Whatever Happened to Something Being its Own Reward?

| By Editorial Staff

Vine star Hayes Grier was just 15 years old when he shot to fame for his 8 second video clips, made from his smartphone. His clever editing and unique story deliveries garnered him 4 million followers, not to mention the chance to compete on Dancing With the Stars in front of a national audience.

Grier’s story may be unique, but it’s not unheard of. In today’s world of social media and interconnectivity, everyone with access to technology could become rich, famous, or even both, all from the comfort of their homes.

While that may sound like a modern take on the American Dream, it might come with some unwelcoming side effects.

There was a time when children would create home movies – with costumes, scripted lines and the whole production – just for the fun of it. We might have shown those homemade movies to our family and friends, but after a while the tapes were either reused or buried in a closet somewhere. But now, with a limitless audience potentially one click away, our mindset has shifted. Do we, as a population, expect – or even demand – that we get rewarded and recognized for our time, effort, and creativity?

The forethought of Kurt Vonnegut

In a letter written to an NYC high school English class (in 2006), the author Kurt Vonnegut begged students to practice any art, not for fame or money, but to “experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.”

From poetry to making faces in their mashed potatoes, Vonnegut urged the students to create just for the sake of creating. He goes on to ask the students to write a 6-lined poem about anything (so long as it rhymed) and not show it to a single soul. After they wrote it, he asked them to tear it up and dispose of it.

The result? Not recognition. Not an A. Not a pat on the back. Just the experience of becoming, which alone is reward enough.

But is it?

The Narcissism Epidemic

In The Narcissism Epidemic (published in 2009) authors Jean M. Twenge, Ph. D and W. Keith Campbell, Ph.D note that: “In data from 37,000 college students, narcissistic personality traits rose just as fast as obesity from the 1980s to the present.”

Does that mean that narcissism, like obesity, should be considered a modern epidemic?

Other studies suggest that Millennials are more likely to value money, image, and fame over community, affiliation, and self-acceptance.

Is this the handiwork of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram? A study by Christopher Carpenter (titled Narcissism on Facebook: Self-promotional and Anti-social Behavior) published in the Journal Personality and Individual Differences suggests that yes, it is.

Sites like Facebook, as Carpenter states, “offer a gateway for hundreds of shallow relationships and emotionally detached communication.”

Self-promotion has become more common than placing phone calls. People judge their worth on the number of likes, comments, and followers they have. If one post on Instagram doesn’t get enough reaction, it’s time to rethink your plan and give the audience what they want, right?

Sure, that’s what businesses can and should do. But the results for individuals can be disastrous. When everything we do – from what we eat to where we travel – can be judged and critiqued, we begin to measure our own self-worth based on the reactions and actions of others.

Not only does this force us to present unrealistic portraits of ourselves for acceptance, but it also pushes us further away from Vonnegut’s plea of creating just for the sake of creation.

In today’s modern age, few high school students would take the time to write a 6-lined poem, only to throw it away. Rather, they’d post that poem on Facebook; perhaps they’d superimpose the poem over a landscape photograph they took and then post it on Instagram; and then they’d possibly add video to the poem and post it on Vine.

There’s certainly an upside to this: the students have had to get really creative in adapting their poem to each social network. That type of skillset can come in handy in life. But the potential downside is there as well, looming over the horizon like storm clouds: What if no one likes or comments on any of these posts? Then what?

In our ever-growing narcissist society, the students might feel rejected; they might question their self-worth. They might wonder if it was even worth it to make those posts.

This goes back to Vonnegut’s plea. He didn’t say every student should venture into painting, acting and writing because they’d be good at it. He said they should venture into the arts to explore. But with a readymade built-in audience ready to critique (and reward) our every move, it’s grown increasingly difficult to appreciate the act as reward itself.

We’re on the constant hunt for acceptance. We’re on the hunt to to be the next Hayes Grier – a virtual unknown who shot to celebrity status with 8-second videos and a phone.

But while on this hunt, we may very well have lost the idea that sometimes the act alone is reward enough.