The Danger of Idolizing Imperfect Humans
We idolize, worship, and envy relationships, careers, and lives of people we've never even met.
Be careful what you believe.
We've become a society with wandering eyes. We idolize, worship, and envy relationships, careers, and lives of people we've never even met. And then we clutch our pearls in horror when we find out that Bill and Melinda Gates are filing for divorce or that Jeff Bezos has been sending "below-the-belt" selfies to, well, anyone.
In school, we were taught to suspend disbelief when reading works of fiction. We were urged to become immersed in the narrative and get emotionally invested in the characters even though we knew the story wasn't true. Now, we're doing it in real life. You don't know Bill and Melinda, and you certainly don't (nor would you want to) know what Bezos does after dark.
I've been thinking about this since someone recently told me, "I feel like I know you, but I don't actually know you." They meant that after reading The Profile for years and seeing some of my tweets, they had an idea of the real me. Of course, they were seeing the version I wanted them to see. They didn't see the days where I was mourning the loss of a loved one, having a private conversation with my husband, or spending 17 hours in bed as I recovered from COVID.
To you, dear reader, I am words on a page that reliably appear in your inbox every Sunday morning. You've suspended belief to allow me to exist in your life.
My point is this: There's a certain performative nature to all of us. In a society that expects transparency and over-sharing, we end up seemingly showing our "true nature" that is completely disassociated from reality. Author Tara Westover says that for most people, “sharing themselves” online means carefully curating an identity that exaggerates some qualities while repressing others that they consider to be undesirable.
"Online, no one has acne or dark circles or a temper; no one washes dishes, does laundry or scrubs toilets," Westover says. "Mostly, we brunch. And we take exotic, rarified vacations. We pet sea turtles. We throw ourselves from airplanes." Online, we repress our ignorance, and therefore, we deny ourselves the capacity to learn. We repress our faults, and we deny our capacity to change.
I know what you're thinking: "Polina, you share profiles of successful people all the time. Aren't you just helping propagate this culture of worshipping success?"
This is not what I ever want The Profile to be. This is why I strive to highlight the good and the bad. After studying and interviewing so many people, I'm not enamored by any of them. It's because I understand that success doesn't exist in a vacuum — people are dealing with family drama, money problems, insecurities — all sorts of human messiness on a daily basis.
It would behoove us to understand that there's a difference between learning and idolizing. Take world chess champion Mangus Carlsen as an example. Carlsen was only 13 years old when he became a grandmaster, so interviewers loved to ask him about his idols.
He explains that he's learned a lot from players including Vladimir Kramnik, Garry Kasparov, and Bobby Fischer, but he doesn't idolize a single one of them.
"It's never really been my style, according to my philosophy, to idolize players, to try to copy them. I just try to learn and get the best from the great masters, contemporary and from the past," he says. In other words, learning allowed him to understand his strengths and the weaknesses while forming his own original style.
In a 1983 ABC News interview, Al Pacino is asked: "What is acting?" He looks at the interviewer in the eyes and says: "It's what we're doing right now. That's acting." Even off screen, he was performing.
Because of Pacino's illustrious career, he is considered one of the most iconic actors that's ever lived — yet he had a pretty tumultuous personal life.
At age 81, Pacino has three children but he's never been married, a choice that likely stems from his early experience with his own parents, who divorced when he was only two years old. Pacino is self-aware enough to know that he's given up certain things along the way in order to fulfill his goals of excelling in his professional life. "The actor becomes an emotional athlete," he says. "The process is painful — my personal life suffers."
Remember, if you could follow in the exact footsteps of someone who has achieved the upper echelons of success in your field, would you? Ask yourself: Am I willing to make the same sacrifices, the same missteps, and the same trade-offs? Remember that with the good also comes the bad.
Idolizing forces you into blindly worshipping imperfect humans. Learning, on the other hand, allows you to observe, synthesize, and pave your own imperfect path.
Loved this Polina!
As a fellow Bulgarian writer, I’d like to congratulate you on your success. This is a great article about a topic that’s not discussed a lot. I feel like you could have added even more nuance to it by talking about the facade Bill Gates built over the years and the way it's falling right now (Epstein connection, inappropriate behavior at work.) Maybe even talk about the way successful people are presented by the media. Don’t get me wrong, I love the article and your writing, in general. I just feel that the piece could be a little longer. Keep up the good work 🙏