You Are Not A Product
So stop treating yourself like one
When some teacher, a long time ago, during an undergrad seminar in goal setting, let me in on the secret that I had a “personal brand”, I was sold. Spending my time building, crafting, improving my self in a goal-directed project-like way was something I’d never considered before.
Referring to self-presentation as “branding” is apt. It underlies what the Millennial self has become: a product.
Seeing myself as a brand excites me. It means everything I do carries weight, because it involves me — the product.
The podcast, the blog, the diploma, the publications, the volunteering. It’s all in there. The concerts I go to, the books I review on Goodreads, the shows I watch. All expressions of my identity that have their place in the product that constitutes my identity. Exercising, sleeping, eating — done with an eye to improving the product.
Nothing is wasted. It all counts.
However, the manufacturing process of this product turns out to have dark, hidden costs.
It really all counts
The problem, then, is this: the purpose of all these things is now intertwined with this optimization of your brand.
We no longer relax to relax, but to recover so that we can be awesome tomorrow again. We no longer socialize to have fun, but to showcase how cool our lives are.
That’s how it has happened that, to start with the point about relaxation, our society has blurred the separation between work and leisure.
For example, at Google’s head office, employees have plenty of opportunities to relax, to work out, to meditate, to take their dog or children with them, to take courses, and so on. This is not unique. It’s common practice for such companies to invest in the happiness, health, creativity, and thus the productivity of their employees.
Because, of course, that’s the catch — their happiness has to pay out in the end.
From this point of view, not only does one never stop hustling — one never exits a kind of work rapture, in which the chief purpose of exercising or attending a concert is to get inspiration that leads back to the desk. — New York Times, Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work?
The purpose of relaxation, for the 21st-century “knowledge worker” is not primarily to chill out, but is derivative from serving his productivity in the workplace: even when he is not producing, it’s about productivity. Seen like that, it’s not only the distinction between work and leisure that is becoming meaningless, but also the distinction between activity and passivity.
There is a cruel irony here. The employee has to recharge himself on time, in order to avert a burn-out, to be able to toil even longer, harder and better for the very thing that is burning him out in the first place. We want more energy to be able to produce and consume more of what costs us energy.
A work of art, or a product?
This pervasiveness of evaluating everything all the time in an unwanted consequence for sure.
But still, the product-way-of-thinking enthuses me. Conceiving myself and my existence as something to be shaped into its best form, and that all aspects weigh in here, makes me dance.
In the rest of this essay, I analyze the canvassed downsides and upsides of the self-as-product metaphor, to see how to combine the best of both worlds while discarding the bad
Internal versus external motivation
Crucially, there are two different motivations at work in these two worlds. When I get high on my own or others self-projects, I’m internally motivated. I see something that matches my values. This ignites a fire to do something similar.
By contrast, when we strive to perfect everything to make our products seem upscale, we’re externally motivated. We prioritize other people’s opinions about us over our own feelings. Because this is dictated by what other people think of you, it’s a recipe for disaster.
These divergent mindsets are shown in how this metaphor has changed over the centuries. Life used to be a work of art, now it’s a product. Its criteria are no longer timeless aesthetic beauty, but are more commercially inspired:
How much would random strangers pay for this?
The life-as-art metaphor hints at assessment in terms of whether a life is beautiful, valuable perhaps. The life as product metaphor hints as assessment in terms of price — in terms of where supply meets demand.
The big difference is the change in the role the opinions of other people in determining whether a piece of art or a product is ‘successful’.
Works of art are made to be beautiful. Beauty is not susceptible to changes in ‘demand’. If no one wants it, it can still be extremely beautiful, and therefore valuable.
Products, on the other hand, are made to be sold: to serve, or please, customers. Demand is everything. If no one wants a product, it’s worthless.
If your life is a product, then, if no one wants your life, it’s worthless.
We all know what we see on Facebook and Instagram isn’t “real,” but that doesn’t mean we don’t judge ourselves against it. This dependency explains why: the aim is not to make something that’s beautiful, but something that’s looked up to or envied or desired by others. So we pretend and hide our weaknesses. It’s no longer about self-expression, as art is, but about making the sort of thing that prompts people to comment,
I want your life.
Self-care for productivity
The way the meaning of “self-care” has changed, illustrates the difference between internal and external motivation.
