13 min read

Three Mistakes We're Making About Ourselves These Days

Three Mistakes We're Making About Ourselves These Days

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the biggest issues—the ones that matter most. If you like what you read, please consider sharing the Issue on your Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

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Today's Read: 13 Minutes.

Feeling Lost, Stuck, Afraid. In a Troubled Age. We Delve Into the Paradox of Human Possibility. Self-limiting beliefs which make us undervalue and underestimate ourselves. What a mature self is, and where one comes from.

 1. An epidemic of chronic illness is killing us too soon. (WaPo)
 2. Years of research laid the groundwork for speedy COVID-19 shots. (AP)
 3. September felt like July as earth shattered month’s temperature record. (Forbes)
 4. Judge issues gag order and rebukes Trump. (CNN)
 5. Kevin McCarthy is history. (Nation)

Today's Issue. You. Me. Us. A World Melting Down.

Sorry guys—I came down with a terrible flu, so I've been a little slow. Not Covid—my lovely wife the doctor's rigorous about that. I was thinking about what we were just discussing—feeling lost. This wave, pulsation of it, sweeping through people and societies. We discussed it in an abstract way last time, and today I want to make it concrete.

Feeling lost. For people like us, which is to say, those of who are still sane, kind, decent, thoughtful? Feeling lost happens more easily, and hits harder, I think, and so this era, where civilization itself is lost, out of map—it's knocking a lot of us to our knees. With the three most common mistakes that we're making these days. About ourselves. Let me put that (very) differently.

There's you. There's the universe. Now what?

What's the most common mistake people—especially people like us—make? We "undersell" ourselves. So much so that we don't even like the idea of "selling ourselves." And yet—look around. In this day and age, it's never been more crucial, everyone glued to a screen, immersed in everyone else's "profiles," life, details, activities. Trying to...you guessed it. But let's not put it that way—let's put it more accurately.

We undervalue ourselves. Grossly, endemically so, and not in a trivial way, either, but as selves at all. After all, our organizations and institutions tell us that we're effectively worthless, in not so subtle ways, to which culture's answer is the nervous rictus grin of exaggerated "positivity" or the social media norm of cartoonish self-absorption. All of that's a dead giveaway: we undervalue ourselves. Of course that's also why depression, anxiety, and suicide rates are soaring—it's not an abstraction I'm discussing here, it's very real.

All of us, with one crucial exception. Remember how we discussed the Big Problem of Terrible People Getting Ahead? That happens because Terrible People excel at selling themselves. Overinflated version of themselves. Terrible People is shorthand, if you like, for Machiavellian narcissists, and they become highly skilled at selling themselves precisely because there's often little to no substance there at all. They're just concerned with artifice, surface, manipulation, impression, instrumentality. They overvalue themselves, we undervalue ourselves. See the chart above? Now we're going to dig into it.

Hence, we have this sort of inverse relationship that's come to Plague Our Organizations—call it the Paradox of Incompetence. The more competent you are at  the substance of a thing, the less time you spend in "selling yourself," which often even looks crass, crude, and graceless. But the net result is that the least competent people, those least immersed in the substance of a thing, issue, problem, concern, seem to get ahead, gain power, rise, monopolize resources. Go ahead and take a look at the world and tell me it's not true. Not exactly making progress by leaps and bounds, are we? There's a very, very real problem here.

On the one hand, we have Machiavellian narcissists who vastly overinflate the value of themselves, to grandiose, absurd proportions, and yet, are often incompetent. (Just think Trump.) On the other hand, we have...normal, decent, kind, thoughtful people, who are usually pretty, if not very, competent...but undervalue themselves. That's what the chart above's about.

Where does that leaves? Again, think of...Trump. Demagogues around the world. Big examples, but there are many smaller ones, too, the endless scandals ripping through our headlines. The net result is is that organizations are left crippled, our world grinds to a halt, and things go backwards. This is a far, far bigger problem than we recognize yet. Our world is going haywire in this deep way. The Paradox of Incompetence appears to be ripping the future and the present apart.

