Independence Day in the US is a time of celebration, recalling a historic milestone when a small group of fragmented colonies in a distant part of the world came together and bravely declared independence from a world power. Rather than simply celebrating an event in the distant past, maybe we can use the occasion to inspire ourselves to pursue a different kind of independence today.
The prison of conformity
What do I have in mind? I’m thinking this might be a good occasion for all of us to step back and assess how much we might still be prisoners of social pressures. We all face daily pressures to “fit in”, to carefully craft a façade that shows we are part of the “team” and to win the approval of others by presenting ourselves in ways that we perceive others want us to be. We resist the temptation to do what we want because we fear disappointing others. We downplay our own needs and desires because we put the needs and desires of others above our own.
Perhaps this a good time to reflect on what we have given up as we seek to accommodate the demands and needs of others. What would our lives look like if we resisted these pressures and expressed more of our own unique individuality? How much more might we enjoy every hour of the day? How much more might we accomplish? How much more could we contribute to others?
It’s easy to blame society and our institutions for pressuring us to become someone different from who we really are. But what if we drew inspiration from those colonists who dared to challenge a mighty power? What if we were to move beyond victimhood to rediscover our agency, our ability to take action on our own and to achieve greater impact from that action?
What if we stopped blaming others for pressuring us to be someone we’re not and instead took responsibility for making the choices and taking the actions that would enable us to express ourselves more fully? What might we become if we looked inside to discover who we were really meant to be? How much more could we accomplish?
Serving others by serving ourselves
Here’s a paradox: we often justify our conformity to social pressures in terms of our desire to please others, to make them happy. Yet, perhaps the most effective way ultimately to serve others is to discover and become who we were meant to be. By doing this, we’ll not only be able to make a unique contribution to others, but we’ll also serve as role models for others, inspiring them to strive to achieve more of their own unique potential and possibility as well.
We certainly won’t please all of those around us today, but maybe that’s OK. Maybe it will help us to learn who really would draw inspiration and benefit from our actions. Maybe rather than pushing ourselves on others with carefully crafted presentations of ourselves, we should pull others to us by expressing who we really are and seeing who is drawn to us.
At the same time, we might learn who wants us to be someone we’re not, and distance ourselves from those people, so that we can focus more time and attention on those who would get the greatest benefit from who we really are. We might set into motion a powerful virtuous circle – drawing support and encouragement from those who embrace us for who we really are and who encourage our further growth to achieve more and more of our potential. That in turn would provide us with the opportunity to achieve even more impact and draw even more support and encouragement.
Responding to mounting performance pressure
Many of us justify our urge to conform in terms of growing performance pressure. We fear that if we don’t conform, we’ll lose the support of others and become increasingly marginalized. Well, here’s another paradox: if we’re trying to be someone that we’re not, we’re much more likely to under-perform on the dimensions that really matter – and become deeply stressed in the process. The only way to effectively respond to growing performance pressure is to use it as a catalyst to discover who are really meant to be and to stay as true to that reality as possible. The best way to respond to mounting performance pressure is to differentiate ourselves by finding our unique individuality so that we stand out from others and achieve impact that no one else could achieve.
One of the benefits of making this choice is that we’ll find it much easier to build trust-based relationships. If we’re pretending to be someone who we’re not, we’ll never win deep and lasting trust. Others will sense that we’re not who we say we are. If we’re going to effectively respond to performance pressures, we won’t be able to do it alone. We’ll need to build rich personal networks shaped by deep, trust-based relationships where we can not only work together but learn more rapidly together. Those who persist in pretending will end up in much more shallow and fragile relationships that will undermine the ability to take risk and learn more rapidly.
Short-term risk for long-term reward
Now, I don’t want to under-estimate the challenges in doing this. We're surrounded by institutions driven by scalable efficiency that pressure us to fit into pre-defined roles and to perform tightly specified tasks reliably and predictably. Our school system was explicitly designed to prepare us to play those roles. But that economy is increasingly challenged as we plunge deeper into the Big Shift. As performance pressures mount, every tendency of our institutions is to squeeze harder and demand even more conformity from all the participants. As a result, in the short-term we're likely to experience even more pressure to conform. As change and uncertainty increases, our institutions strive to create the illusion of stability through conformity.
We’ll certainly be taking significant short-term risk by expressing who we really are but, for the reasons outlined earlier, that risk will position us to be much more effective in turning pressure into potential. It will be a catalyst to make some transitions in the short-term that can be quite uncomfortable and even painful, but essential if we’re going to shape our personal and professional networks to help us succeed in a more challenging world.
Women and other marginalized groups will find it particularly challenging to throw off this pressure to conform in the short-term because they're typically the first to suffer in environments experiencing mounting performance pressure. And yet they are ultimately the ones who will benefit the most from taking this opportunity to connect with their unique individuality and bringing it forward. The economy that will ultimately emerge from the Big Shift will be one driven by innovation and accelerating performance improvement. This in turn will lead to the evolution of institutions that not only respect diversity and individuality but that systematically create environments that help all of us to draw out more and more of our unique potential.
Let’s all draw inspiration from those who came before us and who stood up for the opportunity to create a freer society. We have an opportunity to re-shape all of our institutions in ways that will make all of us as individuals and as institutions better able to turn pressure into potential. But it begins with each of us, with the choices we will make and the actions we will take as we face growing pressure to conform.
The small moves that each of us take to express more of our unique individuality and to come together with others who respect and embrace us for who we really are can set some very big things in motion.
And, by the way, if we do this in all dimensions of our economy and society, we'll lay the foundation for a dramatic expansion of political freedom around the world.