A life of significance is not motivated by externalities, but from within. One of my favorite authors, Dan Ariely, professor of behavioral economics at Duke University, explains external signaling in this way:
“The large and colorful tail of the male peacock tells the female peacock about his strength and virility (if I can run around carrying this large and difficult tail, just imagine how strong I am). In the same way, we humans are concerned with the signals we send the people around us about who we are. Signaling is part of the reason we buy large homes, dress up in designer clothes, and buy particular cars. The car that you drive communicates something about you to the world. Does it matter? Yes, because we are constantly reading these signals and making inferences about the senders.
But some questions remain. What kind of signal do you want to send?
The BMW signal or the Prius signal? Maybe the signal that you buy American-made? Maybe you want to get a really old car and show people that you take really good care of it (a more subtle signal, but an interesting one).
Another question is whether the cost of the signal (the cost of the car) is worth its signaling value. This depends on the nature of the people you deal with, how well they know you, how often you make first impressions, etc.”
Sometimes, people choose to send signals in the short term –that have a high cost in the long run. Drugs, drinking, promiscuity, the purchase of expensive status symbols, and taking foolish risks are some of the ways we send signals, and many times the cost of these signals outweigh the benefits.
One cost that we rarely consider is cultural degeneration. Dan Ariely’s research indicates that the more often we compromise our standards and values in one area (irresponsible drinking) the easier it becomes to compromise standards and values in other areas (irresponsible sex.) More than that, his research has proven that when we witness one person in our tribe compromise their standards and values, the more likely we are to compromise our own. This has a high long term cost to society (not to mention our economy, communities, families, and our own self-image) as the more we compromise, the more everyone else does, and then the more we do, and on and on. It’s a vicious cycle.
Attempting to attain some kind of certainty as to your worth by comparing yourself or competing with others according to some external and arbitrary scale is deadly. It leads to increasingly excessive behaviors – more competing, more consuming, more spending, more working, more body modifications, more, more, more, …there is no way to win.
As an example, Hip-Hop culture has acquiesced to the shameful word “nigger.” It has shamelessly (which is the same as pridefully) co-opted the word, “nigga,” for its own use – Hip-Hop pretends the word doesn’t matter, and hopes to reduce the word’s power to induce shame. This strategy may reduce shame, but it fosters pride, and will not lead to significance.
Rather than acquiesce to the externality (use of the shameful word), how much better would it be to generate a culture that leads to significance – one that doesn’t put people’s worth into question?
Coping with shame by externalities can be similarly deceiving. People who use external substances to numb their shame will find themselves embroiled in a vicious cycle of shame, and the shameful coping with shame. Once you get on this cycle it is very difficult to get off – many people don’t.