We undervalue ourselves because we don't know how to tell our stories. And that, in turn, is because our stories are often complicated. They're hard to squeeze into little boxes. They don't fit neatly into CVs. Our stories are about our very human lives. Not just the gears of profit or commerce or power whatever the organizational goal may be. Capitalism, especially this Extinction Age variant of it, only has two values, really: one, maximize profit, two, undervalue everything else. Nature, sanity, truth, reality, the public good. But it all begins, really, with us. And when we're told to undervalue ourselves in that all-permeating a way, is it any surprise so many of us...do?

(I'd bet that your story's like mine. Complicated. Not simple. Not easily reduced. For whatever reason. You see, people, and especially people like us, but just people, tend to have done a lot of stuff. And it's nigh on impossible to squeeze all that into little boxes or bullet points. You can take me as an example, if you like. I make music, write, I have this weird condition where the light can kill me, and it taught me tons, I do cutting edge research in economics and management, and I've run huge organizations. How do you tell that story? The point emphatically isn't about me, it's about us.

People like us struggle to tell their stories well because we've done a lot of stuff. At the same time, because the old Industrial Age model of "work" itself is dying, our paths have often been what career coaches will call "nonlinear," so sure, there's a path there, but it's not so easy to trace, and it's hard to capture and express. The result of all that is that we can end up feeling demoralized and dispirited. We compare ourselves to a handful of people who have had neat, linear paths, smooth progressions up hierarchies, and end up baffled about ourselves. And that's after we undervalue ourselves to begin with.)

See how all that fits together? We don't know quite know to tell our stories. They don't fit together so easily, because they're not just "I climbed this ladder, yay!," and there's nothing wrong with that, I'm not saying everyone who does that is a Machiavellian narcissist, but I am saying that if that's all you're looking for, selecting, it's that much easier to conned by Machiavellian narcissists, overinflating the value of themselves in grandiose ways. And when the rest of us see that happening, shake our heads, and begin to walk away, demoralized.

And we feel....lost. This time, at a micro, institutional level. The world's lost, sure—but now we feel like organizations and institutions don't even see us. That they can't even see us with their 2-D glasses, because we're made of depths and curves, not lines and pixels. Me and the universe? Forget it. Hell, I can't even get me and anything mundane right here on this planet right.

And that hurts. I know it hurts, because it still happens to me all the time, and if it happens to me, I can only imagine how many of you feel. It hurts, that sense of not being seen, heard, known, valued, understood, even recognized, just because...you don't fit easily into straight lines and square boxes, which, if we're honest, seem almost designed to be easily exploited by self-aggrandizing narcissists with overinflated egos, but are of profoundly little service to the rest of us. So how do we fix it? Well, we have to work backwards, from the end, towards the beginning. What does that mean?

There's you. There's the universe. Now what? Now you tell your story. Your story.  That means, in turn, recognizing your accomplishments, achievements, ideas, talents, particularities. Remember when I said that we undervalue and undersell ourselves, people like us, especially, empaths, Light Triad sorts, but more or less everyone who's not a Machiavellian narcissist? You have to grasp that. Really grasp it. All of us have accomplishments and ideas and talents that matter. Each and every one of us. The problem is that if there's a Machiavellian narcissist bragging Extremely Loudly about how theirs are Fantastically Amazingly Better—and worse, organizations are hypnotized by their dazzling haloes—we're often stopped in our tracks. Me and the universe? LOL, forget it.

Yet meanwhile, there's a curious thing happening in the world, which is intense curiosity itself. All these screen we're all glued to all day—what's that really about? Curiosity, on a mass, immense scale. We could never have known people by the millions before, and now we can, at least in a thin sense. Everyone's deeply curious about...everyone else.

What is "your story," anyways? In a deep way, it's just the relationship between you and the universe, really. But do you know what that is yet? Can you say? So you see, now we're getting to...the hard part.

