A Zero to Hero post: why I’m not grateful for reputations of any kind.

As I’ve said before, I’ve always tried my best to hide. But I think it’s impossible not to develop a reputation of some kind, and even several reputations based on whether you’re at work, at university, at volunteer work, at some interest group or sport; and, of course, just how much you actually enjoy what you’re doing.

As a girl who has spent most of her young adulthood either studying and preparing for or doing some form of communications work or another, I am a bit wearily hyperaware of the value of a solid reputation. This applies to companies, consultancies, NGOs, other non-commercial organisations, and, of course, high-profile people. But on a personal level, I consider caring too much about one’s reputation as being part of the descent into becoming a corporate ringwraith.

As I am not a toe-the-line-and-don’t-think-too-much-about-it Nazgûl-type, having chosen a life slightly less ordinary (do we choose it, or does it choose us? Hmm. But I digress.), I am immediately touchily suspicious of reputations. This is why.

  • A reputation is the sum of collective, mainstream projections and judgements. Whether someone is “nice”, “polite”, “kind”, “competent”, “competitive”, “bitchy”, “a jackass”, and so on, depends entirely on what that particular society’s or group of people’s perceptions and ideas of what those words mean. Each of those words is a judgement. A judgement is passed according to one’s values, ideas and morals. Values, ideas and morals are shaped by one’s upbringing, society and norms. A person’s work and actions are also judged on the scale of that particular narrow setting. In a mobile, globalised world, this kind of judgement is irrelevant.
  • A reputation makes you less human. Reputations never account completely for the depth of a person. I don’t know anyone who is “bubbly and cheerful” or “nice and giving and kind” or “fantastic at speeches” all the time. That’s because we are human, and humans have ups and downs and lefts and rights, and trips and falls, and so on. Sometimes they all happen in a day. Reputations are you in one setting, in one fixed point.
  • A reputation doesn’t change, even as you do. Life is change. Reputations hold people back from change, hold people back to a fixed point in the past, hold people back from being themselves– because, guess what, humans change. We change even when we’re dead, until we go back to the world as energy. A reputation is thus an unnatural, dead thing.
  • A reputation makes other people lazy. Why bother going through all the effort of getting to know someone with a beginner’s mind and a fresh start when you can rely on the opinions of other people who have already processed the judgement for you? That’s like never reading original Shakespeare, and writing your essays based only on crib notes and on what other intellectuals write about the bard and his blank verse. It’s cheating. If you have been told that a particular aunt is a stingy, vicious, gossiping bitch, then my guess is you’ll act and feel very differently around her from the minute you meet her than if you had been told nothing at all. To make things worse, we seek to confirm that which we already think to be right. That’s confirmation bias (duh).
  • A reputation is self-fulfilling. It is self-fulfilling because the way we act is at least half in reaction to how we are treated, and if we are treated as though we are about to blow up, or as if we are about to have a nervous breakdown, or as if we are violent and aggressive, something happens to us. There is this great psychology exercise on group dynamics that I remember doing many lifetimes ago at university. We all sat in a circle and our Psychology lecturer stuck labels onto our foreheads. None of us knew our own label. We then had to discuss a topic. We could only see everyone else’s and had to act accordingly. The labels said things like: “LISTEN TO ME”, “IGNORE ME”, “ARGUE WITH ME”, “AGREE WITH ME”, “PRAISE ME”, and so on. There was a group of observers. The consensus in the end was that those who were treated positively ended up talking more, being more confident, and feeling better about themselves at the end of the exercise. No surprises there! To make things interesting, my lecturer had labelled the shyer, quieter ones with positive labels, and the louder, opinionated ones with negative labels. The results were amazing. The tables almost completely turned. And yes, I got “LISTEN TO ME”. 🙂
  • A reputation makes you less brave. If you reputation matters a lot to you, a good one will keep you in line, afraid to do anything to go against it and lose it, and a bad one will likely make you very watchful and wary of making it worse. It is hard to correct a bad reputation and easy to lose a good one, because of our very human, evolutionary tendency towards negative bias. We remember the bad much more easily, neurologically, than we remember the good. Because, you know, Caveman don’t die if he do things right and crops grow, but Caveman die if he do things wrong and pet sabre-toothed tiger.
  • A reputation can be manipulated. Communications person here. I’m sure my (and allied) professions have a crapload of disservices to humanity to answer for (margarine is good for you, anyone?). I can write a thesis on just this point alone. All I am going to say is, because of earlier-mentioned laziness of people, manipulation of perceptions and therefore reputations has become a multi-billion-dollar industry. On a basic level, a sociopath (or just someone who is very good at pretending) can manipulate his or her own reputation, or hire someone to do it for him or her. I don’t know about you, but I dislike feeling like I’m being manipulated. That’s why fakery and pretentiousness feel so vile, or at least uncomfortable. It’s brazen, less-artful, transparent manipulation. 
  • A reputation creates polar absolutes (the way we treat identical twins). “She’s the calm one and she’s the hyper one”, “he’s the bookish one and he’s the sporty one”, “she’s the party animal and she’s the homely one”. Black or white thinking, as we know, is not productive and not helpful in most situations, since most of life is played out in the murky grey territory. Reputations fix the poles and then everyone dutifully operates between them. “She’s not as nice as they say she is”, “I don’t know why they say he’s so good at his work, I don’t think he’s that good at it after all.”

I think a very basic reason I bristle so much when it comes to reputations is the religion I grew up in. In a nutshell, Buddha said not to trust other people’s judgement, but to experience something for ourselves and draw our own conclusions. In other words, do not live a secondhand life. Judging people based on reputations is living a secondhand life.

zero-to-hero-badge This is a response to the Zero to Hero challenge of the day, which was to use the Daily Prompt: Blogger of Repute. Do you have a reputation? What is it, and where did it come from? Is it accurate? What do you think about it?.