We’ve all heard the warnings from researchers about how too much social media use is bad for us, and as someone who spends a lot of time on social media both for work and in my personal life, I usually just tune them out. I tend to think there are a lot of benefits to social media, and I definitely wouldn’t label it as unequivocally harmful. But I recently spent a weekend with friends and couldn’t help noticing how much of our time together was recorded and repackaged for consumption by others. Too much social media makes me feel like I’m performing my life rather than living it, and, strangely enough, that reminded me of a college essay.
When I was a sophomore, one of my professors assigned us a project where we were given a list of words and asked to pick the top five that we valued most. These ranged from abstract concepts (“achievement,” “loyalty,” “justice,” etc.) to somewhat more tangible ideas (“family,” “health”). We then had to write a paper about why we said we valued them and if our lives actually reflected those values. While I was usually a student who loved school, I rolled my eyes at this assignment. I wasn’t eager to share my innermost thoughts with the professor, or to reflect at all, so I put off writing the paper for a few weeks until finally my desire for a good grade beat out my stubbornness, and I sat down to think it over. As someone who doesn’t enjoy having to choose between things (“Why can’t we just do both?” is usually my attitude) picking just five out of the list of 100-plus words was a little stressful. And as I deliberated, I realized there were some differences between the words I wanted to pick- how I wanted to see myself, how I wanted to be seen- and the things I actually prioritized. I wanted to say that I lived the values of “service” and “community,” but I was really spending more time on things like “achievement” and “competition”: winning awards, getting scholarships, building my resume, just trying to ‘be somebody’ without stopping to think about the person I actually wanted to be. Who was I when no one was around to see me, when I wasn’t performing? I ended up spending hours writing and rewriting the paper, reflecting on my family relationships, past choices, and plans for the future. Being forced to articulate what it is that motivates you, what drives the decisions you make on a daily basis, feels weird and uncomfortably intimate. And yet the further along I got in the paper, the more thankful I was to be doing the assignment, because it gave me a sense of clarity about who I was and a tool to help me get where I wanted to be. I wanted to be the kind of person who did good things without needing to broadcast them, who gave without expecting a reward or a pat on the back. I wouldn’t say I’ve achieved it (if it even is a thing you can achieve) but I would say I’m a little more self-aware than I was before, and I’d definitely recommend that writing exercise to anyone looking for a little more clarity or purpose.
Lately, similar thoughts have come up as I’ve been interviewing United Way volunteers for our spotlight videos. The people I’ve talked to didn’t start volunteering because they wanted to be celebrated. They went in with no expectation of recognition or reward. Instead, they’re people who choose to spend their time putting in work toward something they value: a stronger, kinder community. They know that the work they do makes an impact, even if no one sees them do it. I’m grateful to be able to record and share the ways that they live out their values, and I’m inspired to revisit my own. I hope you are as well!