Apparently, being an intelligent species in a vast empty universe just doesn’t make people feel special anymore. On the other hand, nipple piercings and Bob Marley posters seem to do the trick. Marketers have been exploiting our desire to be “individuals” for decades. For all I know, the individualist movement, like Valentine’s Day, has been a marketing scheme for all these years. There is, however, a very good reason why everyone strives to be an individual, but many don’t realize the struggle requires more than a credit card.
We witness this happening every day on campus; students who literally buy into the latest fad walk around campus, flaunting their merchandise, thinking they are “just being themselves.” In reality, they are suited up in one of society’s pre-validated uniforms. Reading further along, you’ll see why these people are really just crying out for help.
An individualist is someone who validates their lifestyle choices internally, not externally. In other words, they’re not influenced by society, religion, community or any other communal entity in the way they live their life. An individualist may share common goals as these entities, e.g. helping people, achieving high social status, seeking power, etc. The difference is that individualists find their own creative and often unique ways of reaching these goals. A successful individualist has a strong reality, i.e. strong conviction in how he sees the world and his role in it. Having high self-esteem and self-confidence enables this person to be confident in their differing beliefs about how to live their life.
There is a special breed of individualists that people admire and hope to one day become. These are the people whose reality is so strong that others become infected by it and start believing it too. These are the trendsetters – people who do things differently and confidently enough that it becomes “cool.” Other people begin to copy their lifestyle choices hoping to emit the same sort of value.
Here is the interesting part – the people who copy the trendsetters think they are “self-expressing” or “being an individual.” What is actually happening is, ironically, the complete opposite.
These people don’t have the mental ability to be individualists. They lack the necessary self-esteem and self-confidence to develop a strong reality. They seek out lifestyle choices that are externally validating because they don’t have enough self-confidence to internally validate them. For example, consider the hordes of people on campus, from all ethnicities, who dress like rap artists. Here is a lifestyle choice that is pre-selected to emit value. These people depend on products or things other than themselves to give them their fix of self-confidence/esteem. Their satisfaction with their lifestyle choices begins to depend on what other people think – the exact opposite of an individualist.
The lesson here is this: People say they seek to be individuals, but their actions say they still need the support of a communal entity. This obsession with individualism has caused people to undermine the value of a shared community.
For those born in 1955 the likelihood of a major depression at some point in life is, in many countries, three times or more greater than for their grandparents according to Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence. He also states that the chances of having a major depression before age 34 is 10 times greater for those born in 1954 than those born in 1914. Martin Seligman, psychologist at UPenn, proposed: “For the last 30 or 40 years we’ve seen the ascendance of individualism and a waning of support from the community and extended family. That means a loss of resources that can buffer you against setbacks and failures.”
Mentally weak people aren’t always under the right circumstances to improve their self-esteem and confidence. Pretending to be an individual is an ineffective way of buffering oneself against setbacks and failures, yet we see it happen all the time. Maybe we need to downplay individualism or make community building cool again.
LIOR GOTESMAN asks that if you or someone you know likes to pretend to be an individual, go get help at firstname.lastname@example.org.