It's Sunday night after a great weekend. You got your halal meat shopping done, took the kids to the park, had dinner at a friend's house, watched some football, and even folded and put away the laundry. As you get ready for bed, you prepare yourself for the upcoming week. You have meetings for an annoying project at work. Things are awkward between two of your co-workers because of an argument they had a few days ago and you're caught in the middle. Your manager doesn't have time to look at something important that you keep emailing her about. And on a larger level, you're simply not happy about the prospect of going back to sit in your cubicle for another week and repeating the same charade over and over. So as you lie down to go to sleep, you take out your phone. And you start seeing stuff like this (and it's always on a sunset).
Then the thoughts start to drift. Am I as happy as I should be? What are my unfulfilled dreams? How do I achieve greatness?
This post will explore the impact of the constant influx of unabashed follow your dreams and unrealistic positivity. It is not simply about envy from seeing others' success and combating it with gratitude. It's a level deeper than that. It's how the current hybrid of success as displayed on social media, modern self-help literature, and a culture of entitlement affects us at a deep spiritual level without us realizing it.
The Secret is Visualizing Your Way to Success
The internet has filled our lives with unrealistic positive expectations. It says we can all be happier, healthier, smarter, faster, more popular, have more friends, live your dreams, and so on. To do this, you only need to follow the advice being dispensed everywhere on how to improve.
What starts with a noble intent of helping us achieve more by being positive actually creates a downward cycle. It really focuses on what we lack.The only alternative to being optimized and maximized and happy 24/7 is failure. This is why exercises like visualization and chanting mantras have become so popular. They say if you just keep imagining something positive to you, it will happen (Dave Chappelle mocked this in a brilliant bit you can watch here [warning: vulgar language]).
They make us hone in on what is wrong, and then try to offer a shortcut to fix it. To top it off, every time we get online, we are bombarded with images of people who are succeeding, having seemingly overcome all the shortcomings that hold us back (see: Jealousy, Attention, and the Social Media Highlight Reel).
This creates not only envy, but stress. In the following Ted Talk, Alain De Botton expounds on this concept in detail (I have put the text of a couple of important excerpts below the video).
Never before have expectations been so high about what human beings can achieve with their lifespan. We're told, from many sources, that anyone can achieve anything. ... we are now in a system where anyone can rise to any position they please. And it's a beautiful idea. ... There is one really big problem with this, and that problem is envy. Envy, it's a real taboo to mention envy, but if there's one dominant emotion in modern society, that is envy. And it's linked to the spirit of equality. ...
The closer two people are -- in age, in background, in the process of identification -- the more there's a danger of envy ... So there's a spirit of equality combined with deep inequality, which can make for a very stressful situation. It's probably as unlikely that you would nowadays become as rich and famous as Bill Gates, as it was unlikely in the 17th century that you would accede to the ranks of the French aristocracy. But the point is, it doesn't feel that way. It's made to feel, by magazines and other media outlets, that if you've got energy, a few bright ideas about technology, a garage -- you, too, could start a major thing.
The consequences of this problem make themselves felt in bookshops. When you go to a large bookshop and look at the self-help sections ... there are basically two kinds. The first kind tells you, "You can do it! You can make it! Anything's possible!" The other kind tells you how to cope with what we politely call "low self-esteem," or impolitely call, "feeling very bad about yourself."
...There is another reason why we might be feeling more anxious -- about our careers, about our status in the world today, than ever before. And it's, again, linked to something nice .... A meritocratic society is one in which, if you've got talent and energy and skill, you will get to the top, nothing should hold you back. It's a beautiful idea. The problem is, if you really believe in a society where those who merit to get to the top, get to the top, you'll also, by implication, and in a far more nasty way, believe in a society where those who deserve to get to the bottom also get to the bottom and stay there. In other words, your position in life comes to seem not accidental, but merited and deserved. And that makes failure seem much more crushing.
