The Secrecy of Success

The secrecy of success astounds, confounds, and iterates pervasively through the minds of the driven. There is a luminous air about success, and secrecy is abundant in its proximity. In my last article, I spoke about the fact that people sell difficulty to make their skills appear more valuable and more difficult to match. In this article, I will point out a similar concept, but that of creating a veil of secrecy instead. Success cannot overall be pinned down to definitive goals, lifestyles, and social and monetary relevance. However, the regimentation of the criteria of success resides by closer definitions in subgroups that conglomerate around their criteria for success.

Take people who strive to live a life of travel blogging and remote work. Those people belong to a niche group, and are sold the idea of their free lifestyle by the people who appear to succeed to live that type of lifestyle. Those successful people may lay claim that it is difficult to achieve their lifestyle, and they may also use another tactic – secrecy. I call these tactics because they serve the goal of making something appear salable, un-attaining, far-reaching, and as if the people seeking to achieve the same goals require guidance.

The secrecy of success is prevalent in our success-driven culture. We seek success, even if it is in mocking, avoiding, and willfully ignoring society’s measures of success. Secrecy looks like the following article and video titles: “ten things successful people do that you don’t do” and the more outright, “secrets to becoming a millionaire.” Now, these are generic titles that are reformulated and repurposed in order to bid for a click and a view. Just like selling difficulty, the individuals formulating this content are selling secrecy. They claim to hold the answers to success. With secrecy, the selling component is alive and does not necessarily warrant continuous disclosure.

The main principle of the secrecy of success is that there is always something unsaid.

pyramids by Stijn te Strake

It can never be completely pinned down as misrepresentation. Because tied to the idea of the initial secrecy and partial disclosure, you have a stream of incoming provocations unto the reader or viewer. Secrecy endlessly nags, because secrecy is not isolated. There is not an end to it. Rather, someone reading the “top ten ways to network and get ahead” may be left with a gutted feeling that there are things unsaid. Which there are. The secrecy of success deals in abstracts, critically misleading information, and a lack of fundamentally concrete, itemized actions that can be performed to reach the ideal proposed in those same articles and videos.

The secrecy of success lies in the claims of absolute paths to abundance and other preferred states. Likewise, the secrecy of success lies in fear. One of the factors instigating this fear rests in suggesting that some people deserve success more than others, whether it is by their actions, charismatic abilities, or other factor. Another method of creating fear around success is replay scenarios and statements that suggest that the current lifestyle of consumers of these medias is intolerable. Sellers of the secrecy of success are fond of itemizing “struggles” that these consumers have. They dampen the ideals and practices of those things deemed in opposition to the true secret of success. They convolute the meaning of settling, mounting restraint and obstacles along the broken way to the unmasking of more secrets.

Selling Difficulty

Selling difficulty imbues in us a pervasive taunt of underachievement. We are told that reviewing subject matter, obtaining new qualities, and learning new material through practice is thunderously difficult. To these statements, we concede. We may take a back seat to our own desires prompted by a curious mind in the face of articles we have scoured, all of which tell us that we are ill-equipped and fundamentally in need of guidance through the process of acquiring a new skill or new knowledge.

In truth, we may opt for guidance, but the requirement is not there. Least of all do we need to seek guidance from an advisor who places his knowledge as difficult to obtain. Learning is not about difficulty, but rather about process. It can involve difficulty, of course, but the main focus should not be on this state. Rather, attention needs to rest elsewhere. Selling difficulty takes on a similar role in the world that we live in as depression does. We want to keep a certain mystique and aura about it. We don’t want to list specifics, but rather tip toe around general concepts. We sell depression as we do difficulty.

For depression, many of us tend towards avoidance. The reason for this? There is a gap in understanding that while depression may be “difficult” to understand, we are required to speak of it nonetheless to bring forth clear narrative. Avoidance is key to the understand of common day “difficulty”, however, much of the difficulty we current proclaim is not correlative to that which we are attaching that term to. Some say that web development is difficult or learning a new language is difficult. Oftentimes, the very people proclaiming the difficulty serve to gain from it.

