It’s the title of a Styx song, but it’s also the inability to see what should be so patently obvious that we could scarcely miss it. The movie, The Matrix, would say, “… the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.” Unlike the Matrix, where once we’ve seen it we can’t go back, we often fall into the lure of predictability and clarity.
Other People’s World
Pick your favorite social media platform and do a random scrolling or swiping through posts and stories. You’re likely to see two things. First, other people are doing stuff that seems cooler than the stuff you’re currently doing. (After all, you’re just scrolling.) Second, their lives seem more ordered and directed than your own. For the first, the important part is that one need only recognize that posts on social media are, for most people, a highlight reel. They post things that are positive. They don’t (often) post the picture of the coffee they spilled all over themselves, the dog vomit they had to clean up, or the million other small insults or frustrations that comes with daily life.
For the second, the perception of an ordered life is the grand illusion. While you may see a consistent or at least thematic element to their posts, you’re likely ignoring the time they did something slightly out of character. The social media view obscures the struggle that they had to figure out which way to go with their lives.
In fact, marketing people are quick to point out that people who are trying to generate a persona should not share these distractions from their core identity – even if they’re real. I violate these principles regularly and on principle. I’m a whole person, and I want people to see the random connections I make – even if the consequence is that people can’t really understand my identity and therefore my personal brand.
A Researcher in Another Field
When you’re reading, and you encounter piercing insights into humanity by another human author or researcher, it’s natural to assume that they’ve spent their entire career looking for that one insight, and once it came to them, they carefully wrote it down to be elevated to the status of essential wisdom. The truth is, however, much messier. In my own journey, I’ve wandered across topic areas. Burnout, conflict resolution, mental health, and suicide are a wide variety of topics. What has started happening without warning is that people whose work I admired in one area has surfaced in another. For instance, Roy Baumeister’s work on Willpower is great. But his work spans into the suicide prevention space as well. Carol Dweck’s work on Mindset is another classic. Her work in burnout is less well known.
These powerful researchers toiled in relative obscurity in fields before – or sometimes after – the ones they became known in. This is a place where the grand illusion starts to break down. When we encounter these great works, we can become pigeonholed into believing that the researcher is focused on that area. However, when we discover that they haven’t always focused on what they’re known for, we’ve got to ask, at some level, how that can be. One can’t have spent their whole life trying to solve one problem if we discover other, less successful, areas of their career.
We’re faced with the reality that they’re not as singularly focused and successful as we believed. We’ve heard stories about how the great artists weren’t “discovered” until after their death. They toiled in relative obscurity while they were with us. However, somehow that perception that people could not be known has been relegated to a memory of distant times in the past. After all, with the factors we have today, shouldn’t the great professionals in every industry be identified quickly and rewarded?
The One Stand to Rule Them All
People are fickle. Bell bottoms are in. Bell bottoms are out. Bell bottoms come back. In our world of rapidly changing desires and near ubiquitous availability of the internet, one might believe that people who have developed expertise or insight might naturally be elevated to the position of influencer, sage, or master. However, the same problems we had in a pre-internet era plague us today. Do a search for burnout on the internet and see how many hits you have to wade through. Too many people become “experts” because they spend an hour “researching” burnout on Google, then feel competent enough to write about it –whether they’re right or not. (The book review listing has 16 books that I’ve read specifically on burnout – and that doesn’t include related topics. We take research seriously.)
This creates a sea of noise that both content creators and content consumers must contend with when they try to connect, to transmit the true insight to the world. For the most part, people settle for the more mundane. Minor influencers admit that they’re not being fairly compensated, as individuals who are paying for the services wonder where have the good guys and gals gone. AI-based content creation tools, like ChatGPT, have all the markings of making this problem worse and not better.
It’s far more common for me to find people who have changed their focus than it is for me to find folks who have had a consistent connection to a single topic for the course of their career. The truth is that they didn’t know – and couldn’t know – what aspect of their interest and works might be picked up and identified as interesting to others. It’s a constant stab in the dark that all sorts of artists face every day. They don’t know when they’ll be discovered – or for what. As a specific reference, look at the work of Joan Borysenko, who wrote the book Fried. The last blog post on her site related to burnout was 2018. Her work has focused more recently on spirituality.
Sometimes, people leave an area for decades. In my own work, I wrote about burnout first in 2003 – and it took until 2019 to write the Extinguish Burnout book with my wife. For about 15 of those years, I didn’t give burnout much thought. It took the gap of 16 years to come back to it and spend time with it again. However, it’s not held my focus for the last four years. It’s another thing we do – but not the only thing we do.
The illusion created is that other people lock on to their best work, and it’s what they become known for. However, the truth seems to be that people work on something, leave it, come back to it, and leave it again. There’s not one topic to take a stand on that they’ll never leave.
Creating the Illusion
Two decades ago, I got to see Siegfried and Roy at The Mirage. Their tiger show was amazing. However, I was literally sitting inside the stage, where you could see how some of the illusions were performed. They forced the audience’s perspective, which hid black cages and paths the tigers would use to get themselves off stage. The illusion was great for most of the audience.
It’s that forced perspective that transforms the winding pathway of life into the perception of a linear projection from the start of life to the end. When we only see those messages aligned with what people have done in their area of recognition, we see the illusion that they choose to create – and that we choose to accept.
If you want to create the illusion of consistency, the brand marketers would say that you only communicate on your primary point and silence all the rest. It means that your true gift to the world may be stifled or never recognized – but it will create the illusion that your world has been exclusively focused around one thing. If you’re going to do this, I encourage you to try to choose wisely. Too many have had to retool after years of sending the wrong message to the world.