Modern Australian


How our obsession with performance is changing our sense of self

  • Written by Ben Walker, Lecturer (Management), Victoria University of Wellington
How our obsession with performance is changing our sense of self

We live in a society obsessed with performance. For both young and old, competitions, awards and rankings are an inescapable feature of life.

How well we do – in the classroom, at work, on the sports field or even in life in general – influences how others see us, but also how we see ourselves. In some cases, this influence can be so strong that we come to see our performance as a key part of who we are.

Our research focuses on this potential identification with how good we are at what we do, and we argue that we need to recognise and better understand what we call performance-based identities.

Read more: Like to work with background noise? It could be boosting your performance

Why we build identity around performance

A performance-based identity arises when a person not only knows that they excel (or at the other extreme, are completely inept) at something, but feels fundamentally defined by that level of performance. Should they cease to perform to the same standard for any reason, they can lose their sense of self (or a big chunk of it).

Put simply, they’d struggle to answer that age-old question “who am I?” This in turn would raise all sorts of tricky questions about their place in the world, and their purpose and possibilities in life.

Not everyone will develop a performance-based identity, but we’re all potential candidates. This is simply because we all live in a world that constantly tells us doing well is important. This obsession with performance is pervasive beyond the realm of work and formal performance reviews. It is a part of our culture.

A recent survey of the values of more than 80,000 people worldwide found that over 65% of respondents thought being very successful or having others recognise their achievements was important to them. We see this focus on performance in all sorts of ways in everyday life. The most popular television shows are all about outperforming others on some activity, be it singing, cooking, creating a home, dating – or even marriage. In politics, voters are increasingly attracted to candidates who manage to portray themselves as “winners”, regardless of how much the evidence justifies their claims.

Not a new phenomenon

While the concept of performance-based identity is new, the phenomenon itself isn’t. About a century ago, the eminent German sociologist Max Weber developed the idea of the Protestant work ethic. He proposed that this religiously rooted drive to work hard was the psychological fuel of capitalism. In the 80s and 90s, Stanford University psychologist Albert Bandura and colleagues produced a mass of research on the origins and outcomes of self-efficacy - what many people (to Bandura’s dismay) know as confidence.

More recently, another Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck, has garnered a lot of popular interest for her research on “mindsets” – people’s assumptions about the changeability of their own skills and abilities. All these ideas point to the impact performance can have on how we see ourselves, and how we behave.

Yet the idea that people might go so far as to identify with their performance, at a very personal level, has so far eluded researchers’ attention, and recognition in everyday life. We aim to change this with our work, as we suspect that performance-based identities could be an influential part of many people’s mental makeup.

Why it matters

More often than not, we tend to think of performance-based identities in positive terms, and as having positive consequences. Think of the iconic status granted to boxer Muhammad Ali, and his famous “I am the greatest!” poem. Likewise, people usually admire – even envy - the intense self-belief demonstrated by the world’s top CEOs, movie stars and musicians.

It is indeed plausible that performance-based identities have many positive consequences for those who hold them. Defining yourself as exceptionally good at something presumably does wonders for self-esteem and confidence. Such an identity is also likely to provide protection during periods of poor performance or failure. If you and others know you are a top performer, moments of not so stellar performance will be brushed off as temporary anomalies.

Performance-based identities are also likely to inoculate against the well documented “impostor syndrome”, where people discount the role their own skills and abilities played in their achievements, which in turn leads to feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy.

Still, there’s undoubtedly a dark side to these identities as well. A positive performance-based identity could leave a person feeling as though they have no room to improve, making them overconfident and complacent about practice and development. Elite athletes sometimes speak about trying to avoid developing a performance-based identity for this very reason.

Read more: Five steps business can take to ensure aggressive performance targets don't drive bad behaviour

Problems can also arise when people define themselves as top performers, but aren’t entirely certain of this identity. In these situations, people may be upset by even the most constructive feedback on their performance, or avoid helping (or sometimes even sabotage) their colleagues out of fear they’d lose their place at the top of the hierarchy.

Finally, negative performance-based identities - where individuals define themselves not as top performers but as exceptionally poor ones – are also likely to have a range of negative outcomes, such as low self-esteem and avoidance of challenging tasks.