Mountain photo by George Hiles

A salesman says that learning French is difficult, thereby raising the value of his skill. He offers people the definitive guide of learning to speak French. An author says that starting your own business is difficult. In such, he sell not only the solution to the problem, but the problem itself. Selling difficult is much more than making a statement about the capacity and obstacles for learning that humans supposedly hold. It is an imposition of difficulty branding.

Difficulty branding lives in an economy of stigmatization. We have bred this stigmatization by rejecting to speak openly about topics like learning, independence, depression, and other morsels of the true human narrative. In this type of economy, particular people prey on the outside-ness of others. You’ll see that perpetually keeping a front of separation helps individuals claim status. If what they do (and sell) is difficult, then it is worthwhile for me to pay them for their insider-ness. However, in a world of relational de-stigmatization, we have less of a clear distinction between insider and outsider.

Selling difficult is a breeding ground for advantageous reckoning with the politics of knowing and not knowing.

Knowing is status and salable. Not knowing is just that. It is the state of also not knowing whether or not the proclaimed difficulty is overblown, dramatized, or even applicable to the buyer. Then difficulty is enigma. A contemporary salesman will focus his attention to the obstacles and barriers to entry, even if he simultaneously denounces those barriers. He does this because his proclaimed livelihood depends on the sale of difficult.

To say something is not difficult insinuates that the product or service is not needed (or so the salesman thinks), which would terrify him. His profit relies on continuing the facade that his service or product is absolutely required in the face of all of the difficulty he has himself proposed. His insight becomes valueless if potential buyers weigh their level of fear against the threat of difficulty and determine that their stamina and willingness to learn stands above the false threshold. Selling difficulty serves only the seller in the context of transmitting insider information. There is no difficulty in this world but that which we attribute. We get caught in the lines of those in constant seller-mode, who turn their utmost efforts onto laying down and reinforcing the idea that things are difficult. There is no difficulty in this world but that which we seek to gain from.

The Social Money Tether

The social money tether is my concept for anything that ties you to something, while simultaneously repelling you from the core of it. A tether doesn’t entirely immobilize, but allows restricted movement. And here I am not talking about the amount of money that goes into a project, but the money and social status expected as a return for a service done. As we’ve seen, the amount of social exposure gained from one’s creative work can be converted into monetary gain. A service can be anything from providing information on the internet through blogs and downloadable books, to entertaining through comedy on YouTube or at a local coffee shop. There are no bounds to the imaginings of potential earnings. Nor are there limits to an individual’s valuation of his own time.

Brenda Ueland says the following in her book If You Want to Write:

One great inhibition and obstacle to me was the thought: will it make money? But you find that if you are thinking of that all the time, either you don’t make the money because the work is so empty, dry, calculated and without life in it. Or you do make money and you are ashamed of your work.

A social money tether is an envisioned return on investment. It values resources like time and effort, and converts them into mental valuations of monetary and social returns. In this, it restricts the movements of creativity because its concern lies with attaining compensation for effort. The work itself takes on a new formulation, ridden with uncomfortable inhibitors. One of these inhibitors may well be the want to please as many people as possible. In this, the work of the project and passion of the individual suffers at the hand of popular opinion, which will tend to reject what it deems abnormal and non-conforming.

In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson speaks about Feedback Loops. He provides the example (taken from a news story by journalist Thomas Goetz) of “Your Speed” signs. These were placed “in the school zones of Garden Grove, California.” According to Goetz, the signs provided redundant information that the motorist could readily obtain from glancing at his speedometer. “Your Speed” signs “defied decades of law-enforcement dogma, which held that most people obey speed limits only if they face come clear negative consequence for exceeding them.” The signs successfully got people to slow down. As Ronson explains, “You get instant real-time feedback…You change your behavior as a result of the feedback…You get instant feedback for that decision, too.”

