Do You Feel the Need to Be Impressive?
27 Feb 2017
Hi, my name’s Neil Hughes and, because I’m human, I want you to be impressed by me.
This is a normal urge. We are social animals, so it’s natural to be concerned about our status within the tribe.
Our brains: Am I important? What do people think when they meet me?
As ever, there’s both a healthy mindset and an unhealthy mindset about our own impressiveness. Here’s an example of each:
Unhealthy: If I don’t have a massive list of incredible achievements, I am next-to-nothing.
Healthy: Simply following my passions and having fun as I explore my potential is impressive enough.
When we’re in the unhealthy mindset, it can feel as if enjoying our own potential could never be enough, but as soon as you make the switch it seems obvious that we don’t need incredible achievements to be impressive.
Think about the times when you’ve been impressed by people that you’ve met. Were they all world leaders? Famous inventors? The best in their field?
No, of course not. We are naturally impressed when people are comfortable in their own skin and live up to their potential, whatever that means for them.
But it’s not easy to remain in this healthy mindset. Plenty of things can get in the way…
Random person: Hi, I speak eleventy languages, have published whompteen books, and only stop working on my multiple businesses when it’s time to master metalwork. Or whatever else I feel like mastering that day. Before breakfast.
Other people’s achievements can lead to thoughts of inferiority which take the shine away from our own achievements.
Inner monologue: I was really happy when I wrote that blog post people liked, but then I saw someone get a thousand retweets and now I’m convinced that I suck.
But it’s important to remember that our achievements are not lessened by the achievements of others. Winning an amateur football trophy isn’t meaningless just because it’s not the World Cup.
Remember: We Don’t Need to Impress Anyone
When we’re at our strongest, we explore our passions because we want to. Others may not understand why we want to learn to read Old English, or to paint using watercolours, or to grow tropical plants. We know why, and that’s all that matters. It’s not about other people.
Sure, part of our motivation may be to help or entertain others, but it’s still our motivation. When we’re in a healthy mindset, we don’t operate out of a hollow desire to impress, but from a solid core of desire to create something for another.
When we start doing things purely to impress others, we undermine that strength. If we switch our motivation from “this seems cool” to “others might think I am cool if I do it,” we lose sight of our personal growth and enjoyment, which can lead to demotivation and lack of joy.
The solution is to remind ourselves of what we truly want, and to go for it. If anyone else is impressed (and they will be!) then that’s a bonus.
But, hold on… My status-obsessed-primate-brain is objecting again. What about when we encounter somebody who is undeniably doing better than we are? Someone who is simply a better writer, or businessperson, or linguist? In practice, it’s hard to avoid feeling inferior when this happens. So how do we deal with this?
We Decide What Success is
For each of our interests, we get to choose what it means to “win.” Perhaps we won’t be satisfied until we’ve mastered it. That’s fine. Or perhaps we’ll be happy after grasping the basics. That’s also fine.
I taught myself guitar a few years ago. I suck at it.
Really. I’m not just saying that. With a guitar, I am offensive to both music and the physics of soundwaves. I can nearly play a few chords. Badly.
But I’m happy with that. I got as far as I wanted to, and learned about chord structure, which massively improved my ability to play other instruments (on which I am not quite as offensive to all that is good in the world).
Success is what we choose it to be. The only way to fail is to forget that we set the victory conditions, and to falsely believe that we need to impress others to win.
This liberates us, allowing us to both be contented with our achievements and to enjoy the experience of improving. (If you enjoy clichés, you can insert your own thoughts about “journey not destination” here.)
Although… there is one final objection. What if our victory condition truly is “I must be impressively good at this?” Are we cursed with unhappiness in that case?
Our Mental Models of Talent are Skewed
The most visible people in every niche are usually the most successful/skilful. This means that our mental model of others in our niche is waaaaay skewed in favour of people who are more successful than average.
According to Daniel Kahneman (author of Thinking, Fast and Slow), our brains use something called the availability heuristic to make judgements. Our minds take shortcuts by creating a mental model based on the first few examples that come to mind when we think of a specific thing.
For example, if we think of “a tennis player,” we think of people such as Andy Murray, Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, but we forget the many (many!) more tennis players who are less talented and who play in their local park instead of at Wimbledon.
If we met every tennis player in the world, we would have a much more accurate picture of where we stand. But we can’t do that, so our brain takes shortcuts and compares us to the most obvious examples – usually the very best!
This makes us feel disproportionately bad about our own abilities.
And this applies in every niche we’re involved in. In reality, we’re probably more impressive than we realise…
… but that doesn’t matter. If we make impressing ourselves our goal, we will find it much easier to be happier and successful. And, ironically, others will be more impressed by us too.*
* But that’s not the point.
Neil Hughes hopes you liked this blogpost, and thereby validate his existence. Let him know if so!
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits.
Along with writing more books, he spends his time on standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question "so, what do you do?" and is worried that the honest answer is probably "procrastinate."
He would like it if you said hello.