Friday, July 31, 2009

Outliers: Introduction

Malcolm Gladwell has done it again. He’s created another bestseller that gathers together facts and situations that often seem unrelated but with his vision on sociology and psychology create a fascinating new way to study subjects. In Outliers the subject is success. What does it take for one person or group to stand out from the rest of us? From Canadian hockey players to the Beatles his thesis is convincing.

When first read the term outliers seems a strange title because the word is not familiar to most people but instead of simply defining it he begins by relating the fascinating example of the small Pennsylvanian town that doesn’t fit any of the usual patterns of health because, as it turns out, of its totally unique culture of an intricate social life in which the intimate relationships among the citizens results in long and happy lives. They are the first example of outliers.

As with his previous successful bestselling books The Tipping Point and Blink, which remain very popular at bookstores and especially at our library years after being initially published, his unique viewpoints on society and his writing style make Outliers a fascinating view of society. Readers can’t wait to see what topic he will next tackle.

As an aside, our statistics for how many bloggers are reading our site are huge compared to the number of people who actually participate in the discussions. Please join in with your opinions and observations. Any thoughts and opinions are welcome and create conversation on the blog. Please participate and help create a lively discussion with a variety of viewpoints. Thanks

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Narcissism Wrap-up

This will be my final post on Twenge's The Narcissism Epidemic. I recommend checking out the 53 page PDF file that contains all of Twenge's sources:
The notes for Chapter 10 - Materialism: The Spending Explosion and the Impact on the Environment are particularly relevant to our online discussion.

I would like to thank the numerous people who made thoughtful posts that led to some excellent online discussions. For those of you who have just found this blog, please feel free to add to the online discussion by posting your thoughts. Twenge's previous book, Generation Me, is also a fast and thought-provoking read.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Narcissism and self-esteem

Twenge's co-author, the father of a young child, is particularly critical of the self-esteem movement. He even tells a story of how he persuaded his child's daycare not to force the children to sing a particularly horrible song about how special they were. He and Twenge emphasize that the cult of "specialness" leads to narcissism.

Part of the problem is that while we are all unique individuals, we are not necessarily "special". We all need to eat, have a place to live, a job to support us, and some social contact. Most people have some kind of special skill, whether it is cooking, doing home repair, or knitting, that brings them joy outside work and may even be incorporated into their work life. However, we still all share what Maslow refers to as the five basic needs.

The emphasis on "specialness" may be creating a burden on people. They feel forced to demonstrate why they are special. Social networking is one way of doing so. Twenge describes the phenomena of the "indigo children" - special children who are described as artistic, don't like to follow rules, and hate to wait on line. As I read the description of these children provided by Twenge (which was admittedly quite short - The Complete Idiot's Guide to Indigo Children is a fuller source of information or check out which is the site of the authors who originated the term), my reaction was that they sounded like people whom I regularly encounter when I go to the post office - explaining why they should jump the line and the post office should accept their calligraphied boxes sealed with duct tape and odd bits of yarn rather than insist on a legibly printed lable and offical clear postal sealing tape. Indigo children may explain why people are now using UPS rather than USPS - you can avoid the indigo children in the queue.

However, do we want to encourage this concept of "specialness" if it leads to rude behavior and an overabundance of sharing? Fifteen years ago, a friend of mine insisted that what Americans needed to learn were manners. He felt that someone with good manners treated people with respect (even if s/he did not feel any for them) thereby insuring that daily interactions would move forward smoothly and without fuss. Perhaps Americans should focus less on "specialness" and more on harmonious living.

Social Networking and the Puritan Work Ethic

Numerous studies have shown that Americans work more hours per week and have fewer vacation hours per year than Europeans. Many Americans (myself included although I have significantly scaled back in the last year) even work on vacation, checking their blackberries and email accounts. We are a nation of workaholics. Our culture seems to have been permanently affected by the work ethics of the Puritans who were among the early European immigrants to our shores.

Social networking ties in beautifully to the Puritan work ethic. When you are twittering or posting on Facebook, you are indeed "working" to develop your social network with people who can be tapped to help further your career. Your posts are a way to contruct your persona for people who may have little face-to-face contact with you, and instead only know what you choose to share in short bursts of information. In Italy, creating a bella figura is done through choice of clothing and accessories. In the US, it is done by tweets. Leisure activities such as going to movies, concerts, reading books and online articles, etc. can be carefully screened before tweeting to make sure that they convey the desired impression. Therefore, even in non-work time, you are working.