Mark Manson refers to this as 'The Feedback Loop from Hell" in his book (which is one of the best I've ever read on self-development). He says we feel sad or guilty about our situation, and then feel guilty about how we feel. Because everything is so perfect (or 'can be' perfect) on social media, we start to think it is not okay to feel any type of sadness, fear, or anxiety.
We get made fun of a lot for having first world problems. Alhamdulillah, we enjoy a large degree of material success relative to others. The problems we have now are more spiritual in nature - and they're exacerbated by what we consume online, often without us realizing it. We live in an age where we can have or know an infinite number of things. Paradoxically, we have an infinite number of ways we feel we don't measure up.
The relationship between material over-abundance and spiritual crisis should come as no surprise. At one end of the spectrum, more and more "successful" people are turning to mindfulness and meditation as a form of, essentially, spiritual heroin to escape savage capitalism. At the other end is entitlement and envy. The commonality on both ends is an obsession with the nafs (self). There is a deep unhappiness underpinning our success, or lack thereof, and it manifests itself as a spiritual crisis.
Alain De Botton explains this in the above Ted Talk:
The other thing about modern society and why it causes this anxiety, is that we have nothing at its center that is non-human. We are the first society to be living in a world where we don't worship anything other than ourselves. We think very highly of ourselves, and so we should; we've put people on the Moon, done all sorts of extraordinary things. And so we tend to worship ourselves. Our heroes are human heroes. That's a very new situation. Most other societies have had, right at their center, the worship of something transcendent.
Manson puts it more bluntly saying that most "life problems" are actually "side effects of not having anything more important to worry about."
We stop deriving our happiness from our values, and instead chase what is fed to us. It becomes almost formulaic. We consume all this material online and conclude that we need to fix certain shortcomings. And then once we fix them, we will be happy. So to fix them, we need a magic bullet - a LifeHacker article, another top 10 list from a blog, an expensive course, a book, a YouTube video, a podcast. We are looking for something, anything, that will 'fix' our problem so we can attain that level of greatness we are destined for. A life where everything is sunsets and rainbows and unicorns (in other words, Instagram).
American Idol Syndrome
The first episodes of American Idol would always be the best because you got to see Simon ripping on a terrible contestant. They would take a contestant, and before the audition, do a bio of them. You would see footage from their hometown and everyone there would talk about how this person was in the school choir and how talented they are. Then they'll talk to friends from the neighborhood also testifying to how amazing of a singer this person is. There's no doubt they were created for this contest and will win. This is their dream, and they've been working every day nonstop to attain it.
Then they get on stage and start singing. The judges cut them off with Simon saying something snarky like, 'do humanity a favor and never sing again.' The person is then emotionally devastated. They can't believe what they're hearing. They legitimately thought they were going to win the entire competition. They start crying, yelling, screaming. They say the judges don't know what they're talking about, and vow to show everyone that they're the best.
Sitting on the outside, we know they're foolish.
On the other hand, they are following self-help advice to the T. They believe in themselves. They're following their passions. They are working on their dream. They will not accept rejection. They vow to be resilient and bounce back in the face of crisis.
They go back to their friends who will no doubt tell them that the stupid judges on American Idol simply "can't handle how amazing they are."
We can see they're delusional.
Yet, if you were to ask anyone who has achieved fame in that industry how they got there, they would no doubt repeat those same cliches. Never give up, believe in yourself, follow your dreams, live your passions, ignore the haters, and persevere.
The delusion and foolishness is actually a result of an entitlement mentality. The underlying theme here is that this person somehow deserves success, or deserves to feel good. So even when they're not actually doing anything, they keep feeling like they are accomplishing something and are on the pathway to their dreams (sound familiar?). They are confident they will become a multi-platinum star despite what the judges and millions of viewers think. Hence the rise of how-to gurus and, as Manson says, "life coaches [who] charge money to help others, even though they're only twenty-five years old and haven't actually accomplished anything substantial in their lives."
