. “Why do you ask?” he says, his eyes narrowing.

We have a brief chat. I can tell he isn’t used to speaking to people on airplanes. Entering the terminal, most people are staring at their phones. Inside, almost everyone is. Few people are talking to each other. Social now means media, not chatting to the person beside you.

This is the new normal. Everywhere a laptop, a tablet, a smart phone. All the pretty pictures, clever videos, smart websites. Check social media and see your friends smiling on a mountaintop. Their life is wonderful, and yours should be too.

So much is free on line, or seems to be so, including access to the libraries of the world, the latest scientific discoveries and the ripest gossip. You can buy stuff – it’s fast and cheap. Everything has a rating. There are few secrets.

This is the world we live in. It is beautiful and efficient on the surface. You can be forgiven for thinking your life should be this way too.

It is also a mirage.

The people who have grown up in this world are comfortable with what we call technology, computers and the internet. They use it all day long. The digital world has many attractions and benefits. No-one wants to go back to the old days. Life is easier. You don’t need much matter to scale. It is harder to deceive.

But there are drawbacks. There is a flip side.

On the level of organizations, the networked economy means that pyramids are getting steeper. The closer you get to the top, the more opportunities you find, the more money you make. But for many the pyramid is harder to climb.

The networked economy is squeezing the middle class. In the United States at least, the wealth rebound since the 2008 recession has gone almost exclusively to the top one per cent.

On the personal level, our gadgets promote the illusion that the world is pretty, efficient and mostly free. By implication, if your life isn’t going so well, you are falling short–way short. You may never catch up.

Paradoxically, another drawback is the multiplicity of choices–for products, services and life decisions like career direction and even who to date. It is hard to decide. No matter what you choose, something sleeker and cheaper—or someone who is better looking, more accomplished and wealthier–will come along. Perhaps moments later.

These drawbacks seem to take an especially big toll on young people. A recent article in The Atlantic, The Silicon Valley Suicides by Hannah Rosin, investigates the psychology of high school students in Pal Alto. Rosin found a lot of unhappiness among young people who, on the surface, have it all. Their families are wealthy, the schools are good and they have many opportunities.

Rosin checked in with Suniya Luthar, a psychiatrist who was been studying adolescents for some time. She has found that kids of the affluent and well educated feel tremendous pressure to perform, both academically and in extracurricular pursuits. Their parents have high expectations, but they are busy with their own revved up lives and tend not to be around.

“Luthar constructed a profile of elite American adolescents whose self-worth is tied to their achievements and who see themselves as catastrophically flawed if they don’t meet the highest standards of success,” Rosin writes. “Because a certain kind of success seems well within reach, they feel they have to attain it at all costs—a phenomenon she refers to as ‘I can, therefore I must.’”

Madeline Levine, a child psychologist in the Bay Area, says these young people “feel they have no choice. Many have also fallen prey to what she calls a ‘mass delusion’ that there is but one path to a successful life, and that it is very narrow.”

These young people lack a sense of purpose and agency, the feeling they can control their own lives. Rates of anxiety, depression and suicide are far higher than the national average. This is the price of perfect.

Dr. Bob Rotella is a sport psychologist who also consults with businesses and high performers of all stripes. Writing in How Champions Think, he makes the case that perfectionism is a terrible trap. Falling under its illusion, athletes and others who obsess about the inevitable setbacks of life develop unrealistic expectations and an unhealthy psychology that is ultimately self-defeating.

The best hitters strike out, the best golfers mishit shots, and the best sales people fail to close sales. Top performers come up with their own strategies for dealing with tough times.

“For the perfectionist nothing is ever good enough and every performance is a failure,” Rotella writes. “Perfectionists almost never arrive at the highest levels of sport. They can’t survive. So much depends on not being a perfectionist, on understanding that there will be losses and mistakes and on responding well to those setbacks.”

So, put those phones away for a while. Look at the sky. Talk to the person next to you. The digital world has many benefits, but it isn’t real. It promotes the illusion that life should always be pretty, easy and cheap. This viewpoint is superficial and artificial. It is like a drug.

The people who create the business models and write the code know it’s not always easy. Success comes at a price. Innovation involves a lot of trial and error.

The digital world is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

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