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Buffet or set menu?


As human beings, we want to belong - our evolutionary drive is to be loved and accepted. Historically, if we were loved and accepted by the tribe, we would survive. If we were kicked out of the tribe, we probably wouldn't. As a result, the adaptive response baked into every one of us to ensure our survival is mimicry - we mimic the people in the tribe around us to develop the social norms and standards of our culture which ensure our belonging. Most especially, we seek to mimic those in positions of authority and influence when we are young - mostly our parents, but other influential figures too.


Fast forward a few thousand years, and in 2022 we live in a world where we are constantly barraged with snapshots of influential people's lives from every corner of the globe. We see headlines in online articles, interviews on YouTube, posts on social media, and we can even listen to long-form podcasts with our heroes. The tribe just got really big, and our access to influential people who we might seek to mimic has exploded exponentially.


At its best, this now means that we can learn from (and mimic) almost anyone, anywhere in the world. It's an astonishing time to be alive. Never before have humans had this level of access to the depth and breadth of creativity, knowledge, and diversity of perspectives as is now available online.


The problem that I've noticed in myself, especially when things get tough in my own life, is that I can very easily look at a snapshot of someone else's life and think - I'd like that in my life. They must have it easier, they seem to have a better balance, they seem to be more fulfilled because of xyz... Can you relate to this?


I look at this tiny sliver of someone else's life and think, I'd like that thing, but in my moment of yearning, I have no appreciation for the plethora of other things they had to do or sacrifice to get that thing. I watch a video of Kelly Slater surfing in an exotic destination and think, "I 'd love to be able to surf like him." The problem is that, when you look at someone else's life, it's a set menu, not a buffet. You don't just get to choose the one thing you like without the ten other things which accompany it. If I want to surf like Kelly, I better be ready to live on a plane, deal with regular injuries, not see my daughter, etc.


When we lived in smaller tribes, I'm pretty confident that our instinct for mimicry would have been balanced by the fact that we got to see the entirety of the person's life we might want to mimic. We didn't just see the highlights reel. We lived alongside our heroes, and saw the full depth and breadth of their humanity in the process. When we sought to mimic certain attributes, I assume that we had a more holistic appreciation for what it took to get there.


When we look at other people's lives, and our instinct for mimicry sets in, we need to remember that it's a set menu, not a buffet. We need to see this clearly, lest our biological drive for mimicry matastisizes into envy towards others, and a constant sense of failure in ourselves.


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