We usually think of entitlement in regards to attaining a certain position or some material gain. The entitlement about needing to feel good all the time is a step beyond that. And by needing to feel good all the time, a person ends up in a cycle of narcissism and selfishness (the consequences of which I wrote about in detail here). They're constantly thinking about themselves and how they feel. When something awesome happens, it is because of their awesomeness, and when something bad happens its because people can't handle their awesomeness.
[The nature of] man is that, when his Lord tries him through honour and blessings, he says, ‘My Lord has honoured me,’ but when He tries him through the restriction of his provision, he says, ‘My Lord has humiliated me’ (89:15-16).
This comes about not because people really truly believe they are that amazing (although some do). It is, as Manson says, "because they feel that they need to be great to be accepted in a world that broadcasts only the extraordinary."
We are only shown the extraordinary because Instagram and other social media outlets bombard us with only those stories. They appear immediately achievable. We only need to do what they did and we can have it too. This is also known as Survivorship Bias.
People who succeed tend to look at the past with blinders and ignore many important factors that got there (see: Why Bad Leaders Rise to the Top, and Why We Keep Following Them).
Then when we try and don't succeed in the same way we develop envy. We become insecure. When we combine that with entitlement, we believe it is ok to transgress certain boundaries to get what we deserve.
Manson lays out two types of entitlement that play out in a person:
- I'm awesome and the rest of you all suck, so I deserve special treatment.
- I suck and the rest of you all are awesome, so I deserve special treatment.
To constantly make yourself the victim requires the same level of selfishness. We want everyone to know about our problems, and how we are uniquely afflicted with these problems, how they make us feel bad, and how we need everyone around us to stop doing the things that are making us feel bad. Cue Shaykh AbdulNasir Jangda saying 'Nobody Cares.'
It's strange that in an age when we are more connected than ever, entitlement seems to be at an all-time high. Something about recent technology seems to allow our insecurities to run amok like never before. The more freedom we're given to express ourselves, the more we want to be free of having to deal with anyone who may disagree with us or upset us. The more exposed we are to opposing viewpoints, the more we seem to get upset that those viewpoints exist. The easier and more problem-free our lives become, the more we seem to feel entitled for them to get even better. -Mark Manson
In short, we've lost the middle ground. We go to the extremes in our opinions and refuse to see the other side.We see only the success stories. We see only the top most upvoted posts on Reddit. We watch only the most viewed YouTube videos. Read only the most highly reviewed books on Amazon. Our Netflix queue is full of only 4 or 5 star shows. The craziest photos, memes, news. We start to believe that being extraordinary is being normal. This, by the way, is why the greatest casualty of YouTube is the local Imam.
We don't realize most of life is actually lived in the middle of the extremes, and so we feel bad and put ourselves through the feedback loop of hell (especially when all the gurus say being average is mediocre). You can either be super successful, or super miserable. We de-incentivize ourselves to live a life of moderation. We need to be super successful (not realizing that if everyone was extraordinary, it would by definition become the new 'ordinary'). And if we can't be successful at that level, then it's better to show how miserable we are, because at least then we can get attention for how terrible our life is.
The misery, insecurity, envy, and entitlement creates an addiction to motivation. I haven't gotten my life together like the guy driving a Lamborghini on Instagram, therefore, I must not be motivated enough. So in response, I am going to follow 10 more inspirational quote accounts on Instagram to make sure I keep up my positive energy and vibes.
The khutbah below by Hasib Noor lays out the issue in detail. We keep crying over the same problems over and over again, using spirituality as a way to feed the inspiration junkie addiction. We go from conference to conference without making any tangible change in our lives. We share articles without reading them to look woke even though we don't give that much attention to the actual issues.
