The Modern Dilemma: Obsessively Selfish, Compulsively Selfless

We just released our annual trends report for Havas Worldwide, but I'm thinking it could become a monthly thing. Today, the most fundamental truth of what's next (besides death and taxes) is unprecedented change.
12/23/2014 04:10 pm ET Updated Feb 22, 2015

We just released our annual trends report for Havas Worldwide, but I'm thinking it could become a monthly thing. Today, the most fundamental truth of what's next (besides death and taxes) is unprecedented change. What's in and what's coming up right away are constantly shuffling. Our report includes two large word clouds -- our what's-up cumuli -- to reflect the jumble of findings, ideas and obsessions that swirl around in our heads, bumping up against one another without time to condense into articulated thoughts.

But we left the most important word of our era off both clouds. It's too obvious, too ubiquitous, too weighty and present in our consciousness. I'm talking about the single best word to define the now: self.

Self is a word, a prefix, a phrase and an obsession. And like all popular bytes and bits, it has a sexual overtone: No one loves me like I do; no one will love me until I love me.

It's the age of me, and moi, as well as the me's and moi's you want to go to bed with (literally and figuratively). If 2013 was the year of co- everything, then 2014 was the year we embraced the self-absorption that secretly fueled it. Now I need to be me to have a seat at we. Yikes ... it's feeling lonely until I hook up.

While we at Havas were (rightly) talking about collaboration, cooperation and the sharing economy, Oxford Dictionaries was less high-minded, choosing selfie as its International Word of the Year. That form of self-expression shows no sign of going away.

Whether you see them as narcissistic silliness, ironic statements or creative expression, selfies reflect the ambiguity around the whole self idea and self conversation. It's a fine line between selfish and selfless, and one that few, if any, of us always stay on the right side of. The words juggle and jiggle around in my head: When are people (including myself) actually being good, doing good, feeling good or just looking good?

When we make a donation and share it on Facebook, or wear our TOMS shoes to work, or film ourselves dumping a bucket of ice over our heads, are we really contributing effectively to the greater good? When we document and share our every outfit, lipstick shade, smile or pout during a night out, for whom are we really performing?

We are each a special snowflake, and the smartest marketers have tapped into and fed that sense of self-absorption. Whether it's CafePress, 3-D printers or NIKEiD customized shoes, we've been trained to seek out products that reinforce our own sense of specialness and unique identity. Now virtually everything can be made to be all about me.

And when we Instagram it all, what are we really doing? Personal branding? Showing off? Inspiring others? Humblebragging? Crying out for attention or love?

With the teenagers who come after millennials and are being dubbed the Selfie Generation, it's clear that their photos, and the confidence and anxieties that underlie them, aren't going anywhere. Self- has become our Word of the Age, or, rather, the Prefix of the Age, as in self-portrait, self-parody, self-referential and maybe a little self-obsessed. It expresses the zeitgeist. It runs like a red thread through the words that are written, spoken and read everywhere, by everyone from self-made pop culture icons and self-appointed bloggers to the self-satisfied guardians of high culture.

Cultivating a positive self-image is now recognized as a vital task for everyone, requiring self-confidence, self-esteem, self-discipline, self-respect and self-regard. Getting those right sets off a self-reinforcing process, especially for energetic self-starters. On the other hand, people who are prone to self-doubt or self-pity might want to try a little self-compassion and self-acceptance as part of a self-directed self-improvement program. Self-conscious or self-critical people might find this all a little too self-absorbed, whereas others could find it positively self-aware.

There's plenty of guidance on all these subjects from self-help books, especially now that self-publishing has taken off, accounting for 31 percent of e-book sales on Amazon's Kindle Store. Becoming your own publisher is a great route to market for people who have enough self-assurance to pull it off. In a world in which self-employment has become a vital alternative to employment by others, self-promotion is becoming an important tool for self-preservation.

Granted, I've exaggerated to illustrate how self-everything life has become. But it should still be self-evident how pervasive it is, along with its slightly less self-referential sibling, personal. Personal trainers, personal computers, personal development, personal pensions, personal branding and personalized medicine are all focused on the individual self.

And it's personal technology that has taken us from the self-focused Me Decade of Tom Wolfe's 1970s to the self-obsessed present moment. Our phones put each of us at the center of our own global communications network. Our phones, bracelets and (soon) watches put tools for self-improvement, self-monitoring and self-tracking -- what Wired editors dubbed the Quantified Self movement -- right on our bodies, along with the tools we use to broadcast our steps taken or hours slept.

Maybe this is all an unhealthy sign of an increasingly atomized society. But maybe it's more about people responding to a world that has grown unmanageable. Maybe self-knowledge, self-control and self-determination are micro versions of the small and local trend that's been anchoring us in this massive and unwieldy world. And if Socrates advised his students 2,400 years ago to "Know thyself," there's probably more going on here than just a passing fad.