"Tell your story" sounds like a cliche. In the wrong hands, it will be. In the right ones, it's anything but. For all the reasons we've discussed. The Paradox of Incompetence is real. And it asks us all not to take a back seat to narcissists anymore. You see, one thing I've noticed people do is almost fail even to recognize how much they've already really accomplished or achieved or done, unless others point it out to them. So ask your friends, colleagues, family. And then listen. Trust me when I tell you: we're undervaluing ourselves endemically, and only when you correct that can you tell your story the way it should be told, which is about the relationship between you and the universe. I know, that's...what is this guy even talking about? Hold on, we'll get there. Let me put that another way.

See the chart above? The challenge for us is to move in the direction the arrow suggests. Machiavellian narcissists: low competence, high self-evaluation. The rest of us: high competence, yet we probably don't know it enough, which leads to low self-evaluation. Our challenge is moving to high competence and high self-evaluation.

That's a lot harder—and deeper—than it sounds. It's what maturity and growth really begin with. High competence, high self-evaluation. Most of us don't have to worry much about competence, to be frank—that's not the hard part. The self-evaluation part is, especially in a world breaking down, beset by narcissistic predators feeding ravenously on the ruins. We don't even recognize the things we've already done well. Self-evaluation, self-reflection, self-understanding. That's the hard part. It takes a lot of work.

There's you, there's the universe. Now what? See what I mean, a little bit? Don't worry if you don't yet, we'll get there.

What happens as we undervalue ourselves? We begin to underestimate ourselves, too. We write ourselves off, saying "I can't do that, or, "I couldn't accomplish that," and so forth. And again, the Machiavellian narcissists win this way—being far less capable and competent and talented than the rest of us, yet having beaten the life out of us, with a little collusion from organizations who are all too eager to champion artifice over substance. In the end, it becomes: I could never have a relationship with the universe. And that way lies...the desert of human emptiness.

(Here's an example of how that often plays out. Dispirited, traumatized, we stop...talking...much to people. No, that's not just scrolling social media. So right now, a curious thing happens. Though the world's hyperconnected, those connections are monopolized by a relatively small number of people in each network. That tells us something—which is exactly that most people don't go out there and form enough connections. And that in turn is because they're scared to, or they don't know how to, meaning, they don't know how to tell their stories well enough.

Now imagine all those people. Feeling...lost. Alone...not together. Ironic, isn't it? The same emotion—trapped in little bubbles of disconnection. Now imagine all those people watching Machiavellian Smooth Operators work the system, network, organization, rolling their eyes, shaking their heads, and giving up. The feeling of being lost feeds on itself, doesn't it? Tell me you haven't felt that way recently.)

Moving towards high competence and high self evaluation is one of life's great steps. It's a major moment in any life. I summarize it in this sort of cliched way, "learning how to tell your story.," because that's the outcome, but make no mistake—it's the mark of a mind and soul beginning to mature and grow into the person they really were meant to be, at last.

"The work"—as we call it these days, but it isn't work, really, it's self-discovery, understanding of the human experience, having relationships with history, time, being, and truth—you'll need to do to get there isn't easy. This is me. These are all the things I've done. Here are my scars, here are my wounds. Here's why. Along the way, this happened, too. Be open. Be frank. Be vulnerable. Don't hold back. Be honest. That isn't narcissism, that's the opposite—being open to relationships. You and the universe, remember? The self. Selfhood. The universal. Does a self exist in opposition to a universe? Is a self a narcissistic thing that inflates to the size of a universe? Or is a self...maybe...even...universal? And if it is, are there really any?

Don't worry. Those are hard questions. It's not going to happen overnight. It takes a lot of thought—and more than a fair bit of practice—to really begin to even approach the zone of high competence and high self-evaluation. And part of that is re-examination. Seeing yourself anew. Examining your accomplishments, ideas, achievements, talents, whatever, with a fine-toothed comb. Putting them under a microscope. I bet—no, I guarantee—if you do that, you'll find that you were responsible for, created, contributed, did, more than you think. Precisely because competence isn't the problem for most of us—recognizing it in ourselves as it already exists is.