The sad part is that many social network posters, as commentors to my previous post have mentioned, post too much. They believe that people do want to read literally everything they do during the course of a day. Unfortunately, everyone's lives are not constantly filled with excitement and the limited amount of space allowed for posts makes it difficult for all but the best writers to make a topic such as flea control (much on my mind lately) fresh and interesting.

A year and a half ago, I spent two weeks in Italy with friends. We noticed that Italians spent very little time on their cell phones. In Venice in particular, people sat on benchs in the campos or stood in the campos chatting with one another. Even in the cafes, no one was on the phone; they did not even appear to be texting one another. They also seemed less tense and stressed than the average New Yorker. Granted that we were there at an off-peak time where the streets were empty of tourists, but we all felt that the lack of cell use was refreshing.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Social Networking and Narcissism

Twenge focuses on how narcissism is fueled by social networking. In order to continue to exist, social networking providers must convince people that it is essential that they broadcast their lives and/or ideas 24/7. As Twenge points out, this can be somewhat excessive. The average person's life is just not that fascinating to large numbers of strangers. Also, people develop an inflated sense of self. After reading the book, I set myself up with a facebook account. However, I rarely post since there is nothing about my life that others want or need to hear.

Capitalism Encouraging Narcissism

Chris Maisano made a post on July 5th where he commented that capitalism encouraged narcissism. Never was this comment more apparent than in two of today's local New York papers, who both devoted several pages, complete with color photos, to President Obama's jeans. One of my co-workers, highly confused, asked me why this topic was so important. My response was that it was an attempt to stimulate the economy. New Yorkers, reading these articles, will immediately become self-conscious about their clothing and go shopping to make sure their jeans don't look like those of the president. As a result, the retail sector in NYC will receive a needed boost. This will occur because people are so conditioned to believe media that they feel the need to buy the jeans recommended in the article, in order to feel important rather than victims of the fashion police.

At the same time, the need also ties in with Anonymous' post:

"It is also a safety mechanism in the human brain which keeps us at a safe-distance from "non-look" alikes who used to be predators in the jungle life"

If everyone wears only the types of jeans dictated in the articles, then they will safely blend in with the crowd. Possibly the most critical decision the president will make in the future is whether to accept the societal preoccupation with appearance and buy new clothes.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Culture of Self-Esteem

Twenge and her co-author focus on the relentless indoctrination of Americans with self-esteem. They talk about children singing songs about their uniqueness and specialness in school, and how little girls are encouraged to view themselves as princesses. All this emphasis on specialness causes the kids to feel that they are, indeed, superior to others, and they grow up with a strong sense of narcissism.

This might explain the motivations behind the CEOs who ran their companies into the ground, leaving a jobless and 401K-free workforce while they walked off with millions. It also explained why people in the financial sector bilked thousands and shook up the economy while, once again, walking away with millions. They viewed themselves as special and others as worthless.

Americans are encourage to job-hop. If you are not planning on staying long in a job, you might view your co-workers as temporary acquaintances and useful contacts rather than as a community of like-minded individuals. As organizations become less pyramid-shaped and more diamond-shaped, the competition for the positions at the top of the diamond becomes more fierce because there are fewer top positions. This causes greater competition and more fragmentation among employees.

At the same time, the lifestyles of these who view themselves special are emphasized by the media. In a pre-fragmented American society, people had local role models in their community. However, with frequent moving, Americans no longer have established roots in their local communities. As such, the media provides them with an example of how to live, with an emphasis on extreme consumerism.

Several years ago, PBS ran a series called Pioneer House where several families had to live a pioneer life out west. During the course of a summer, the children in the several pioneer families were called upon to help their families literally survive in the wilderness. One boy, from a wealthy family in the non-Pioneer world, was extremely inventive and came up with novel solutions to his family's problems. A girl had an unusual rapport with animals, which helped with the cows and hens. The children's skills were utilized by the community so that its members would survive but not given overly great emphasis by the parents. After the series ended, its makers went back and interviewed the families. The inventive little boy was interviewed in his family's lavish house. He commented that he missed being a pioneer since he had never been bored, always had something to do, and his family had become quite close. Now that he was back in 20th century America, he filled his empty hours with TV and video games. This lends validity to Chris Maisano's comment.