Don't misconstrue this to throwing the baby out with the bath water. Pay attention to whose advice you follow via their social media, books, podcasts, videos, and so on. If you're still following the same people and discussing the same issues you were 2 years ago, then it's a sign you aren't progressing. You should be in a state of 'graduating' and inching forward.
We let our worries overcome us without taking any action to create meaningful change. Part of the problem is by seeing so much inspiration, we think inspiration is the answer. So you hear people saying things like, "I'm not spiritually ready to make hajj yet" or "I can't concentrate in my prayer, so I don't want to pray because then I will be a hypocrite." There is a faulty assumption that motivation → action. The reality is action creates its own motivation and inspiration. This is why consistently doing good deeds is so vital, as the khutbah here explains.
We learn that our focus really should be about the process. What are your daily habits and routines? What do you do each day to actually close the gap between where you are and where you want to be? Many of us are infatuated with the end outcome, but don't want to put in the daily work to get there.
Inspiration to follow your passions is about trying to eliminate pain. "Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life" is complete nonsense. When you do what you love, you trade in one set of problems for a different one (just one that you'd rather work on). The real test of what you love is not about the end result, it is about the daily process to get there. The goal is not to eliminate your problems, but rather to upgrade them to a different set of problems.
How many of us want to be Huffaz, but can't put in the work daily? One level of problems is not being able to read every day. Then not memorizing every day. Then it's not revising enough every day. The further you progress, the more you are exchanging one set of obstacles and issues for another. If you can't find satisfaction, happiness, and fulfillment in simply reading every day, you will never attain the end result of memorizing no matter how much you visualize it, put it on a vision board, chant mantras, or make a motivational sunset quote your desktop wallpaper.
How many people want to be known as students of knowledge or become famous Islamic speakers, but haven't dedicated the time to actually study for years and years? How many of us want to be entrepreneurs but are more obsessed with having a 4-hour-workweek than actually building a legitimate business? If you don't love the process, you will always fail at achieving that desired result. We want perfect marriages with the exotic vacation photos to prove it, but don't want the daily process of doing laundry, changing diapers, and buying dishwashing detergent in bulk from Costco. It is much easier to say things like, "well I could have done that if I wanted to" than it is to actually dedicate yourself to something.
Who you are is defined by what you're willing to struggle for: People who enjoy the struggles of a gym are the ones who run triathlons and have chiseled abs and can benchpress a small house. People who enjoy long workweeks and the politics of the corporate ladder are the ones who fly to the top of it. People who enjoy the stresses and uncertainties of the starving artist lifestyle are ultimately the ones who live it and make it. -Mark Manson
The inspiration trap is not a problem of positive thinking - it is substituting hard work for positive thinking. It is not about eliminating problems, but understanding for what purpose you are working through them.
Trust The Process
*Shout out to Sam Hinkie
The process begins with identifying why you want to do something. That should be no surprise, everything ultimately boils down to intention. Take whatever it is that you're seeking inspiration for and ask why. Why do you want to lose weight? Why do you want to start a business?
The career aspect of life is an interesting one in this regard. Many people are made to feel bad for having a career because they don't have the same lifestyle as an entrepreneur. Conversations around this topic will be about being 'stuck' in a cubicle your whole life, building someone else's dream instead of your own, being a slave to 'the man', moving up the corporate ladder to buy a bigger house, and so on. And so we feel guilty for being stuck with a 9-5 job and try to become an entrepreneur. Then come the thousand dollar courses, hours spent building a business, time away from the family to sacrifice for the dream, and after a couple of years not succeeding and going back to the 9-5 gig. Cue the feedback loop from hell. You feel guilty for your job, you feel bad about not living your dreams, and then you feel bad because you feel like your life is over.
This is what happens when a person doesn't have a strong why. What is the ultimate goal? Which problems do you want to solve? Do you want to solve the problems that come with a cubicle life but include a steady paycheck, health insurance, and open weekends? Or do you prefer the problems of making payroll, dealing with vendors, and working on your business all the time?