What we've really been talking about? It's not salesmanship or networking or any of the rest of that guff. It's much, much deeper than that. Self-understanding. The revelatory kind, even. Revealing the pieces of yourself you didn't really know existed, or weren't sure you were good enough for. Joining them up, into a new self-portrait, of a fuller, truer, richer, deeper person.

High self-evaluation and high competence is something that happens in a funny, strange, almost backwards way, like this: it dawns on you, one day, that hey, you're actually pretty good. At this task, this job, this role. Then, maybe later, at being this...person. Dad, husband, grandma, spouse. You had competence long ago, in fact—only it was the evaluative aspect of yourself, the knowing mind, the seeing eye, the observer of the self, which was weak, cloudy, blind, biased not just against the self, as in yours, but against all selves, taught that only glistening, perfect, overinflated narcissistic shells are to be valued, held, and appreciated.

Selves, though, aren't those sorts of things at all. They're more like...trees, I guess. Beaten up, yet still stretching into the sky, carved into by time, always becoming dust, roots one with the soil. Do you think a tree looks at itself and wonders if it needs to be more like that tree? I bet that a tree just is. Every tree is good, in fact, downright excellent, at being a tree. A tree is a self in this deep and beautiful and infinitely wise way. For us humans, beset by conflict, riven by doubt, primate mind howling, though, this place in existence—authentic selfhood—is harder to reach.

That's what growth is, in a sense, or at least where it beginsyourself, in a universal way. Which means: more mature, sensitive, more reflective and authentic, and finer ways. When you do that? Then you welcome people in, too, instead of walking away, dispirited or only revealing the parts of yourself you think they'll want to see, because the others have to be hidden away. That's how the Machivallians win, essentially—they shame the rest of us into hiding away, and that way, organizations never have to recognize the fullness and depth and richness of the human experience. Don't let that happen, because when it does, of course you feel lost: you're losing yourself.

So. That's abstract. Let me boil it down, because I want you to practice it. To make it a kind of practice in your daily life. It goes like this. Don't make these three mistakes. Undervaluing yourself, under-recognizing yourself, underestimating yourself. Those are mistakes of selfhood. Seen in a non-universal way, yet.

This little chart I've drawn for you, competence and self-evaluation—it's the voyage, really, of a lifetime. One axis is about mastery, done over decades, in many different forms, in a career, in relationships, with kids, with emotions. The other is about selfhood, the capacity to reflect on what you've done, who you are, why, to tell your story, in deeper and richer ways, even to yourself, and then to be able to offer that, too, to others, to appreciate, understand, know, recognize, discover, see, feel, hold, them, in these sophisticated and beautiful ways, with all that selfhood.

Does that make sense? Maybe the flu meds have gone to my head. But I wanted to share all this with you guys. I know how lost you feel. I also know why. That feeling of being lost comes from seeing yourself with everyone's eyes but your own. And when everyone's doing that? You know what we all see together? Nothing. That's immaturity, in a nutshell, and unfortunately, it's where we are today, and it's also why, in so many ways, our world's going off the rails. The real challenge is precisely the opposite: not seeing yourself with everyone else's eyes, but developing the vision to see everyone, all being and existence, in fact, in yourself. That's where maturity begins, because of course, only when that begins to happen, can you ever begin to outgrow the little seed of selfhood at last.

You and the universe, remember? Now you get what I mean.

Feeling lost is about losing yourself. The highest and truest and deepest parts of yourself, perhaps, in the race to squeeze yourself into boxes and lines. Remember the tree? It's standing there, holding up the whole universe. I don't mean that metaphorically at all. The tree is busy being a tree. It's never trying to be anything other than what it is. There it is, turning light and water into air for you to breathe, so you can see the universe, not just beginning with, but in...yourself. What else is the point? The tree's doing all that for you. That's your job, too, only it's harder in your case, because first you have to crack open the seed called a self.

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