More research that explores how performance-based identities impacts our lives is needed. In the meantime, Aristotle’s remark that “knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom” reminds us all of how our own sense of self might be shaped by the pervasive pressures to excel.

Authors: Ben Walker, Lecturer (Management), Victoria University of Wellington

Read more http://theconversation.com/how-our-obsession-with-performance-is-changing-our-sense-of-self-120212

NEWS

Our helicopter rescue may seem a lot of effort for a plain little bird, but it was worth it

John Harrison/WIkimediaThis article is part of Flora, Fauna, Fire, a special project by The Conversation that launched this week. The project tracks the recovery of Australia’s native plants and animals...

A few months ago, science gave this rare lizard a name – and it may already be headed for extinction

Australian MuseumThis article is part of Flora, Fauna, Fire, a special project by The Conversation that launched this week. The project tracks the recovery of Australia’s native plants and animals...

I'm searching firegrounds for surviving Kangaroo Island Micro-trapdoor spiders. 6 months on, I'm yet to find any

Jess Marsh, Author providedThis article is part of Flora, Fauna, Fire, a special project by The Conversation that launched this week. The project tracks the recovery of Australia’s native plants...

this plucky little fish survived Black Summer, but there's worse to come

Tarmo A. RaadikThis article is part of Flora, Fauna, Fire, a special project by The Conversation that launched this week. The project tracks the recovery of Australia’s native plants and...

how are the plant and animal survivors 6 months on? We mapped their recovery

Australia roared into 2020 as a land on fire. The human and property loss was staggering, but the damage to nature was equally hard to fathom. By the end of...

Students in Melbourne will go back to remote schooling. Here's what we learnt last time and how to make it better

ShutterstockOn Sunday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced government school students in prep to Year 10 in metropolitan Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire will learn from home for term three. The...

The mystery of the mouse that died of smoke inhalation, but went nowhere near a fire

Source: Museums Victoria/David PaulThis article is part of Flora, Fauna, Fire, a special project by The Conversation that launched this week. The project tracks the recovery of Australia’s native plants...

Where are the most disadvantaged parts of Australia? New research shows it's not just income that matters

Dan Peled/AAPNew research on disadvantage in Australia has found the gap between rich and poor is very wide in Sydney, while much of Queensland struggles with educational disadvantage and regional...

There's serious talk about a "job guarantee", but it's not that straightforward

ShutterstockSuddenly, the idea of a “job guarantee” is back in vogue. Lawyer, academic, land rights activist and founder of the Cape York Institute Noel Pearson has come out of it...

Yes, there are millionaires who pay no tax, but crimping deductions mightn't help

Fiona Smallwood/Unsplash, CC BY-SAFor some people tax time will result in no tax paid this year, and if past years are anything to go by, about 50 of them will...

Renovations as stimulus? Home modifications can do so much more to transform people's lives

Ingo Bartussek/ShutterstockThe stated purpose of the Morrison government’s HomeBuilder program is to stimulate the economy and create construction jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research shows home improvements could do...

How the Buddha became a Christian saint

Josaphat sits Dreaming in a Landscape, from the Workshop of Diebold Lauber, c 1469Getty MusuemFrom the 11th century onwards, the Legend of Barlaam and Josaphat enjoyed a popularity in the...

Popular articles from Modern Australian

How to supercharge your immune system for cold and flu season9 Reasons Sydney Is the Best Place to LiveWhat Do Pool Cleaners Do?ULTIMATE GUIDE TO STUDENT ACCOMMODATION6 Tips For Setting Up a Beautifully Functional Home NurseryPruning, What Is It And Are You Doing It Correctly?Fantastic Fishing Destinations Around AustraliaAre 4wd wheels expensive?What Actually Do Stamp Collectors Do?How to find affordable steel blue work boots in Australia for safety6 Ways To Get Quality Sleep When It’s HotThe Dangers of Uncontrolled High Blood Pressure7 Tips for Renovating a Heritage Home8 Bathroom Renovation Tips for the ElderlyWhy Flying Kites Is Considered A Fun Activity In Perth