Notice how this excellent BuzzFeed article, I think rightly, connects the contemporary notion of self-care to the optimization-pervasiveness discussed earlier:
“The media that surrounds us — both social and mainstream, from Marie Kondo’s new Netflix show to the lifestyle influencer economy — tells us that our personal spaces should be optimized just as much as one’s self and career…The most common prescription is “self-care.””
When people ‘prescribe’ self-care, they seem to mean, “take a break”; “Go and meditate”. But to what end? When we ‘fix’ ourselves, what’s the ultimate goal of that?
There are two possible answers. We meditate and take a break for ourselves, regardless of any impact on productivity. Alternatively, self-care is not something we do ultimately do to hone our selves, but to increase our output.
Today, the emphasis of self-help is on the former. Self-improvement is merely a means to make us better tools.
In its contemporary iteration, self-care doesn’t combat, but reinforces the mental health crisis. It’s an attempt to combat the societal problem of burn-out with individual solutions, like doing yoga and eating a lot of vegetables. But those supposedly healthy rituals have as sole purpose to make our bodies and heads better equipped to hop back on the treadmill, and run faster.
Here’s BuzzFeed again:
“But much of self-care isn’t care at all: It’s an $11 billion industry whose end goal isn’t to alleviate the burnout cycle, but to provide further means of self-optimization.”
On this way of seeing ourselves, we are batteries to be recharged. The idea of optimizing yourself for the sake of yourself, regardless of external dividends, seems weird to many self-improvers. Because self-care has been encapsulated by the productivity-holyness, it has become another task on our to-do lists that we have to do, rather than something that naturally flows out of a striving for personal authenticity.
When this is our standard, we forget that the idea of self-optimization as a mere means to something else is a recent invention. Because, make no mistake, it has been regarding as something with intrinsic rather than instrumental value by many cultures for many millennia.
Self-care for art
The care of self is central to the ethics of Ancient Greece — the era of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Where Western philosophy was born. In these days, the main aim of schools of philosophy was to transform the individual. Self-care was the distinguishing hallmark of living philosophically.
This only increased in the days of the Stoics, like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. During the Hellenistic age, philosophy was medicine for the soul.
Hailing caring for oneself as the foundation of living well may sound egoistic, but it’s the opposite. Self-love is a prerequisite for being able to love others.
Self-care is something only the subject itself can provide. It is a way of belonging to oneself; an attitude that responds to all our needs, whether they are intellectual, physical, spiritual, emotional, or otherwise. It involves a repertoire of actions by which one tends to oneself, takes responsibility for oneself and develops oneself.
Here’s an example. We all know how to maintain our physical health and how to practice dental hygiene, right? We’ve known it since we were four years old. But what do we know about maintaining our psychological health? Well, not too much.
What do we teach our children about emotional hygiene? Nothing.
How is it that we spend more time taking care of our teeth than we do of our minds?
In a TEDTalk, psychologist Guy Winch criticizes this negligence:
“We sustain psychological injuries even more often than we do physical ones, injuries like failure or rejection or loneliness. And they can also get worse if we ignore them, and they can impact our lives in dramatic ways. And yet, even though there are scientifically proven techniques we could use to treat these kinds of psychological injuries, we don’t. It doesn’t even occur to us that we should.”
These skills are not ones we acquire to be more productive or whatever. They are vital to lead a full life.
The instrumental notion of self-care has severed that link between self-improvement and a good life. If it will not be on the test, we don’t study the chapter. If our job doesn’t require it, we don’t learn the skill. If we’re not literally breaking down, we don’t see a therapist.
What a shame.
Self as a work of art, or as a product?
Like any good idea, I had to admit I was wrong to see its merits.
While I like the goal-setting mindset the life-as-product metaphor implies, it has a nasty way of infusing optimization into all aspects of one’s life, robbing activities that don’t increase our prices of their appeal. Moreover, the value of products, typically, hinges on the demand there is for them. That’s inconvenient.
In light of these considerations, the life-as-art metaphor is better because it doesn’t have this link with the opinions of others. Art is about self-expression and authenticity.
To shift from external to internal evaluation, we should revive this idea of self-care as worthwhile in itself. To be as beautiful as we can be. Regardless of sales numbers.