Relaxing into our flawed, limited selves
Selfie: How We Became So Self-obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us may appear to fit in the genre of poppsychology books that promise to shed light on the human condition while also telling us how to be more productive, persuasive or in some other way climb a rung or two higher on the winner’s ladder. But this book is no life hack. Rather, in this psychological and social history, Will Storr — who has published three other books and is a seasoned foreign correspondent — reveals how biology and culture conspire to keep us striving for perfection, and the toll that can take.
Selfie illustrates how slippery our identities can be and how quickly we’ll accommodate them to the world around us. We are, he shows, wired to seek excellence. But it’s not a question of “nature vs nurture” but “nature and nurture”. Our brains, he tells us, plagiarise material from culture to help us fit in. “Voices from long-dead minds haunt us in the present, often without our conscious awareness,” he writes. “Arguments they’ve made, feuds they’ve waged, battles they’ve fought, best-sellers they’ve written, revolutions they’ve triggered, industries and movements they’ve raised and destroyed, all live within us.”
Storr deconstructs these influences — from the hero worship of ancient Greece to the neoliberalism of Silicon Valley — to show how Western culture arrived at its current ideal: The outgoing and athletic individualist, the fearless and talented optimist who works hard, dreams big and believes that anything is possible. He contrasts this with Eastern culture, which focuses on group harmony.
The book takes readers on a long and complicated journey through centuries of religion, literature and economics. Storr’s essential point is that the societal cheerleading that pushes us to become the most glamorous and confident versions of ourselves actually makes us miserable because we fall short of that ideal.
For Storr, who as a teenager fell for self-esteem proselytising, this is personal. “That ‘golden city on top of a hill’ I’d imagined — the place that, when I reached it, would magically transform me into the perfect version of myself — was a mirage,” he writes. The autobiographical passages are a very small part of Selfie, but Storr’s vulnerability ends up quietly bolstering the book’s message. Storr, by his own description, is a misanthropic, frequently self-loathing introvert, the polar opposite of our cultural ideal. And yet, you like the guy.
Sure, books promising to make you a better parent or middle manager by the time your plane hits the tarmac may offer useful tips: They may help you navigate the system. But by exposing the cultural con that says we can be anyone we want to be, Selfie invites to us to relax into our flawed, limited selves.