Who Are You Trying to Impress?

How affronted are you by that question? If you're feeling pretty peeved at me for asking, then you'd better read on. I was asked that question once, bluntly and without warning, by a total stranger. And it changed the direction of my life.

I was a rising college sophomore when, feeling dramatically overwhelmed by roommate tensions (oh poor meeeee!), I walked into the campus counseling center.

The counselor first asked my major.

P physics

"Physics," I said proudly. Too proudly.

He looked at me long and hard. Then he asked, "Who are you trying to impress with that major?"

I wanted to jump across the desk and throttle the guy. Who did he think he was to ask something like that? Where did he get off presuming to know me? Maybe I liked physics because I liked physics. Did that thought ever cross his rude, dense, little brain?

So I told him as much. In nicer terms, of course. He let the subject drop and we came up with a plan for dealing with the roommate. I never saw the counselor again.

End of story, right? But my mind, it simply couldn't drop the counselor's "impress" question. For days and days. And then weeks. And then months. At first I was angry, "Do you believe the nerve of that guy?" was my common refrain to friends. But gradually I started to actually ask the question to myself:  Who was I trying to impress?

The thing was, this guy - this complete stranger - had nailed my pig with his angry bird, if you will. I did like physics, to an extent, but I liked even better the reaction I received when I told people that I liked physics:  wide eyes, a puzzled expression, and then - this was the real payoff - "Wow, you must be smart."

Once I accepted the honest answer to the counselor's simple question, I promptly switched to a psychology major.

In other words, the one-off counselor saved me from a lifetime of an unsatisfying career, all with one question.

And for that reason, I'm asking you:

Who are you trying to impress?

The more offended that question makes you feel, the more likely that it's tapping into something important. (Freud got few things right, but his concept of resistance isn't half bad...)

Whether it be your career choice, your major, your address, your style of dress, your word choice, your status updates, what's your shorthand for making people think, "Wow, you must be ________"?

And that blank is almost always filled with the aspect of yourself about which you're most self-conscious. For me, that's my intelligence. For you it might be your money, or your class, or your dependence, or your fear of getting close to people. Take your pick.

English: Gold Star

This urge to impress - especially about our self-questioned characteristics - makes a lot of sense. It's ingrained in our genes, in fact.

"A hundred thousand years ago on the savannahs of Africa, if you were a solitary individual, you were dead very quickly," William B. Irvine, author of the new book A Slap in the Face:  Why Insults Hurt - And Why They Shouldn't recently told NPR. "So you joined a group. And then, once you joined a group, the question of how well you succeeded within that group was determined by your social rank within that group."

"Striving for rank within a group has become ingrained in the human psyche — praise and deference feel good," explains NPR.

In other words, we're literally built to seek approval. So is striving for "wow" such a bad thing?

Maybe not all the time. Maybe not even most of the time. It may be fine when the reaction we receive - "wow, you're witty!" or "man, you're generous" -  is as mere byproduct of living a life we genuinely love.

But when we're changing our life for the "wow" - living somewhere we can't afford, for instance, or putting on a show of extreme independence when we're dying for companionship  - then it may be a problem. In that case, the need to impress is interfering with our pursuit of what's personally meaningful and important. And when we can't seek out meaning, we fail to find lasting happiness. We might also fail to do the "unique and distinctive work" we're each meant to do.

"If you want to have a good life, you have to overcome that evolutionary wiring," Irvine said in the NPR interview. He gave the example of our penchant for fatty, sweet food; while this desire was helpful for our ancestors' survival, it's harmful in contemporary society where fats and sugars are omnipresent.

There was no doubt that, for me, gradually shedding my shorthands for "intelligence" has been vitally important to living a more authentic, richer life, and to doing work that is in line with my values and deep-seated goals. I still have more smartness shorthands to cast off. But the counselor started me on the road.

You may be wondering whether I ever thanked him, the man who changed the course of my life with one simple question. About nine months after our meeting, I was taking a study break when I received a campus-wide email. The counselor had passed away, the President announced. The email didn't say how, it didn't say if it was expected, it just said he was gone. I'd only met the man once, but I felt a profound sense of emptiness and loss.

I gave the emotion some time to rattle around within me, said some silent words in his memory, and then forced myself to go back to studying for my big exam. In psychology.

To me, physics = uber-brainy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For what characteristic - if any- are you trying to earn a gold star? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)