If you could choose a superpower, what would it be? It is a typical, cringy question you can hear from kids in kindergarten, during an interview or even in a coaching session. The answers can range from wanting super strength to the ability to read minds or become invisible. Depending on the response, listeners might jump to different conclusions. What I am interested in is the reason why.
Why would somebody want to become invisible and what would they do if nobody could really see them? Let’s be honest, this is not a far-fetched idea as this option is pretty much available in the digital world. People can take on any identity, create their own avatars and hide behind a logo and fake name while interacting with others.
It is often believed that the development of technology has created more trolls. A troll is defined as “a person who intentionally antagonizes others online by posting inflammatory, irrelevant or offensive comments or other disruptive content.” I have a slightly more disturbing, although scientifically convincing, take on the issue.
Culture is a group habit, a behavior most people conform to. When you go to work, you know exactly how you should behave and what is rewarded, tolerated and punished. When you drive, you know the rules; just like when you go to a theatre, you are aware of what is expected. If you are not aware, you can look around and take helpful cues from others so you don’t stand out for the wrong reasons. In all of those environments, there are written and unwritten rules to follow and your actions have consequences.
The digital world is different. You can be anyone you wish. You can say things you would never dare say in person. If things get sketchy, you can block people or leave a group and join another one where your real personality with all the hidden desires, judgments and anger can come to life. We all have these; some people have less, some have more. Some can control them, some can find constructive ways of dealing with them and others reveal them under the protection of anonymity that is not available at work or on the street.
Personally, I do not believe that technology created more trolls. My assumption is that—just like money, fame and alcohol often do—technology revealed them by offering the right environment. It’s often said that “integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” That is difficult. That is who we are. People often know us based on the norms we conform to in certain situations or the updates we post on social media. Imagine if somebody could have another one of those superpowers: the ability to read minds. Well, in a way, that already exists, too—at least partly. It is called your internet browsing history.
The disconnect between what people say and do under peer pressure in real life and alone in the digital world where they can choose to be invisible, to say or watch anything, can be terrifyingly enormous. A lot of psychometric and intercultural assessments ask participants about what they value, what they want and what they agree or disagree more with. How many of them would score high on valuing health but then have fast food and a pint of beer most evenings? Often there is a big gap between espoused values and the actual ones that drive behavior and thinking. The same gap can exist when it comes to what people post about versus what they click on.
As an executive coach, I have seen several examples of this. No, I am not requesting browsing history from anyone, but our own mental browsing history cannot be truly hidden either. The neocortex in our brain allows us to believe whatever we hear enough times, especially if it is reinforced with emotions. We are able to believe our own stories that built our external image so much so that we never find out who we really are.
We cannot pick and choose our values and needs, rather we reveal them. They are often reflected in what we do when nobody is watching—what we click on, not what we post about.
Even if I want to believe that one of my values is health, the habit of binging on pizza clearly indicates that I value comfort more. Facing and getting to know ourselves is uncomfortable, but believing our own lies and waking up with regrets one day is much more painful. That is the power of coaching. It can provide a mirror to clients so they can see what they would otherwise hide or avoid.
Below are some practical questions for you to reflect on to reveal those underlying values and needs that really drive you. This way, you can make an informed decision about whether you want to find even better ways of expressing them.
• What do you find time for even if you are extremely busy?
• Who did you want to be and what was your hobby between the ages of 8 and 14?
• What are the situations and experiences you really try to avoid?
• What would you do if you could be invisible or at least if you could do whatever feels right and nobody would judge you for it?
• What does your browser history show?
These are not the typical questions anyone would think about on their own even though the answer to them could dramatically improve the quality of their decisions and actions. It is the difference between just floating through life and being shaped by reactions to our environment versus intentionally creating a meaningful, inspired life.
This article written by Csaba Toth was originally published in Forbes here.
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