Like 60-odd thousand other people, I’m psychologically and emotionally adjusting to my departure from Black Rock City.
I’m sure I’ll post a lot more about it over the next few months, but for now, I’m simply lamenting the loss of radical self-expression as a community virtue, and feeling a sense of sadness that it isn’t practiced more freely — that our culture specifically suppresses the kind of self-expression that Burners take for granted in their own space. In particular, I’m bothered that there is a conflict between professionalism and radical self-expression. I mean, I can’t just walk up to most of my students or my colleagues and give them giant, mushy hugs without freaking them out, or making them think I’m some kind of boundaryless predator. Or something like that.
Similarly, I can’t wear my cushy orange playa boots or face sparkles to work without people thinking I’m less competent, or immature, or some blend of the two. I’d like to think that this is just me projecting my own insecurities, but I’ve been unwittingly judgmental of my differently-embellished employees in the past, so I’m familiar not only with a natural human tendency towards judgment, but also the notion that perception is reality.
Someone I was talking to on the playa mentioned that an old naked guy walked up to him there, wearing only black socks and shoes. What’s the natural response in that environment? Well of course, you stop and chat with him and see what he’s all about. After all, he just wants to walk around naked at that time, and you don’t even think about why he’s made that decision, or what it means about his nature or his personality. It’s just his choice at the time, and you accept that without question. But if the same guy walked up to you on the street in your own town and started chatting, what would you do? Guaranteed, most of us would run the other direction, to get away from that crazy naked guy who wants to talk. What’s his problem? He could be dangerous!!
This morning I spent some time thinking about what it means to be truly honest about expressing yourself in the ordinary world, and ran into James Altucher’s 2011 blog post “7 Things Happen to You When You Are Completely Honest.” Radical self-expression, to me, is unashamed honesty. So I was curious about his conclusions.
If you don’t want to read his whole article (which is GREAT, by the way), I’ll cut to the chase: Altucher makes the connection that marketing and advertising have whispered siren songs into our ears for a lifetime, convincing us that branding (including personal branding) is a normal process of existence. He, however, makes the bold assertion that branding is a lie. For the most part, it’s about creating a myth to engage peoples’ emotions in a process that results in them buying a service, a product, or investing in US as individuals. Creating an image is the key, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not — just whether people respond to it in the way that we’d like. Smacks of subtle manipulation, IMHO.
(In contrast, I love the process of scripting and creating new self-images that we grow into. I don’t really consider this personal branding, or lying. But for the most part, reinventing ourselves is an inside job, that we do without having to — or trying to — “sell” ourselves to others.)
Altucher’s conclusions suggest that honesty (and by association, radical self-expression) is dangerous and risky. People will think you’re crazy, alienate you, perceive you as a mere curiosity, and become concerned for your safety. Although the upside is that eventually, you can generate trust and goodwill (people know you’ll say what you really think) and you can tap into a feeling of freedom — the social ramifications can be costly in the meantime.
Why don’t people leave off being lovable
Or thinking they are lovable, or wanting to be lovable,
And be a bit elemental instead?
Since man is made up of the elements
Fire, and rain, and air, and live loam
And none of these is lovable
Man is lop-sided on the side of the angels.
I wish men would get back their balance among the elements
And be a bit more fiery, as incapable of telling lies
As fire is.
I wish they’d be true to their own variation, as water is,
Which goes through all the stages of steam and stream and ice
Without losing its head.
I am sick of lovable people,
Somehow they are a lie.
D.H. Lawrence 1929
So I’m going to pose the question to everyone: how can we radically self-express and not only preserve, but enhance our professionalism?
How can we be as incapable of telling lies as fire is?