Photo of Mountains by Stephen Leonardi

The real-time communicative process of this Feedback Loop resonates with ideas of determining and enforcing normalcy parameters, as well as understanding monetary and social gain as following the “right” course. In instances like “Your Speed” sign, Feedback Loops provide useful and beneficial indicators for behavior. However, Loops can also be put into a different context. In this alternative context, say that you receive attention for a piece of your creative work that you are not very proud of. Yet, following the signals of the Loop, you continue to produce work similar to the original work that obtained that response. Media and attention can be leveraged for monetary gain, which you drive through your newly acquired audience.

This Feedback Loop is now a social money tether. Individuals working on their personal creative projects can get stuck in their own loop. They may start to put more importance and value on parts of the projects that prove to be more lucrative, at the expense of other personally-valuable parts. While this is not always to the detriment of the individual creator, the work may in fact suffer if his success is solely determined by his monetary and socially-sanctioned take away.

The idea of the social money tether is not a hidden or disguised one. The reason why it is worth thinking about more in depth, especially for those who don’t have lucrative hobbies, is that it should serve to excuse the time you think you are wasting on your passions. Not all of your activities need to be tied to economic or social gain. Ueland includes a portion of a letter she wrote to someone in her book If You Want to Write:

It is our nasty twentieth century materialism that makes us feel: what is the use of writing, painting, etc. unless one has an audience or gets cash for it?…Yes, we are all thoroughly materialistic about such things. ‘What’s the use?’ we say, of doing anything unless you make money or get applause?…One cannot strive to write a cheap, popular story without learning more about cheapness.

The idea that materialism inhibits our pursuits, as you see in the except above, is not a brand-new one. We have been weighed down with wanting to qualify our time and resources by seeing a fruitful byproduct emerge from all of the creative expressions we put out to the world. This expectation (or deep desire) of return on investment now extends to social media. Jon Ronson shares an email message from his friend Adam Curtis in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which points to the idea of this return.

Twitter passes lots of information around. But it tends to be the kind of information that people know that others in their particular network will like. So what you get is a kind of mutual grooming. One person sends on information that they know others will respond to in accepted ways.

This type of behavior points back to the idea of modification of the creative product in anticipation of social return on time invested. The social money tether shows its unpleasant side, paying all too clear heed to normalization and the reward of particular behaviors, beliefs, and actions (even at the expense of others, as Jon Ronson talks in depth about in his book).

How do we alter our communications and creative products to accommodate for imagined responses from other people?

What type of monetary and social influences change the way that we present ourselves and our creative work?

How tethered are we to return on investment for our hobbies and other unpaid work we do out of passion?

The Mask of Riddled Meaning

The mask of riddled meaning is at the point of convergence of ignorance and associative dissociation. Yet it demands the discerning (but not too discerning) attention of an audience. Too often, I have seen the usage of enigma for things that ought not to have been said. Often too, I have seen it where honesty and genuineness otherwise need to be thoroughly conveyed. In riddled meaning, the speaker is saved from explaining himself for the assumption that he is actually saying something far more clever places the responsibility unto the spectator.

Associative dissociation is the antithetical act of associating a party other than the self, and simultaneously relinquishing (or dissociating) the social and ethical implications of making a statement of riddled meaning from oneself. The subject of the meaning is drawn forth as the recipient, and in trivializing manner, the originator prompting the riddling. These two are the same, leaving the riddler out to cause more confusion with his words and images. Riddled meaning appears to be the singular layer in a transmission of information, but it is indeed a mask in itself. The riddled meaning is not a thing of its own, and lives not without the two: mask for the intention and mask for the riddle-teller. When a riddled statement implicates another person, a mask is also drawn on that individual, regardless of his or her want to be involved.

boat in the mist photo by Max Hermansson

Riddled meaning conveys intellectual uncertainty in the act of expression. Where one thing can be said plainly, it is formulated into complex and perplexing play. Depending on the caliber of content used to make the meaning erect, spectators can form assumptions of the riddler. A man lacking depth may plaster song lyrics onto his social media feeds to convey his dismay for the sour turn of a close relationship. A woman lacking self-kindness may take to performing convoluted monologues of the hurt she has endured. In so, these individuals fail to administer proper due to their feelings, and fail also to logical and emotionally formulate understanding for the meanings they really hope to achieve. In this, we cannot discount the usage of riddled meaning in the act of self-guarding.

The mask stretches widely on the face of the riddler, encapsulated in an instance of expelled interpretation. In riddle he seeks comfort, because far too often, it fairs better for emotional resilience not to delve into the purpose of riddling the message in the first place. On the end of the spectator, riddled meaning gives him a more palatable message that is not too harmful to his illusion of reality. Frank meaning can alienate an audience and scandalize even the purest of intents. The mask of riddled meaning sounds its presence to dissuade further self-antagonizing, but draws into being a life of its own. Externally fostered, the riddled meaning can convey the whimsy of supposition by spectators willing and able to tinker to their heart’s delight.

An Imposition Economy

We have established an imposition economy. It’s no secret that we live in an attention-based and meticulously curated sensory space. With an onslaught of unnecessary, rudimentary, over-the-top, and in every way intensified way of consuming media, the imposition economy rules. Now, what do I mean by imposition economy? I’m talking about the mode by which we reach people. More often than not, products and services appear before us without us asking. They come in form of pop-up ads, billboards while driving, unsolicited emails, and many other ways. But the same goes for individual branding. People are becoming personal brands, whether they like it or not. Their information is available online, and we can glean an overview of a distorted version of that individual.

The imposition economy works in conjunction with the quantification of individuals. It works in regimentation, however strict or loose. The individual has become a publication by releasing “candid updates” of his or her individuality and lifestyle. From the part of the individual, when he or she does not have outer-formed social cache, imposition can become the mode of this brand creation. Boiled down, social media is another form of validation. Brick and mortar institutions have had their day and are still playing a part in this validation process. However, social media has cultivated a more direct and more vicious formulation of societal branding, conforming, and objectification.

Moon photo by Nathan Anderson

To speak of the imposition economy is tricky, because it relies on an initial process of opting in.

This is to say that those who will be imposed on readily accept inclusion in the updates provided by the individual brands that they follow. What they rely on thereafter is that the individual brand will deliver, but not over-deliver or under-deliver. There is a fine line between the two, and imposition occurs depending on the follower’s arbitrary judgment of over-deliverance. Note that this imposition is only one of the ways on which I use the term. The judgment is arbitrary because if it does not depend on strict measures. This judgment can depend on formulation of communication, including disclosure of opinion that the follower does not agree with. For example, one individual may follow another, who then begins consistently posting regarding his or her new business venture. The follower then becomes uncomfortable with the content he or she is receiving. This imposition is agreed to, but can end at any time. However, there are sometimes social repercussions for unfollowing an individual.

The relationship between the follower and the individual brand is voyeuristic versus mutual.

The imposition economy is associative on many levels as well. Beyond tying the follower to opinions, lifestyle, and scandal, he or she is also tied to his habitual voyeurism. Social media brings the intimacy of individuals right into the palms and onto the computer screens of varying groups of people. The delayed and masked voyeurism becomes normative, if not encouraged. It’s not uncommon for people and companies to screen others by looking at their social media presences. Here, the complexity of social media is all the more cast. Not only is the imposition economy dependent on opting in, but it’s dependent on approved voyeurism. It subverts all of the traditional social barriers that constitute etiquette.

Forest photo by Teddy Kelley

Spinning mores on their head, social media conflates deviant behaviors with expected behaviors.

Voyeurism and imposition make up social media and we are expected to reconcile these behaviors with our “real world” actions. In one arena of our lives, we act one way, which in another we act quite contrary. These deviations are normative online, yet when we interact in person, we find it hard to disclose our online activities with as much openness. We are faceted into a pseudo-closeted online user, who often misidentifies with our walking-breathing self. The imposition is demanded and expected. We’ve all become the shameless peddling salesmen of our own personal brand.

The Comfort of Categorization

In categorization, we find topical appeasement with ourselves. It is said that we fear most the unknown. And if this saying is correct, many of us fear ourselves for lack of knowing who we are. In attempts to quicken the process of self-acquaintance, we may join various groups throughout our lives. We do this to gain some sense of identification. However, these group memberships do not always align with our true selves, and we are left with identification sans investable resonance. Often, we categorize ourselves so that others may understand our relationship to a belief system or activity. However, we may not have reconciled ourselves with the system represented by this categorization.

Nomenclature as identity

When we seek outright categorization, it is because we feel insecure about our identity. What better way to understand our beliefs than to define ourselves in the categories appropriate for a belief system? It is the easy way, and fails many times to actually guide us to ourselves. To seek categorization solely for its own sake, we come up short in the act of self-discovery.

Categorization will inevitably require action if it serves as more than a social representation of allegiance and participation in a group. It’s one thing to say one is a dancer, and another to dance. The act of categorization remains often for those not entirely committed to their identity, or unwilling to part with the group that no longer serves their life path.

Tree in Forest of Plants photo by veeterzy

Personality tests and personhood

There are many tests available online that will categorize you into a personality group. Some employers even pay for subscriptions so that they can have their employees take the test. One employer will use the test to help ease tensions in the workplace, whereas another employer will leverage the personality test in malicious intent of subduing “stronger” personalities. If a personality test is shared, it serves someone.

The personality test provides little insight, other than to the individual clouded with misperceptions of himself. Even so, holding those misperceptions, he is not likely to pay attention to those categorizations that do not serve him. Personhood cannot be incapsulated in a test, particularly given the changing tides of people’s emotions, momentum, and more. The invalidity of these personality test nevertheless comfort those who receive the results.

Group categorization and sense of belonging

There is comfort in categorization. Perhaps the comfort is derived from a sense of belonging to a group, whether superficially or not. Through categorization, only slight commitment is required. There is no minimum of meetings and phone calls that necessarily tie an individual into a categorization. It is enough to claim acceptance, induction, membership through the means outlined by the group, if such means are specified.

Some groups require far more prerequisites to admission than do others. Comfort is born of the established formal ability to define oneself within that space, and often, with minimal effort. Different personalities are drawn to particular levels of regimentation in their categorizations. Some believe that more regimentation will keep them truer to the live they are supposed to live. The same can be said of those belonging to the most loosely regimented groups.

Dunes of Namib by Keith Hardy

Categorization is a bond that’s sought or put onto people, and is veiled with a sense of comfort when the association is culturally acceptable. Alternatively, categorization can render an individual with a cultural disservice if the bond was not personally chosen (or felt like it was not chosen), or is not culturally acceptable. Some seek membership in groups for the purpose of categorical differentiation, and this serves a cultural purpose when played as a rebellious act.

The intricacies of group belonging go beyond interconnectivity and seep to personal, hierarchical, and regimented planes. Through repercussion (with neutral connotation) of categorization, individuals establish presence and relation within spectrum of belief. Comfort invariably arises, even from the most socially detrimental categorizations, maybe for the sole fact that nomenclature has been established.

There is comfort in categorization because there is comfort in definition. Definition combats the unknown, which some may fear above all else.

The Dilemma of the Monopath

The dilemma of the monopath is a contemporary and age-old problem. As long as human groups have formed, so have common ideas of a singular path through life. Once a bonding practice of tradition in micro-communities, traveling a singular path has opted into the mainstream. Prime examples of this are through social media presence and other formalities of cultural relevance.

Currency through perceived influence

In recent times, we have converted perceived influence into numerical representation through social media followers. Hoards of people across the world are vying (or not) internationally for the same representative resources. These resources are symbols of a status of what we call the online community. This community is composed of members of varying social media prowess who leverage followers for material gain. The commanding principle behind this currency is supplementary and quite complimentary to monetary influence. Each can be leveraged to gain the other.

