Special like everyone else

“You are unique and special, just like everyone else”…

is a semantic cop out.

If special is better, greater, or otherwise different from what is usual, it means that most everything is usual – and once in a blue moon, we get to see something special.

So, no, everyone isn’t special. (The semantics are very simple: the fact that one is special in the eyes of another doesn’t mean that they are special full stop.)

Unique – is a different matter. Every piece of sh*t is unique, but they’re not quite so special. (Gastroenterology, look away).

Perhaps, it’s a semantic cop out that was trying to right some even worse wrong in the 1960s, when it was said by Margaret Mead, but today it can only do harm.

While building a brighter future during the Khrushchev era, my mother’s generation was convinced that to indicate that you wish to be something greater, yourself, was practically a crime. No wonder, the likes of Ayn Rand were screaming for a different view.

Reading blogs written in the US today, I feel much more aspiration for individual greatness, whereas in this part of the world, “delusions of grandeur” are strongly discouraged.

I think it is damaging for people to think of themselves as being special. It’s the sort of attitude that has people craving accomplishment and its short term substitute, other people’s attention.

If one comes to terms with the fact that they are an ordinary human being, like everyone else, perhaps they won’t feel the void left by… normalcy. Imagine that.

Maybe they won’t reach for their phone every morning for the dopamine hit of someone’s attention on social media that reminds them that they are special. Or look in the mirror to remind themselves of how their perfect skin/abs/ass makes them special. Or look at a wall full of degrees and ribbons to reassert their specialness.

A desire for specialness is mostly about an external locus of control. I think every person swings in and out of that unhelpful state at times, but I went through a transient, painful time when it really hit me hard. Was it my parents/teachers/friends’ fault? Or maybe that’s just social media? Whatever it is, it’s not an excuse to remain this way, so it doesn’t matter a huge amount to me.

In a previous post, some people said that they used to affirm their students’ specialness to them using this mantra, “You are unique and special, just like everyone else”. I think it’s kind and well intentioned, but perhaps not very helpful today as it feeds into the inescapable narrative rather than correcting for it.

I don’t think any teachers of mine ever told me I was special, it never occurred to me that they should. In fact, it would be weird. I looked for self-actualisation in other, what seemed like real, meaningful ways. I feel that this was a good thing. I think my phase of search for specialness was down to the fact that I got into comparing myself to others beyond all context.

This is by no means asking anyone to regress to the mean, encourage mediocrity or prevent people from doing something special. I just don’t think that special things should be done for the sake of making the doer special. They should be done for a real, less narcissistic reason, which usually involves someone else or something bigger than oneself.

And of course, we can define those special as relating to the general population, or better, to the relevant reference group. What is your cut off for special? 5%? 1%? Less than 5% of the population blog, so are we all special? Hmm. You get the point.

Is this as close to a long read as I am gonna get these days, jeez… For what I didn’t manage to say, here is some Radiohead rather beautifully wallowing in the pain of trying to be special, oscillating between idealising and devaluing. 1993. Sounds about right, doesn’t it?

Beautiful ordinariness

The word snowflake has filtered down to the teens (or did they invent it?) And they write about not wanting to be snowflakes. Us millennials inspired the term and obviously terrified the rest of the population. These Z people make me excited.

It was coined in Fight Club:

“You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.”

Would it be a thought crime to say that it’s a good thing to come to terms with the fact that you, and everyone else, is ordinary?

As I see it, people can do things that are special, but the concept of being special is the root of millennial narcissism.

January results of the Image Experiment

What I learnt working on my image this January:

  • expensive products commit you to putting in more effort, hence, you look better
  • when you do as you’ve been told by Andie MacDowell since you were 5, you feel like you are part of the club
  • the people who market to you don’t expect you to have even a rudimentary understanding of the scientific method or statistics, or any critical thinking really
  • you can use these lotions and potions in a mindful way

See the backstory here.

In early January, Santi brought me two things I had been contemplating getting myself:

1. Revitalising Fresh Shampoo by L’Occitane

The revitalising shampoo tingles lightly when you leave it on for over a minute, which is very relaxing. I guess for the oils and whatever else to work, you really need to give it a little time. What made me laugh was this on their website:

why do women love cosmetic products
Does this offend your intelligence? I hope it does. Also this.

What I found was that it was great for relaxing in a mindful way. The tingle draws your attention to your scalp – a place you don’t often concentrate on otherwise.

Did it make much of a difference to my hair compared to the normal run of the mill L’Oreal shampoo? Not really. But I think that I spent more time brushing my hair and was more diligent when blowdrying it. In other words, having spent a bomb on shampoo, my brain tells me to be consistent and dry my hair in manner that’s becoming of a woman who spends a bomb on shampoo.

