Sarah Devereaux spent 14 years moving through training, program development and executive roles at Google. Today, she leads marketing and customer success for Murmur, a platform that helps teams co-create policies, processes and work agreements that clarify their ways of working. She also offers leadership coaching and advisory services as the founder of Third Coast Coaching. Originally from the great state of Michigan, Sarah now lives in Colorado with her family. She is passionate about protecting the environment, lifting diverse perspectives and battling burnout.
I'm getting a new tattoo today, and I'm a little nervous about it. Not because I think it will hurt (I know it will), or because I'm not in love with the design (it's gorgeous). No, I'm nervous about what my mother will think. I can almost see her disapproving eyes now, softly whispering, "how could you?"
Worrying about what others might think of our decisions – from the shoes we buy to the people we marry – is a far greater force in our lives than many of us care to admit. We operate under the assumption that all of our choices are entirely our own. The truth is that humans are wired for mimetic desire. Throughout our lives, we are continually searching for models – people who seem like they have it together – to shape and validate our choices.
As babies, models are incredibly helpful for reaching developmental milestones like walking and talking. But as adults, models often do more harm than good, leading us to define our success and even our self-worth by the standards of others. For most of us, there's no way to eliminate mimetic desire entirely from our lives. However, it is possible to increase your awareness of it – to better understand when a desire, an expectation or a measure of success is truly your own – so you can make more fulfilling choices.
Here are two not-so-simple steps that can help you on your way:
Step 1: Figure out what you actually want
This first step is the hardest. When your life has been molded by the desires, judgements and expectations of others, it's super difficult to separate what you actually want from what you've trained yourself to think you want. Identifying areas of your life that may be over-influenced by others is a great place to start, but it's no small task. It requires an honest evaluation of your decision-making and a willingness to admit when you aren't acting as the captain of your own ship.
Did you really want more responsibility at work, or were chasing that promotion to "keep up" with your peers? Are you desperately in love with where you live, or did you move there for the ZIP code? Was Stanford (or Harvard, or USC, or you get the picture) really your dream school, or did you apply because it would look good on your resume?
Take a look at your choices in the following categories: Career, relationships, personal appearance, leisure time, purchasing and self-improvement. Then ask yourself: "Am I truly making these decisions for me, or am I trying to live up to the expectations of others?"
Not every decision will be entirely your own, and that's a good thing! We humans are social creatures and we often make decisions that benefit the other humans in our lives. The goal of this exercise is not to make sure that every decision you make is only benefiting you. The goal is to raise your self-awareness and be honest about "the why" behind your decisions so you can adjust where needed and be more satisfied with the outcomes. Be patient; this will take some time.
Step 2: Rewrite your accomplishment narrative
Many of us define accomplishment according to the milestones we reach in life. Milestones that are usually set by someone else, or society at large, and often center around material accumulation and social status.
There's a formula we're all supposed to follow. And if we deviate from the plan – if we dare to want something different or somehow seem like we're sliding backwards – we feel like outsiders, or even failures. There's this constant pressure to want more than what we have, and to go after it with every ounce of energy we can muster. Nothing is ever good enough, and the constant onslaught of shiny advertisements and sparkling social media feeds create nearly inescapable temptation to keep achieving at all costs. It's no wonder that burnout is through the roof and we're more depressed (yet wealthier) than ever before.
Take some time and actually write down your accomplishment narrative. What do you believe about accomplishment and the role it plays in your life? Consider stepping back from social media for a while (4-6 weeks usually yields the best results) and pay attention to how it makes you feel. Look for cues in your daily life that may be influencing how you define success. Once you feel like you've gathered enough information, write out your narrative again and see what changes.
Every great learning moment starts with a great question: