SPIRITUAL SOAP: Weird & Güd - Rule Yourself or Be Ruled
The cure for a plague of petty tyrants
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A life well-lived is a life well-examined. A life well-examined always has a little weird and güd within it. This newsletter is an examination of our weird and güd world.
The word tyranny feels dated to the era of kings and beheadings.
To speak of tyrants today is to risk being thrown into the badlands of flag-waving, conspiracy-theory-touting, discourse outcasts.
Yes, your government has shut down your livelihood with a single decree. Yes, your governor deemed the purchase of vegetable plants illegal with a single motion, and yes, your neighbors are eager to report you to any authority they can find for stepping out of line.
For your safety, of course.
Before I’m banished for the same suspicion of capricious and overreaching power that my country was founded on, let’s note the nuance.
There is fair, limited, and well-defined power used for the safety of all—like seatbelts and polio vaccines—and there is overzealous, parental power—like censorship—that seeks to preemptively protect the populace from the weakness of their own tragically unrefined minds.
The latter power is a kind wielded not only by the powerful, but by anyone who doesn’t hesitate to take the chance to feel powerful, particularly at another person’s expense.
This power is the kind that lurks ready and eager within any average human borne of hundreds of thousands of years spent in a rule-or-be-ruled world.
This power is the kind that marks the kingdom of the petty tyrant.
You may have heard the term petty tyrant more than ever before in the last year. Whether it’s Rand Paul fighting with Fauci or the average person growing tired of the purity posturing by those who feel their best when scrutinizing from behind a mask, petty tyrant should be the phrase of 2020 (and its sequel, 2021).
Now, I don’t leave my house often and my livelihood doesn’t depend on a storefront.
I’m uniquely positioned for apathy over any pandemic ordinance, but only farm animals watch with apathy as their herd marches into a building they never exit.
Unusual times expose elements that previously had no outlet. It’s unusual times that expose the core of your relationships; it’s unusual times that expose the nature of your government; it’s unusual times that turn neighbors into snitches, friends into enemies, and order into chaos.
It’s unusual times that expose the shape of freedom and the shape of those who would shrink it.
Rafal Oblinski, 1980
The petty tyrant is a concept defined by professor Blake Ashforth in 1994; it stems from the dry, functional field of organizational psychology.
Ashforth’s petty tyrant is the worker or employer you may have known—belittling, selfish, self-aggrandizing, and who takes their usually menial amount of power way too seriously.
The petty tyrant is the person who takes any slight edge over another as a license to dominate them, whether it’s a year longer than you at the company, a few more years of education than you, or just a convenient opportunity to criticize you.
The petty tyrant doesn’t let their lack of true power thwart their desire to reign over others.
Ashforth named six main qualities that define the petty tyrant of the workplace:
Arbitrariness and Self-Aggrandizement
Belittling of Subordinates
Lack of Consideration for Others
Forceful Conflict Resolution
Overzealous or Arbitrary Use of Punishment
The biggest mistake made in understanding authoritarianism is believing it’s strictly a system and not a state of mind.
The most entrenched tyrannical systems are the ones that no longer need the force of the state—its people are the state in miniature, enforcing compliance among themselves.
The petty tyrant will be with us for centuries more, maybe millennia. The individual and their freedom is a novel invention; it’s the group, its hierarchy, and the ancient interplay between submission and dominance that has its primal roots in each one of us.
But the petty tyrant is a teacher. The person who craves a controlled populace and enacts false authority at every chance tests us.
Will you curtail another’s freedom for your benefit if the opportunity appears?
Worse yet, do you obey the petty tyrant, with their arbitrary orders and eager punishing?
Don’t resent nor defeat a petty tyrant—just refuse to bow.
Most of the important education a person needs falls upon that person’s parents, but those parents often missed that education themselves.
It’s not theories or formulas that truly make the difference in a life, but the self-management system that dictates how a person understands and applies the education they gain.
Though it’s not a science, it does require observation and experimentation. Though it’s harder than finding y=mx+b, it’ll do more for you in life than sweating over the angles in a textbook did.
This life skill is mostly gained through chance—depending on your parents, your personality, and the examples you have around you—and it’s a chance whose outcome rivals the lottery in how it changes a life for the better.
That elusive, invaluable, and overlooked skill holds the underwhelming name of:
The term might sound dry, but self-directedness is one of the gods that rule you from the polytheistic realm of your personality.
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just work a little harder? Why can’t you seem to get things done in a reasonable timeframe? Does it feel like other people are climbing hills towards their goals while you’re climbing Everest everyday? Is motivation a fickle phantom that seems more like a tease than a friend?
You may be a candidate for Celf-Direx. Pester your doctor for a pill-based escape.
It’s no coincidence that a description of the absence of self-directedness sounds like a vague overview of depression. Self-directedness is a personality trait—one that can be honed, natural, absent, or medicated into you like most other traits.
Don’t take this as an anti-medication rant. While mental illness does have roots in biological processes, some mental illnesses are exactly what they’re termed—personality disorders.
Just like an unusually hefty dose of certain personality traits can make you a monster, a mild dose of a few of those same personality traits can make you a masterful entrepreneur.
Self-directedness is no different; in its absence often follows a risk for anxiety and depression, but in its presence is, quite literally, a better life.
You can use the term commonly, just as we use “depression” or “anxiety” interchangeably with sadness and nervousness, but that’s not the kind of self-directedness we’re talking about. The self-directedness I’m analyzing is based on the work of psychiatrist Claude Cloninger, who created the Temperament and Character Inventory where self-directedness is one of seven personality traits.
Improving anything requires knowing what’s a flaw and what’s a benefit; you can’t move forwards if you don’t know which way is backwards.
That’s where the psychological description of self-directedness comes in. These five elements give you a rubric for grading yourself:
Responsibility Vs. Blaming
Purposefulness Vs. Lack of Goals and Direction
Resourcefulness Vs. Inertia (Do you cope with and manage issues as they appear or does the world push you in whatever direction the day goes?)
Self-Acceptance Vs. Self-Striving (Do you accept yourself as a flawed and limited being rather than holding unrealistic standards of unlimited ability?)
Congruent Second Nature Vs. Incongruent Habits (Are your actions aligned with who you believe you are?)
Some elements of self-directedness are obvious, but the rubric gets a little vague when it comes to #4 and #5.
Self-acceptance versus self-striving is the difference between understanding what you can realistically accomplish and piling a list of long-shot dreams on yourself, only to be beaten down when you inevitably fail by your own setup.
Having a congruent second nature is a goal every person should hold—it’s the moment when who you want to be aligns with your habits instead of requiring constant effort, transforming who you want to be into who you are.
If self-directedness is really as internal and opaque as our personality, is it realistic to believe you can change your personality? To that skepticism I say:
If your personality has been static throughout your whole life, maybe it will remain as such. But for most people, the idealistic, insecure, open-minded, and impulsive aspects of their personality have already changed.
Personalities naturally change over time, which means we can intervene in that process.
Balancing and tempering aspects of your personality is a large aspect of what any good therapist helps with.
As optimistic as that may sound, the truth is less so—not because we’re constrained by the natural world, but because the effort needed to consciously shape your own personality is massive. Because old habits die hard. Because pleasure is pleasure and discomfort is discomfort.
You don’t need an overnight personality overhaul, though—you need an aim. You might not naturally possess the trait of self-directedness, but if you know it and if you want it, you can aim for it.
The aim alone takes you that much farther from the self-directedness-deprived personality Cloninger described with the ultimate psych roast of a sentence:
“…a disorganized set of reactive impulses.” Ouch.
I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.
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