I recently wrote a reflection of my time at university. It was such a delight, I (happily) toiled over it for four days. My central theme was that we are the product of the five people that we spend the most time with. The reflection was structured around the experiences where I found people that became members of my circle of five at one point or another.
A thought, however, lingered more than a week after finishing the piece: I realised I was never really intentional about the experiences I collected. Hindsight illuminated my decision-making process. It is explained neatly here:
The danger for high-achieving people is that they’ll unconsciously allocate their resources to activities that yield the most immediate, tangible accomplishments. This is often in their careers, as this domain of their life provides the most concrete evidence that they are moving forwardDerek Sivers in Anything You Want
It made me uncomfortable, what say or influence did I actually have over my experience? It is not something I have ever thought about explicitly. Now that I have connected it previously inexplicable feelings of imposter syndrome, it won’t go away.
Stuck in a mimetic trap
What Derek Sivers alludes to above is the idea of being stuck in a mimetic trap. Brian Timar has a great explanation about the impact of mimetic holds here. He argues that in hotbox settings like University, the default mindset is to focus narrowly on working towards the clearly defined targets of the environment. The longer you stay in it, the more likely you are to pursue its ideals.
His specific environment was studying Physics in University. The targets for Physics students is to do well in academia. First your undergraduate years, then graduate school, soon followed by climbing up the academic ladder. Knee-deep in that environment, he pursued that trajectory. The targets and ideals of environment continually being reinforced via interaction with his professors and fellow students. It is a trap that is hard to escape.
My mimetic trap was in environment of the business school. The targets included getting an internship, then getting a good job, graft at that job until a new opportunity arises to get a better job. We were being force-fed this path, explicitly, through the endless barrage of emails and events about internships and graduate roles. Implicitly, talking to others in that environment would inevitably lead to the dreaded “so have you got anything lined up for summer / after graduating” conversation. It made pursuing any other path unattractive, what resulted was a mimetic trap of the highest order.
At the time, I felt confident and empowered to make the decisions I concerning how I spent my time. But now, I realise that I let my environment informed much more than I was comfortable with. It is like I lived my life feeling like I was in control, but when in reality, I was just a passenger to it all. I don’t mean to say that I regret any of the experiences that I had, it would have just been more comforting to reflect and reminisce on if I knew I had more control over it.
Imposter syndrome describes the feeling of being a fraud, that you are not worthy of the position you are in. This manifested, ever so subtly, across a lot things I got involved with during University. From the four year duration of my association with a student-run organisation, the internships I was lucky enough to get, and other projects I got involved with. It was often hard to rationalise why I really was doing those things. One the one hand, it was fun. It was enough in the moment, and perhaps should be enough in totality. One the other hand, I can’t eliminate the possibility that I was just doing it to further my position in accordance to my mimetic trap. To gain status by achieving the targets ingrained into me.
Intentionality as an antidote
The only antidote I see is in living with more intentionality. Not transient forms of intentionality, like deciding what you want to get for lunch at 12:29pm or choosing to go to the gym because a lot of your friends are. A deeper form of intentionality with how you want to live your life. You can approach thinking about this from a bottom-up or top-down approach.
A parallel can be drawn to how successful companies conduct business, many of whom employ a strategy that is directly linked to their values and vision. The former is from the bottom-up; the latter is from the top-down. The idea is that you should be able able to trace EVERY decision a company and, by extension, an employee makes to both ends. The vision sets the direction, the values inform what you are willing and unwilling to do to get there. To extend the metaphor, another important layer is the mission, one level of abstraction beneath the vision. The mission signals what you are going to do move towards the vision.
In our personal lives, if we have an explicit set of values we believe in, we have a manual for how to make decisions that affect our day-to-day. If we have a vision, we have north star that will guide decision-making that affects our long-term future. If we have both, we are gifted with a clarity of purpose that all but nullifies the effects of mimetic traps. Unlike business, however, I don’t think having a mission is necessary. If you know where you want to go, and you know what you are willing and unwilling to do to get there, then it doesn’t matter to fuss over what intermediary steps you take. Crucially, a business exists to provide financial value to shareholders. That is why a mission statement and the other intermediary layers of abstraction are useful to obsess over. You, however, exist to live your life you how you see fit, not to make money. The journey of a thousand steps happens one step at a time, there is little benefit in thinking about step 874 before you get there.
Perhaps it was necessary for me to go through this journey to find some direction for life. Be it building the bedrock for my behaviour or finding a north star. We can use them as oars to steer down the river we call life, that way you won’t be completely be subservient to its current. It doesn’t mean we will become immune to influences from our environment, we don’t necessarily want or need to be, but we will be better equipt to avoid mimetic traps.