The decline of the middle class may be feeling the emphasis on specialness and the rise of narcissism. Previous generations knew that they would live as comfortably as their parents, if not better. Now salaries are buying less and less. Young adults graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt which will takes years to pay off. They may never own their own home or be debt-free or have the guarantee of a relatively worry-free retirement. Narcissism could be a way to avoid the uncertainty of their future.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Media, Entitlement, & Narcissism

I was planning to discuss in this next post how I felt that Sex and the City had continued to send Americans further into narcissism. However, this morning I read this article:

Say Hello to Underachieving

Essentially it is how the Millennial Generation is being forced into underachieving because their parents, hit by the recession, cannot bankroll internships at the White House or summers abroad in Europe. In fact, these young adults are being asked by cash-strapped parents to find summer jobs to earn money. The author of the article expresses concerns that the recession will (based on statistics from previous recessions) force the Millennials to underearn for the next 15 years.

My initial reaction was that this was not necessarily negative. Members of the Greatest Generation, which grew up in the recession, served in WWII, and had the highest rate of savings, worked unglamorous summer jobs. My own father, for example, sold ice cream on the summer streets of NYC along with his father. He was able to go on to college and grad school and had a long, successful career as a teacher while still keeping a love of ice cream.Summers spent scooping were not held against him by universities and employers.

Then I remembered that the unemployment rate is still high. Heads of families don't have jobs. Many people are facing layoffs. There is an exceptionally high number of families in NYC shelters and many people are still facing foreclosures. Once again, the media is encouraging narcissism in the young. The article could have asked the Millennials to reflect on how lucky they are to have a job at all, parents to feed and house them, time before they must be self-supporting.

Is the media deliberately trying to promote narcissism in the young?
Is this a refusal on the part of reporters to accept that the economy has changed, and may have done so for good?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Narcissism is caused by the media

Twenge suggests that brainwashing by the media has contributed to much of the narcissism in US culture. In the past, people just envied and competed with their neighbors. With television, they were able to see how people in different classes and different parts of the United States. As a result, people began to deserve the lifestyles and belongings of the extremely wealthy, which they might not have been aware of in pre-television and internet days. Keeping up with the Joneses was taken to an international level.

Twenge blames reality TV shows for the exceleration of this problem in the US. I agree with her but I personally think the problem began back in the late 1980's. Long before reality TV, long before Sex and the City, the baby boomers of America had their reality forever altered by thirtysomething. It not only changed their lives but those of their children, the current Generation Y (or as Twenge calls them, Generation Me.)


Back in the mid-80’s, many baby boomers were fans of the television series thirtysomething. Set in Philadelphia, it was about several yuppies who were adjusting to yuppiedom after spending their college years as flower-children. They lived in large, clean, nicely decorated houses that looked like shoots for an upscale home furnishings catalogs and were stay-at-home moms or artily employed single women depressed over their lack of suitable dating prospects. The men all seemed to make huge amounts of money as lawyers or advertising executives. All the characters spent much time obsessing over every action they took, whether raising their child, working, or the man they broke up with years earlier.

While I found the show depressing, I knew many baby boomers and Gen X'ers who took this show as the model for their life and those of their children. They wanted the lavish house, the life where the main focus was on children (one character quit a part-time job as a fact checker because she was unable to find time to rear her child), the refusal to take politics seriously, the culture where a single woman was pitied and miserable and people who tried to effect social change were ridiculed. I also knew people who took this show as a model in how NOT to live their life, but they were a minority.

The next show to have such a major impact on US life was Sex and the City, which will be considered in my next post.

The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell


Jean Twenge’s previous book was Generation Me, which I read as an attempt to understand the values and psyches of my younger co-workers. I found the book depressing but insightful. As a result, I decided to read her next book, The Narcissism Epidemic, even though I felt the term was heavily overused. Rarely have I had such an extreme reaction to a book. I moved between recognizing societal behaviors that I had noticed but not fully registered to being convinced that I, too, was dangerously narcissistic. Should I take the narcissism test? Would taking the test be a sign of narcissism? Is wanting to affect change a sign of narcissism? I ultimately called a close friend who reminded me that I had a similar crisis after I read The Geography of Bliss and suggested that I read some non-taxing novels for a change.

However, the worsening of the U.S. economy has made it essential that we examine our society. How did the financial crisis begin? What made financial people feel that it was acceptable to let potentially unsound loans to go through? Why did ordinary people borrow widely out of their financial means? Why did no one think that these financial abuses would be destructive? The answers, according to Twenge’s book, lie within the narcissicist values of our culture.