If I had to choose one bit of contradictory advice I can give, it would be on reputation. Society is obsessed with reputation and responsibility, and often for very bad reasons. In this post I want to break down why.
Alright, before we get too deep into the weeds I want to give the clickbait disclaimer: by “stop caring about your reputation”, I do not mean “just go out, kill people, have sex with hookers, do drugs and get in a car crash, we’re all gonna die eventually, damn it!”. Thinking for the long-term and living in polite society are common sense ideas that go beyond reputation, and in some ways this is why I’m against reputation in the first place. Reputation for reputation’s sake is the issue: always being afraid to step on people’s toes, to say things that are too controversial, to not show up 30 minutes early to every meeting you have – these are the places where responsibility falls apart. In this post, I’ll break down why reputation exists in the first place, why it often doesn’t matter, and what you should focus on instead.
The History (and Psychology) of Reputation
Reputation, like most bad ideas in our lives, has to do with evolutionary survival. Back when we were hunters and gatherers, disappointing someone didn’t mean “getting passive-aggressively subtweeted for a week”, but rather “getting pushed off a cliff and breaking your skull against the jagged rocks of the Fertile Crescent”. People used to kill each other over this, mostly because when every decision meant life or death you didn’t have for a slacker who didn’t pull their weight. And enough generations of that gave us this perpetual genetic PTSD which, fortunately, does not apply today.
While there are very good reasons not to be an asshole in 20XX, the more nuanced social queries are now open. In this new society, it’s now favorable to separate yourself from the status quo, as the more profitable avenues are all in culture creation. Most people have already spoken on this – being an entrepreneur or an artist is much more rewarding (but also risky!) than getting a normal career in the social hierarchy. However, I think the issue of reputation and responsibility is often underlooked, mostly because they are borderline moral arguments and people tend to stray away from anything related to morality. Fair enough. And as I’ve explained, I think there are good reasons to keep up your reputation. But reputation is not a be-all-end-all – you do not spend your entire life living in the realm of responsibility and building a good reputation for yourself, responsibility and reputation are byproducts of living a healthy life true to yourself. To elaborate on this, we need to talk about how we make decisions.
Reputational Risk and the Problem of Decisions
Let’s say you’re back in college (or, for some of you, fast forward to college). You’re trying your best to build up your resume, create a good name for yourself, yadda yadda yadda. You’ve joined a club – a very important club, maybe some honors fraternity for your major or some shit, idk – and you’ve been very diligent about attending meetings, getting work done, etc. At the same time, you’ve been dabbling in your passion: making music. In a dream world, you make your living off your music, and so you’ve spent time producing 5 beats a day for 3 summers. On the eve of a very important fraternity event, a dinner or whatever, you learn that one of your many beats impressed a local DJ, who’d like you to play a set at his relatively popular club. Problem is, the set would take place during your fraternity’s dinner. What do you do?
If you pick the DJ set, your fraternity would be upset with you. You will be seen as damaging your reputation and being irresponsible, barring a very understanding fraternity official. And yet, most of us would agree that picking the DJ set is the correct decision in this case. What gives?
This is the sort of paradox that lies at the crux of the reputational argument. Do these conflicts happen all the time? No, they don’t, and that’s not the lesson out of this. The lesson is that every important decision in your life confers some sort of reputational risk. At some point it becomes less of an issue of “building a good reputation” and more of choosing which reputation you’d like to uphold. Are you building a reputation with the DJ, or your fraternity? Which is more valuable? How do we define that value?
When considering questions like this, we begin to put reputation to the wayside. What’s the point of reputation when it’s all relative? What’s the point of responsibility when inevitably someone I meet will find me irresponsible, to a degree? Well, the answer is easy: you stop caring about your reputation. Instead, you focus on a different question entirely: what should you prioritize?
So, What Should You Prioritize?
I think anyone who regularly reads this website probably knows the answer to this, but I’m going to say my piece anyway. With questions of “societal survival” now moot, the most important thing you should be focused on is building your ideal self. In other words, focus on what makes you feel happy and fulfilled, and spec into that type of reputation. The greatest thing about living in the modern era is that so many of our needs are now taken care of for us that we can focus more on the important things. So stop caring about your reputation, and start caring about improving yourself. That’s what matters.