Regardless of one’s admittance or purposeful obtaining of social currency through followers, all those living in participant cultures are involved to some degree. Participant cultures include those driven by individualistic needs and having access to connective medias. Level of engagement online denotes a supposition of real-life influence. The monopath of existence in the virtual world has been set and individuals are measured on those scales, regardless of their personal achievements separated from recording on the online stage.

Blue Mountain Folds by Paul GIlmore

The monopath and social parameters

When we abide by the criteria set out by a singular path, we reinforce social parameters on a worldwide scale. We formulate distinct and methodical ways of connecting, and divergences are allotted either significant gain, lack of response, or consequences of the social nuisance. Groups and affiliations become public to some extent, forcing some to become creative about the ways in which they hide their allegiances to subcultures that are not widely recognized as acceptable.

The dilemma of the monopath then rests in driving the superficial aspects of humanity, and further burying associations that could garner questions. Think Freud’s repression theories. In respect of an arbitrary and stylized currency, the monopath crafts more intricate and labored falsifications of selfhood and aims to rest within social parameters. One path, he thinks, all I need to do is get enough followers and people will value me. People will see my worth and my contribution to the world.

On Being Amateur

In his book Turning Pro, Steven Pressfield determines the clear line between the amateur and the pro. The amateur is not living to his full potential, put simply. The pro makes the choice every day to work on his calling, and he’s in it for the long haul. Probably the most striking feature of the book is how understanding Pressfield is of the amateur. He’s been there himself before becoming a bestselling author. In his twenties and thirties, he was a tractor-trailer driver and an apple picker. Pressfield has a very clever concept that rings very true called “the shadow life”. The shadow life is what we live instead of working on our calling. The shadow career is what we engage in when in denial of what we are truly capable of. My shadow career was private investigation.

I enjoyed it for a couple of years. It was a way to immerse myself in the lives of others, even to attempt to gauge my normalcy in comparison to them. I’ve always been hyper-aware of the ways in which I’m different from other people. I perceive the world in a tremendously different capacity, so I’m very careful when I speak with people. During my period of private investigation, I got a pleasurable, removed point of view of how other people were living. I did not personally know these people, but I knew something about them, including their medical conditions and their deposition statements.  I also knew where they ate lunch on a given day, who they met with, and where they got their nails done. Predicting their moves and their modes of expression was thrilling, especially when my predictions turned out right, which was more often than not. I learned about human behavior in an absurd way.

Pressfield says “Sometimes, when we’re terrified of embracing our true calling, we’ll pursue a shadow calling instead. That shadow career is a metaphor for our real career.” My shadow calling was something of actually creeping in the shadows. I crafted narratives about people, albeit regimented versions of their lives. Clinging to the job, I convinced myself that I was cut out for this work. Some realities shook hard but I stayed as detached as I could – deaths, drownings, and murder – were just content in a report. They had to be.

I tried to write when I got home from work, but I’d throw all of it away. It was junk. I was writing about things that didn’t matter because I was doing my absolute best to avoid the only things that did matter. I focused on the exterior and I focused on moving ahead through time but not moving ahead with my potential. I sought and attained distractions, one after the other. My biggest vice was my past. As Pressfield points out, “The payoff of living in the past or the future is you never have to do your work in the present.”

The past is a cloying parcel. Tug at the string, slip your finger under the wrapper, and you see the box. It’s merely a representation of what’s inside. Your mind teases around every corner and flat surface, but the contents remain inside. The memory cannot fathomably recall all of the innards. So resting outside and calling repeatedly on the representation – the sick feelings, repetitive phrases, faces – takes moments of the present away. Pressfield’s pro lives in the present, “He loses himself in the work and in the moment.” He sets the tempting box aside. He may glance over at it briefly before setting to work, but he smirks, reaching for the pen rather than the string. Tomorrow he’ll do the same.