See it's not that one is better than the other. It depends on what you value and then acting accordingly. One person might hate the idea of a desk job and want to be an entrepreneur, and for someone else it is the opposite. The problem arises only when you project your value system onto someone else's life and judge them based on it.
What we value is determined by our faith tradition. Take the debate between career and entrepreneurship. Ultimately, it doesn't matter. The more accurate guiding principle would be this hadith:
The Prophet (saw) said about a man, "If he is striving to provide for his young children then he has gone out for the sake of Allah. If he is striving to provide for his aged parents then he has gone out for the sake of Allah. And if he is striving to provide for himself to avoid being dependent on others then he has gone out for the sake of Allah" [Tabarani].
Once that value is established, then the actions follow in whatever way is best suited for you.
The underlying theme with happiness in this regard is the ability to choose our problems. Many people become entrepreneurs and feel shackled and want to go back to a corporate job - and vice versa. We get down most often when the problems we have are things we feel we can't control. When we choose our problems, we feel empowered. The internet, however, makes you think you can just escape the problems altogether. If we feel that we are stuck in a job against our will, then we feel victimized and miserable.
Strong iman (faith) helps significantly in this regard. There are certain things we know are the decree of Allah and we cannot control. For example, when we are born, who our parents are, when we are going to die, and even how much money we make. Our faith demands that we take responsibility for our actions and our response. That is fully within our control. Manson points out that people hesitate to take responsibility for their problems because it would mean admitting that they are at fault for those problems.
You don't get to pick everything that happens to you, but you are responsible for it.
Fault is past tense. Responsibility is present tense. -Mark Manson
One way to take responsibility is focusing on the actions you do every day. The reason we avoid doing that is because it seems insignificant. Or we have more important things to do.
The Prophet (saw) said, "If a Muslim man persists in two actions, he will enter the Garden. They are easy, but those who do them are few.' He was asked, 'What are they, may Allah bless him and grant him peace?' He said, 'That you say "Allahu akbar" ten times, "al-hamdu lillah" ten times, and "Subhana'llah" ten times after every prayer. That is 150 on the tongue and 1500 in the balance.' I saw the Prophet (saw) counting them with his hand. Then he said, 'When you go to bed, you should say, "Subhana'llah", "al-hamdu lillah", and "Allahu akbar". That is 100 on the tongue and 1000 in the balance. Who among you can do 2500 bad actions morning and night?' He was asked, 'Messenger of Allah, how is it that they are not counted?' He said, 'Shaytan comes to one of you while he is praying and reminds him of something he has to do such-and-such and such-and-such, so he does not remember to do it.'" (Tirmidhi)
We're focused on the end result, we ignore the incremental change that goes into each day. Social media makes this worse because it gives us more and more things to be busy with (see: Dua - The Greatest Casualty in a Socially Networked Life).
There are literally a million things we could be working on to improve ourselves. How do we decide what values will dictate our lives? Faith is an easy answer, but there are a million options even under that umbrella.
Once we become comfortable with the fact of our own death - the root terror, the underlying anxiety motivating all of life's frivolous ambitions - we can choose our values more freely...-Mark Manson
In a strange way, reflecting on death is liberating. The Prophet (s) commanded us to reflect on it. It allows us to focus our efforts on what truly matters - not what the internet says we need to care about.
The famous hadith of leaving a legacy, or sadaqah jariyah, talks about a Muslim's goal to live a life that attains good after their death.
When a man dies, his action discontinues from him except three things, namely, perpetual sadaqah (charity), or the knowledge by which benefit is acquired, or a pious child who prays for him (Abu Dawud).
If you look closely at those three examples, all of them are intrinsically linked to your daily process. A child who prays for you must grow up believing, having the consciousness to make dua to Allah, and having positive memories of you such that they remember you. That doesn't come by automatically having kids, it is a daily process to build toward something meaningful.