2. Repairing Hair Mask by L’Occitane – also brought by Santi

I wasn’t a fan of the smell, it reminds me of some yucky Soviet herbal shampoo. Chances are that they both contain a herb I don’t like. Effect? As above with the shampoo. They used to have an olive oil range that was excellent, but this product didn’t have that miraculous effect.

Santi was thoughtful enough to throw in some samples of L’Occitane face cream all of which are 10/10, except the rose-scented one that was overpowering with its perfume.

Then my first Birchbox (affectionately known as Bitchbox in my household) arrived. From Sweden!

It contained

1. The Sand & Sky Brilliant Skin™ Purifying Pink Clay Mask

All the way from the land down under. How exciting.

It tingles very gently and dries very soon after you put it on. I got out an old Mac brush to put it on which made it feel all the more glamorous and added 100% to the fun of this peculiar ritual .

There is a warning on the back of it that you can’t use it with oral vitamin A without consulting a doctor. In other words, it was full of retinoids, which do actually work when applied topically – something I know from the dermatology lectures of my youth.

My boyfriend who is ultraskeptical of the cosmetics industry noticed a difference. That’s as reliable a fact that it works as can be. Go Australia (and retinoids). (As always, this is not medical advice!)

2. Kebelo Clarifying Shampoo

This really intrigued me: a shampoo to be used once or twice a month in order to give your hair a really thorough clean. I used it after a swim in the hope that it may wash out the chlorine that little bit better. I was kind of worried that it would make it all fall out be very harsh, but it was fine and my hair was actually lighter, much easier to brush and much shiner after using it.

3. Baija Gommage Festin Royal Miel Caramélisé

Which was ridiculous! A jar of marmalade with solidified sugar to be used as a scrub! Anyway, it’s not actually edible (the auld benzyl alcohol is that little bit toxic). Kinda nice, kinda felt stooopid using a jar of marmalade though.

It also contained a lipstick that made me look older and a synthetic brush that I have no use for. And – a discount if I had wanted to sign up to Virgin Wines as a subscription box too! Clever bstrds know all about marketing.

I also picked up a L’Oreal pre-shampoo clay mask! Oooo. As in, you put it on before you use shampoo. It’s cheap, but less than cheerful in a really artificial blue colour with strong perfume.

I didn’t notice any difference to my hair, despite using a myriad new products, except with the paintstripper Kebelo use-once-a-month potion, that didn’t come from just paying more attention to it.

How do I know this? Well, when I have something big coming up and don’t have the heavy artillery to hand, I spend more time dolling myself up with ordinary products and come out looking the same as with all these products.

 

I also was religious in terms of the cleanse-tone-moisturise skincare routine. I do it anyway, but I am ordinarily a bit sporadic (lazy) with it. This month, I learnt just how difficult it is to actually exfoliate your skin properly. I more or less have to go to the sauna to make it happen. Good exfoliation appears to be what gives skin this beautiful shimmer that people adore. And it makes sense because the surface are isn’t interrupted by the rough dead cells, hence the light forms a nice continuous reflection.

Furthermore, it’s a slightly strange ritual to take off all the skin’s natural sebum, forcefully, and to replace it with moisturiser, but that’s what the cosmetics industry preaches.

Did I feel much different? No. More confident? No, but maybe more grown up, because following a skin care routine is adulting. More girly or feminine? No, but I felt that I was part of some invisible club – and that made me feel better – and probably more confident in a way I didn’t perceive. Did I notice a different reaction from people? No.

“People are suffering and dying under the torture of the fantasy self they’re failing to become.”

Ten. Billion. Dollars. A year.

That’s how much the self-help industry makes. That is actually more than make up.

A lover of books, I stopped looking at the best-sellers sections of book shops because they inevitably contain self-help books, about how to optimise this and maximise that. I spoke about books I regretted reading and definitely anything like self-help is in that category.

A reflection of our time for sure, with their “aspirational narcissism” and “predatory optimism”:

Where success can be measured with increasing accuracy, so, too, can failure. On the other side of self-improvement, Cederström and Spicer have discovered, is a sense not simply of inadequacy but of fraudulence. In December, with the end of their project approaching, Spicer reflects that he has spent the year focussing on himself to the exclusion of everything, and everyone, else in his life. His wife is due to give birth to their second child in a few days; their relationship is not at its best. And yet, he writes, “I could not think of another year I spent more of my time doing things that were not me at all.” He doesn’t feel like a better version of himself. He doesn’t even feel like himself. He has been like a man possessed: “If it wasn’t me, who was it then?”

The New Yorker article itself is a bit self-helpy, ironically, but has a few gems and a review of the literature, if it may be called that.

