Fly on the Wall—Humility and Vanity

At AU, We're Students, not Savants

What do we learn by becoming adult students?  Humility, maybe, in the face of a labour market culture that values us chiefly on our ability to bring in the big dough—usually for someone else.  Probably we all know a few folks who make, uh, phat cash on things that history may judge them negatively for.  Yet, wizened and wise and learned though we be, the first rule of a post-secondary education has got to be to keep our humility and our sanity.  And then there’s vanity.  Consider Carly Simon’s lyric: “you’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you!” The lyrics reveal the truth that the song is about the target in question.  Any disavowal of the ego in discourse leads to a false sense of reality, it might be said.

“Vanity keeps persons in favour with themselves who are out of favour” wrote Shakespeare.  And the late 1970s teen rock heartthrobs Cheap Trick sang “I want you to want me, I need you to need me.” Meanwhile, Lavater even claimed that “vanity and rudeness are seldom seen together”.  The desire to belong with others, and be accepted by them, is a certain vulgar (from the Latin for: common) expectation.  Yet, it’s based on assuming that we all ought to be liked as we are.  At AU, our studies shall yield neither valour nor success if we compare ourselves to others.  Many of us have no college student peers so we are in a league of our own, for better and for worse.  We are our own models and that means succeeding in distance education regardless of our context.

Like, Yeah…

But hey, is it vain to want to be liked?  As Athabasca students we’re bound to face the odd criticism of our choice of electives, majors, and life goals.  Examples abound, like: isn’t university about being in daily contact with our cohort and learning to, you know, socialize while we learn and become more engaged citizens?  I’d wager that few of us are such social animals that we wish to be in a classroom when we don’t have to.  Ironic in times like these, no?  Yet, our personal betterment is about more than mere social acceptance especially among non-student peers.

Recent research gives support to the notion that desired likeability is not automatically a good thing.  There’s a reason that the phrase popularity contest is usually used as a pejorative.  Philosopher Bertrand Russell claimed that the tie that binds all human bipeds is, you guessed it, vanity: “It is scarcely possible to exaggerate the influence of vanity throughout the range of human life, from the child of three to the potentate at whose frown the world trembles” (Russell, online).  Yet caring about image may not be all it’s cracked up to be.  Quoth Rebecca Fishbein: “it’s not just normal to be occasionally disliked, but in fact, it’s healthy.  Rejection is a way to suss out who’s compatible with whom, and just as getting romantically dumped by someone leaves you open to finding a better suited partner, getting axed from a social group gives you space to find folks that are a little more your speed.  Plus, it’s empowering not to fear being disliked—not that you should run around violating social norms, but when you’re not wasting energy moulding your personality to someone else’s to be accepted, you’re more likely to find people who genuinely like you for you, and those relationships are far less exhausting to keep up” (Fishbein, online).

Now before we go running off on online tirades against those we’d prefer to have positive interactions with, let’s recall that we are social beings who require a modicum of respectable discursive capacities to get along in the world.  Historically, a desire for likeability “was essential for our survival.  When we were evolving and living in tribes, being rejected and kicked out of the community would have been a matter of life or death” (Fishbein and Brockeridge, online).  When we get rejected, our brains register an emotional chemical response so strong, it can physically hurt.  We’re also likely to cycle through a series of responses that’s not dissimilar to the stages of grief.

Rejection is like a poor mark on an assignment.  First, the blame game starts.  “The first stop on the train is self blame: ‘It’s my fault, I did something to upset them,’” Sean Grover, a psychotherapist and author of When Kids Call the Shots, tells us.  Up next is shame: “You feel ashamed, you feel humiliated, you feel weak,” Grover says.  Then, like any dumped individual, you’ll probably try to win back your rejecter.  “Not because, necessarily, you want them to like you, but you just don’t like this feeling of being disliked,” Grover says.  “It’s, ‘Let me get you to like me so I can feel better about myself.’”

Maintaining our self respect and our ability to not become pariahs in the social cesspool of life itself requires a balancing act.  Be our studies magnificent or minor in our lives, the key may be to recall that we are the ones who gratify our educational journey.  To avoid that 21st Century bane of narcissism while also swimming away from our natural, if not inevitable, people-pleasing tendencies is also a learning experience.

Brotheridge, C.  and Grover, S.  In Fishbein, R.  (2019).  ‘How Not to Care When People Don’t Like You’.  Lifehacker.  Retrieved from
Russell, B.  In Popova, M.  (2013).  ‘The Four Desires Driving All Human Behavior’.  The Marginalian.
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