It seems funny to me, that a form of social influence which has prevailed on such a large scale has managed to influence each of us to such an extent that we no longer see it as such. We have been indoctrinated with it so deeply, that it has been accepted as the norm. What I am referring to is the path of success. It is first defined as getting good grades at school, then making it to a top university, then getting in the right job and of course the end goal- earning a lot of money.
It is Thursday night, 11pm and I am sat here in front of my computer, keeping my eyelids open with toothpicks and panicking. Why am I panicking? Well how can I not be? It seems like all of my course mates have figured out their future, prepared the next step like as if they’ve read it from a Monopoly’s instruction manual, except me. I have no idea what’s going on. I feel like Nemo deeply lost at sea. I have no clue what I want to do and where I am going to go. In my endless attempts to calm myself I used all kinds of clichés- “it’s okay, you’ll find something”, “maybe it’s not the time for it yet” and then came the question that stuck -“who said you need to go that path anyway?!”, I allowed it to linger for a bit and then followed- “is your idea of success your own?!” and then came the revelation- OMG, NO, IT IS NOT. In fact, this answer has many owners, some of which I know, but I am definitely not one of them. It is an answer that has been forming ever since I was born using all kinds of persuasion and influence techniques so subliminally and subtly that I have ceased to see its mistaken ownership. It has been engrained so deeply that I have forgot my own believes, which for sure, do not include a job at a consultancy firm, yet here I am writing a cover letter for a second one.
When I was in kindergarten I learned it through the principle of conformity. If you do what other kids did the teacher did not scold you. When I went to primary school it was the principle of authority, I saw what the others did and because they were so much older and “cooler” I believed that’s the way to go. And now that I am in university, I am just trying to be consistent, I’ve come so far, I have made it to a good university, it would be foolish not to follow up to “my own” values and believes. And of course, all along these years, the main principle of influence that has been playing around with me is that of social proof. If I want to be liked and respected than I need to be successful. I need to have a secure job at a prestigious firm and earn a good amount of money.
Matters get even more complicated because as Alain de Botton has explained in his famous TED talk (which I strongly recommend), we have built our world on a meritocracy principle. If we are rich and prestigious and famous it is all good because meritocracy means we earned it, we had the potential and we went for it and got what what we deserved. However, the flip side of that which we often forget about is that if we so happen as to not to attain that success that is also our own failure. We were simply not good enough, not smart enough, not ambitious enough. But as Ha-Joon Chang explains in his book “23 Things They Don’t Tell you about Capitalism” that is simply not the case. He maintains that often the reason why people are more successful or earn more from what they do is not because they are simply the best at it but because, for example, there are policies to regulate it such as immigration control. If there were no such thing than a bus driver from India can go to Sweden and get paid fifty times more. Generally, the whole idea of basing people’s worth on success or living standard seems quite sick to me, yet it is how we have built our society and how most of us, let’s admit it, judge people on a daily basis. To cite de Botton again, it is after we have asked people “what do you do for a living” that we are either “incredibly delighted to see people or look at our watch and make our excuses.”
Perhaps it is worth underpinning the methods of Persuasion and Influence not just so that we are able to apply them to other people but to become more aware of all the disguised ways in which we, ourselves, have become victims of them. Especially when they concern matters as important as the pathway to success. A good place to start unveiling it is to make sure that your idea of success is your own.
Cialdini, B. R. (1984). Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. (3rd Ed.) New York: HarperCollinsPublishers.
Chang, H. (2011). 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism. London: Penguin Books.