You Are NOT Being Noticed
Dedicated to Every Leader Who Ever Felt Over-Interpreted
“Josh, people are thinking about you and talking about you far less than you think they are.” -Shuli Karkowsky
Not so fast.
Join the Revolution
This is the best piece of advice I’ve received over this past year.
Did I like it because I enjoy self-deprecation?
But it’s more complicated than that.
How did you react to Shuli’s advice?
Perhaps you laughed and said, “Yea, Josh is a narcissist”
(Double ouch. What did I ever do to you?)
Perhaps you smiled and said, “Yea, I’ve been guilty of this, as well”
Or perhaps you started to grind your teeth and thought about the difficult moments you are experiencing right now in your leadership journey
No matter the reaction, how you understand Shuli’s advice is correlated with where your mind is at this moment, making this Shuli’s advice to me something between highly therapeutic or highly deflating, depending on our awareness of something that social psychologists call the “spotlight effect.”
Some days, leaders believe that they are the center of the universe, when in reality they are just the center of their own. And some days, leaders want to hide because “everyone” is noticing what they are saying or doing, when, in reality, they aren’t. Either way, the false assumption that others are always thinking about us can lead to tragic consequences.
Do people sometimes watch over everything that we do, and over-analyze us behind our backs? Absolutely. But the evidence suggests that people tend to overestimate how much others are focusing on them. Thomas Gilovich, Victoria Medvec, and Kenneth Savitsky argue that there is a significant gap between how much we focus on our own behavior and how much we think others focus on our behavior:
“Because we are so focused on our own behavior, it can be difficult to arrive at an accurate assessment of how much-or how little-our behavior is noticed by others…close inspection reveals frequent disparities between the way we view our performance (and think others will view it) and the way it is actually seen by others.”
When I think about who I am and what I do, I am always the main character of the story. However, while I might concede the idea that I am not the main character of anyone else’s story, the authors establish that “People [still] tend to believe that the social spotlight shines more brightly on them than it really does.”Like many heuristics, while one might view their place in the world objectively when given some distance, people still tend to mentally center their role, at the moment.
Depending on where you are in your leadership journey, understanding the spotlight effect fosters a balanced humility that is helpful in any situation. If you are at a particularly high point, remember that, in the end, the people you serve care more about themselves than they care about you. Don’t buy your own hype. If you are at a particularly low point, remember that people didn’t “forget” about you; they are probably thinking about you the same amount now as they did before (i.e. not much). The authors counsel all of us that “we might all have fewer regrets if we properly understood how much attention-or inattention-our actions actually draw from others.”
If this concept makes you uncomfortable, you’re welcome! Productive discomfort is a good thing. And if you need an extra dose of humility, let’s zoom out from how individuals falsely see themselves as the center of the universe and transition to how humanity overrates itself, in the grand scheme of things.
I’ve never loved the term “public intellectual”; I generally find the term snobbish when someone uses it to describe someone else, and always find it snobbish when someone uses it to describe themselves.
But I will make an exception for Yuval Noah Harari, for two reasons. First, President Barack Obama compared reading Harari to visiting the pyramids of Giza, so if Harari is not a public intellectual, I’m not sure who is. Second, Harari became famous, in part, because Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, his breakout bestseller, focuses on how human beings are, in the grand scheme of things, not special. I particularly enjoy this passage:
“Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump [of people becoming top predators].”
In one sense, Harari’s work is similar to scholars who assert that human beings provide no discernable benefit to our planet, and only provide benefit to other human beings, a disturbing possibility that lies at the root of the environmental crises facing Earth today.
However, Harari asserts that what does make humans distinct from other species is “the mythical glue that binds together large numbers of individuals, families, and groups. This glue has made us the masters of creation.”In some cases, these “myths” produce societal innovations that are good for all people, such as the inalienable rights identified in the Declaration of Independence.
However, these myths also create what Harari calls “imagined hierarchies,”ways of organizing people in categories through which people have little to no control. We are comfortable calling out some of these hierarchies as destructive, such as racial hierarchies or caste structures, yet harmful imagined hierarchies persist without us even realizing it, such as economic and intellectual hierarchies.
In this sense, Judaism and the Jewish organizations are completely like all other human institutions, which should give us pause when we think about what it means for Jews to be “chosen.” And in our everyday lives, it should give us pause when are tempted to think that any one person, community, or institution is truly special.
I Mostly Admire Harari…
So does Steve Levitt.
More Yuval Noah Harari: Before I read Sapiens, I read this profile of Harari in The New Yorker. If reading his book or listening to another podcast does not appeal to you, consider this shorter introduction, which also has an audio version.
Future of the Workforce: MIT and Deloitte partner each year to analyze trends in the workforce across the globe. Here is their latest report.
Exploration vs. Exploitation: I’ve loved Alison Gopnik ever since I read The Philosophical Baby; she has taught me more about my children than anyone apart from my own children. I loved her recent piece on what it means to learn from children.
What We Learn From Being Neither Quick Nor Efficient: To this today, my greatest conflict as a leader is the disconnect I experience between what I define as important and/or urgent versus what someone else defines as important and/or urgent. As a result, I loved this article from The Faith and Leadership Institute.
How To Organize Your Books: Something tells me that my readers are the kinds of people who ponder this question. You’re welcome.
Shuli gave me permission to give her the shoutout. She’s also a fellow alum of the University of Maryland, College Parks (Go Terps!)
Thomas Gilovich, Victoria Husted Medvec, Kenneth Savitsky, “The Spotlight Effect in Social Judgment: An Egocentric Bias in Estimates of the Salience of One’s Own Actions and Appearance,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 78, Number 2 (2000), 211-222.
To me, calling yourself a “public intellectual” is the equivalent of giving yourself a nickname. And as I learned from Sports Night, you can’t give yourself a nickname.
I too would like to be called “The Hammer.”
You why I’m not?
You can’t give yourself a nickname.
Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), 12.
Todd May, “Would Human Extinction Be A Tragedy?,” The New York Times, 17 December 2018. This brings a whole new meaning to the term “doom-scrolling.”
Footnote 7, 38.
In other words, Thomas Jefferson’s notion that people have certain inalienable rights is a kind of myth; there is no science to support the claim that all people have a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But Jefferson created a myth that brought people together to create a new nation.
Footnote 7, 137.
In other words, why are certain people treated with greater respect because they received a degree from a prestigious university than if they are the best electrician or plumber in the community? Because we’ve created a hierarchy of what it means to be “impressive.” The hierarchy is a myth, yet it persists anyway.