We modern people take great pride in personal agency.
Frank Sinatra’s song “My Way” is an iconic example of this pride writ large. Here, he even calls the song, “the national anthem.” He wasn’t joking, either!
Self-determination is seen as a sign of authenticity, another of the holy virtues of the modern age.
But, how much of our lives are each of us actually living “my way”? What is it that makes this claim so important to us? What are we concealing about ourselves when we claim to have crafted our lives ourselves? What makes it so critical to be a unique, self-created being: sui generis?
It doesn’t take much reflection to see that the absolute foundation of our personal and collective survival is interdependence. Without one another, none of us could live for even a few days. Think of all the people we depend on to do even the simplest day-to-day tasks. Think of all the social structures and practices that make it possible to get through the day. Doing things our way is fundamental to being-in-the-world-with-others.
In fact, our ability to co-operate and co-labor-ate are our species’ greatest superpowers.
What enables these superpowers? In recent decades, “emotional intelligence” (EQ) has been cited as a key to success in practically any domain. What is EQ? It’s the ability to recognize and express emotions in ourselves and others for the purpose of adapting our behavior to suit the situation we find ourselves in. Situations almost always require us to tailor our actions to the “need states” of others in this moment. Being able to “empathize” with others, particularly those who come from different backgrounds and circumstances, is a highly useful set of skills. That means being able to perceive, understand (not just intellectually, but to emotionally resonate to the greatest degree possible), and credibly communicate that understanding to others. The broader the range of EQ skills, the higher our EQ. The higher our EQ, the better able we will be to successfully work with others to achieve goals that can’t be accomplished individually, ie, anything in the modern world. That is, being able to effectively do things together; our way.
This capability has deep evolutionary roots. Those of our ancestors who were best able to read the intentions of others, especially strangers, particularly before the development of language, were more likely to survive (and reproduce) than those who couldn’t. Our predecessors became planet-leading experts at predicting behavior based on “reading the room.”
We didn’t just get good at predicting behavior. We also became experts at imitatingwhat others did. This is how we learned to make fire and wheels before we could write instruction manuals. We watched. We mimicked. We experimented. We learned. We taught.
When Richard Dawkins popularized the term “meme,” long before TikTok was a twinkle in the Internet’s eye, he was referring to our ancestors’ ability to pass along gestures, practices, rituals, and ideas. They did this through the fundamental evolutionary processes of variation, competition, mutation and inheritance (or learning). Those memes that proved to be most effective for enabling survival and reproduction (i.e., “fit”) were passed along from generation to generation. This is the mechanism through which culture developed and evolved.
Well, what does any of this have to do with Frank?
Or, with My Favorite Things, for that matter?
Despite the pride we take in claiming our lives to be the product of our own choices, our own taste, our own “free will,” on reflection most of us are alarmed by the degree to which our selections of favorite things and ways-of-being-with-others are products of the subtle power of imitation. Historically, we could only imitate the choices of those in our immediate environment. But, communication technology (from novels to newspapers to radio to TV to TikTok) has made it possible for us to imitate the choices of made by others we’ve never met.
This desire to imitate is one of branding/advertising’s greatest superpowers. Branding depends on some relatively simple mental algebra: “this person that you are like (or, would like to be like) uses this product, and if you imitate that use, then you, too, can be like them.”
Gatorade was not subtle when it let us know it understood the way our minds work:
“Sometimes I dream
That he is me
You’ve got to see that’s how I dream to be
I dream I move, I dream I groove
If I could Be Like Mike”
Do things his/our way.
But, the greatest of branding’s superpowers is to make us believe that we are not imitating anyone else’s choices! To make us believe that how we behave and the things we choose have sprung from our own Being. That our Being is like a singular magnetic field collecting objects-that-resonate as it moves through life.
That we are doing things, “my way.”
Interestingly, if/when we discover this about ourselves, discover that many (most?) of the choices we make are substantially rooted in our imitation of memes spread by other people, brands and their adherents, we strongly resist the idea. It goes against our belief in the power of our personal agency.
Even worse, suggesting we are imitating what others do leads to the possibility that we might be… oh, the horror… copycats. “Copycat” is one of the most serious dismissive allegations we can make about another person in the modern world. The word implies that we are not authentically being ourselves, that at our core we not genuinely as we present ourselves to be. That we are trying to be something that we are not.
That we are not really doing it “my way,” but being, as Frank’s song derides, “one who kneels.”
How can we resolve this dilemma? We want to fulfill a set of goals— what the existentialists call projects— that require our individual commitment and persistence— doing it “my way.” At the same time, succeeding demands our recognition of the social context in which those goals will be accomplished — doing it “our way.” This is one of the fundamental challenges each of us faces throughout our lives. Like so many dilemmas, “resolving” it one way or the other— choosing one of its horns— is deeply unsatisfying.
“My way or the highway,” is as unfulfilling as “Just going along to get along.”
Living in this tension between “my way” and “our way” is a lifelong project.
Where does thinking about My Favorite Things come in?
Exploring our favorite things entails conducting an archaeology of their origin stories. I discover how the thing is connected to my attempt to do things “my way.” I also learn how, when, and from whom we appropriated the desire to acquire this thing. That desire is very often connected with our conflicting needs to both “be myself” (“my way”) and to “be one of us” (“our way”). Thinking about our favorite things helps us root ourselves in our own personal history and in our personal and common cultural heritage. Appreciating the complex sources of our favorites adds a dollop of humility to the hubris of believing that each of us is strictly self-determined and only at our best when we “do it my way.”
Tom Guarriello is a psychologist, consultant, and founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He’s spent over a decade teaching psychology-based courses like The Meaning of Branded Objects, as well as leading Honors and Thesis projects. He’s spearheaded two podcasts, BrandBox and RoboPsych, the accompanying podcast for his eponymous website on the psychology of human-robot interaction. This essay was originally posted on Guarriello’s Substack, My Favorite Things.
Header photo via Tom McKinnon.