I think that for many people, improving yourself is happiness: seeing progress, seeing results of your work and what you have become as a consequence. So in theory we shouldn’t deride self help.

I don’t know what bothers me the most about it: the feeling of constantly being sold to? The relentless inward focus when a lot of these problems are better solved with the help of those closest to you? The idea of a cheap shortcut to “radical change”? All of the above and many more. In my view, self-help is definitely not the best way to improve yourself.

I also think that the generation below us aren’t going to go for it anymore. They prefer “not giving a fk” to getting rich and thin or dying trying. Of course, this won’t reduce the amount of money spent on the genre as it is highly adaptive in telling people what they want to hear.

The film about Churchill

Darkest Hour opened today in Ireland.

Spoiler: the most exciting thing about the film is Gary Oldman’s makeup.

The first half of the film captivates the viewer with the impossible situations Churchill is forced into, the many subplots shaping the final decision and lots of moral ambiguity. Churchill is portrayed as a somewhat flawed but likeable human being.

The second half, however, bores them with cliche rallying for a cause.

Interestingly, the audience was made up of a mix of school kids still in their uniforms and people over fifty. Millennials? Zero interest.

Are email and meetings actually a waste of time?

I recently discovered this fantastic blog by Paul Graham. Like so many others, he mentions that email is a digital time sink:

Some days I’d wake up, get a cup of tea and check the news, then check email, then check the news again, then answer a few emails, then suddenly notice it was almost lunchtime and I hadn’t gotten any real work done. And this started to happen more and more often.

He decided he would have one computer to browse the web and another to work:

My rule is that I can spend as much time online as I want, as long as I do it on that computer. And this turns out to be enough. When I have to sit on the other side of the room to check email or browse the web, I become much more aware of it. Sufficiently aware, in my case at least, that it’s hard to spend more than about an hour a day online. Source

check email or browse the web – wtf?

A huge amount of my work is done through email. Because some work involves other people, putting things in writing and communicating quickly.

How have the internets, including some of the founding fathers, deemed email so useless?

The Guardian rants:

In the Harvard Business Review, three consultants from Bain report the results of an exercise in which they analyzed the Outlook schedules of the employees of an unnamed “large company” – and concluded that one weekly executive meeting ate up a dizzying 300,000 hours a year. Which is impressive, given that each of us only has about 8,700 hours a year to begin with. Including sleep.

And The Washington Post weighs in:

Any cubicle drone with a corporate email address knows this well already, of course, but a new report from Adobe describes the problem with some pretty startling numbers. According to its data, which is sourced from a self-reported survey of more than 1,000 white-collar workers in the country, we spend an average of 4.1 hours checking our work email each day. That’s 20.5 hours each week, more than 1,000 hours each year, more than 47,000 hours over a career.

In that time, you could have learned two dozen languages. Or hiked the Appalachian Trail 100 times! Instead, you were tapping out gems like “plz acknowledge receipt, ty” and “ok sounds good, let’s meet at nine.”

Yeah… so it takes a lot of time. That doesn’t mean it’s a time waste.

Yes, you can do it all wrong and waste time, but you can do anything wrong.

I doubt Paul Graham gets less important email than I do. Yet he still calls it “not work”.

It’s actually kind of rude to the people who send you email to say that email is a waste of time.

It sounds so much like just another quick fix from the “productivity” industry, but it seems unlikely that a dude like Paul Graham would get trapped by that.

The only reasonable answer is that your work is something solitary. Same with “meetings” that people so hate. You can call yourself a team player all you want, but if you think email, or to use plain English, communicating is a waste of time, maybe you just aren’t?

When you’re browsing the web, no one cares. But when you don’t answer your emails or don’t turn up to/pay attention in meetings, somebody does.

 

In defence of four letter words

So,  now that D.H. Lawrence is on the Leaving Cert syllabus, to understand the man better, I’ve decided to read his most famous and controversial Lady Chatterly’s Lover.

My first impression was that there must be something really different about those times and now.

I thought: I can honestly say that my millennial brain didn’t detect anything remotely scandalous in it. The publisher was taken to court, you know, under the Obscene Publications Act in the UK… Fair enough, the subject is a little racy, but no racier than, say, Anna Karenina.

Apparently the man who led the prosecution of the trial in 1960 asked if it were the kind of book “you would wish your wife or servants to read”… Hard to believe that that was said not even 60 years ago!

My other impression was that it was bland. What is this book about at all? Why is it famous? Just by virtue of the trial?

Something wasn’t right.

Well… it turns out that I read a censored version without being aware of it.

I’ve looked over the full text now, and I can see how much I missed out on. Whoever insists on publishing abridged and censored versions has no soul.

Up until this point I never believed that swearing adds anything, but this has made me change my mind. And want to swear, too.

Here is the full version if you need it.