The Super Sad Side of Keeping Score

Last year, Flannel Guy ROI offered a great book suggestion: “Super Sad True Love Story” by Gary Shteyngart. I don’t read a lot of fiction but I gave it a go since it came highly recommended.

The book’s theme surprised me. It’s about a lonely man, his girlfriend and her friends; a group of people who live their lives in a worrisome version of the future. The more I read, the more I saw the parallels between Shteyngart's work of fiction and modern life.

The characters live in a time where America has fallen from grace. The economy is in shambles, with the country deeply indebted to other nations—namely China, and the gap between the haves and the have nots is now a chasm.

Wait…it gets better.

... I’m the fortieth-ugliest man in this bar. But so what! So what!
— Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story

Privacy is virtually non-existant. In this world, appearance and rank dominate. No matter where you are, you’re openly judged by others, and you see your rank change in real time. You’re treated according to the current snapshot of your affairs because it's all that matters. 

Unbelievably, every person is measured on looks, financial situation and work status, as determined by the people in the immediate vicinity (aka the f*ckability index). Anything about you that can be measured and reported is available to the masses. You’re an open book for them to peruse, evaluate and discard. And, thanks to your apparat—a small jewelry-like networked device worn around the neck, you immediately see and hear what they think of you whether you want to or not. Think social media on steroids. It’s creepy, scary and unsettling. 

Unfortunately, based on current social trends, that fictional reality doesn't seem so unbelievable anymore.

Weights and Measures

[T]he traditions which buttressed [man’s] behaviour are now rapidly diminishing. No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead, he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism).
A statistical survey recently revealed that among by European students, 25% showed a more-or-less marked degree of existential vacuum. Among my American students, it was not 25% but 60%.
The existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom.
...Sometimes the frustrated will to meaning is vicariously compensated for by a will to power, the will to money. In other cases, the place of frustrated will to meaning is taken by the will to pleasure.
— p. 106-107, Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

It seems we measure and label everything. We measure and label ourselves and then we evaluate our worth, status, and ultimately our right to experience happiness based on our self-assessment relative to our reference group—whichever group we feel most closely aligns with what we want for ourselves. And, thanks to traditional media and now social media, we also allow others to determine our self-worth based on how they rate or  "like" our outward persona. 

Here are some measurements we flog ourselves with, sometimes multiple times a day:

  • Financial health: income, net worth, lineage/inheritance, material acquisition, insurance coverage
  • Intelligence: grades/GPA, IQ/aptitude tests, scholarships/awards, education/degrees, knowledge/rote memorization, publications, specialization/expert status
  • Status/Merit: wealth (see above), productivity/time deficit, having the right stuff (home, car, kids, vacations, toys, clothing and accessories, technology), employment status and profession (“what do you do?”, promotions, years in industry), criminal offences, address (postal code, country), lineage/inheritance, notoriety (fame), connections (who knows you and who do you know), social media presence (how many “friends”, “followers”, etc. you have)
  • Physical appearance: age, gender, nationality, dress size, tatoos/piercings, blemishes/scars, hygiene/aesthetics, features (symmetry, culturally-desirable features), style (flattering/stylish look), body proportions
  • Food intake & type: energy (calories), macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates, proteins, alcohols), micronutrients (vitamins, minerals - salt, cholesterol), type (fruits, vegetables, meats/meat alternatives, dairy, grains, fats), natural, processed, prepared, GMO, organic, water (quantity, quality), supplements/drugs (quantity/quality)
  • Physical health: weight (& BMI), body fat percentage, blood pressure, blood sugar, heart calcification/blockages, triglycerides/cholesterol, heart rate, VO2Max, strength, flexibility

Most of these measures are noise, partial truths. They’re externally-focused distractions that keep us from living a meaningful life because a measurement is only as good as its interpretation and external cues are meaningless in measuring one’s success in living a good life. 

A doctor…who would still interpret his own role mainly as that of a technician would confess that he sees in his patient nothing more than a machine, instead of seeing the human being behind the disease!
A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining.
— p. 133, Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

Examples: What good is a health indicator if we don't have context to know whether it's even meaningful in measuring a given person's "health"? What good is knowing a person's income level if their job feels meaningless and he/she is miserable as a result? What does it matter if someone is physically attractive if they're selfish and abrasive? What does the magnitude of your social media presence matter if it's based on a short-lived trend as opposed to a solid reputation built over time? 

What’s essential for a good, meaningful life can’t easily be measured and benchmarked because we're the only one who can evaluate our own. 

The essentials of a good life lie in thought, self-regulation, self-determination and outlook more than anything else. By their very nature, none of these abstractions are superficial. And because they’re internally-driven, they’re not easily measured or compared. Ultimately, we’re the only ones who can properly evaluate whether we’re satisfied with our level of attention and progress in these important areas:

  • Regard for self and others
  • Presence
  • Vitality
  • Fulfillment/purpose/meaning
  • Selflessness
  • Outlook
  • Peacefulness/playfulness/Humour
  • Helpfulness
  • Gratitude
  • Courage
  • Character
  • Self-knowledge
  • Curiosity/interest/openness
  • Mindfulness/spirituality
  • Kindness/generosity
  • Awareness of self and others

What's more, when we focus on how we we're doing in these areas based on what we value most, external measures shift to the background where they belong and we can feel more like ourselves because we're listening to and thinking about what truly matters, to us. 

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