Friday, March 23, 2018

The Curse, Part 11: Gravitas

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order 


It's been a while since the last installment, so let me recap.

Something snapped inside me at a phenomenally stressful and hopeless moment, but the fallout, strangely, was entirely external. The world went a bit crazy. Everywhere I went, strangers would grow weirdly enraged with me. I learned to speak like Mr. Rogers, restraining my natural sarcastic tone...to no avail. I couldn't shrink myself small enough to avoid being an irritant.

The "Curse" was in play even if I didn't say a word. At the gym, no one ever used adjacent treadmills (body odor wasn't a problem nor was I drooling or muttering to myself (both were checked). This is how Casper the Friendly Ghost™ must have felt!

I've spent years processing this, choosing to consider it a juicy enigma rather than a horrific nightmare. Eventually I worked up some theories, which I began recounting in the previous installment. There can be no one single answer. Extreme edge-case scenarios are the product of multiple factors. And one of them surely involves gravitas....or the lack of it.

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As I wrote in my most popular Quora answer (reprinted on the Slog here):
[People are] impressed by the apparent intelligence of people who project confidence, or by their qualifications. They're impressed by educated people who use fancy words and have lots of information stored in their heads. They're super impressed by arrogance.
Gravitas really does impress people...which is why so many of us strike that pose. It's an effective shortcut for insecure wannabes. I like to point out that most singers become singers because they want to be singers, not because they want to sing. This explains the origins of gravitas. There's a vast difference between concentrating on Doing versus concentrating on Seeming.

The problem is that Doing is transparent. Even if you do stuff extremely well, unless you puff up it's extremely hard to be taken the least bit seriously. As with certain species of beetles, certain haughty displays ensure domination and mating...and it's not super deep.

Profound people, it's assumed, seem profound. Smart people seem smart. A vibe is expected, and we're subconsciously predisposed to dismiss those who lack it. And while gravitas can obviously be faked, some part of us sniffs gradations of it and forms snap judgements accordingly. You express, nonverbally, "I am superior to you." The rest of the world replies "Okay."  Done deal. 

Genuinely impressive people are rarely arrogant. With no need to pose, they seem, paradoxically, unimpressive. We humans have quite a strange feedback loop going on, where insecure posers are rewarded and the securely accomplished are ignored.

I've written a number of times about problems caused by my lack of gravitas (this posting illustrates this whole phenomenon). I'm not falsely modest. I know what I'm good at, but I don't see how good work makes me anything special. And so I've been reading negative on the gravitasameter. Five contributing factors:
Dad: I watched my know-it-all father struggle mightily to preserve his tattered facade of Total Expertise. No one was fooled. Not wanting to fall into this trap, I went the other way, embracing my shortcomings and never forgetting that, per the footer here, "the best among us are shitty little rivers."

Burnt: I was so burnt out from my experience building, running, and selling Chowhound, and then working for a year under a sadistic whackjob, that I'd left it all on the field, as they say. Bedragglement is poor soil for cultivating gravitas.

Food Maniac: I'd maintained a public image during the Chowhound years as a cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs food-obsessed maniac. It worked, but I didn't like it, so when I took myself out of the image-building business, I sort of went all the way. Maybe I went overboard.

Anti-Heirarchy: The founding principle of Chowhound was to discourage food lovers from slavishly following experts like me. And I meant it! This propelled me on a certain trajectory.

Om, Baby: Having ardently practiced meditation and yoga since early childhood, beneath my food maniac facade I was, quietly, a surprisingly serious devotee, steeped in silence and not at all fixated by worldly results. Again, I knew what I was good at, but preening - of any sort - wasn't my thing.

Since arrogance works, it stands to reason that less gravitas impresses less. So what happens in extreme cases? Let's look at the descending levels of arrogance/gravitas:

1. Claus von Bülow
Titanically arrogant. If gravitas were a cologne, he'd have been drenched in it. At this level, you jump species, becoming more reptilian than mammalian. If you don't remember Claus, Seb Gorka will do. 
2. Stuffy Professor
This is the sweet spot, where gravitas seems like a natural outgrowth of your expertise. Cause/effect get confused, as people assume you're naturally radiating mastery, rather than striking a pose which preceded any actual accomplishment. Score!
3. Aloof Professional
Too busy doing their thing to indulge in much pomposity, but they definitely "don't suffer fools gladly" (a self-congratulatory phrase much beloved by the arrogant). Includes most doctors, lawyers, politicians, business owners, and teachers under age 40.
4. Good Guy
The over-achiever whose efforts to convey ordinariness reveal an underlying sense of superiority. "My humility is just another facet of my awesomeness!" These are the people who preface boasts with "I am humbled by..."
5. Get ‘Er Done
Just trying to keep all plates spinning. Little bandwidth for contemplating one's place in the hierarchy of it all.
6. Shlub
Perennially disoriented, like a particularly stiff wind landed him in his present circumstance. Uncomfortable in his skin, he lives too reactively to even begin to cultivate gravitas or strike any other sort of pose.
7. Slacker
Has let go of caring what people think. Low ambition and low productivity are a virtue. Still, doesn't this require a deeper core of smug self-satisfaction?
8. The Dude
You know, from The Big Lebowski. Wandering around in a bathrobe, oblivious to all pretension. No gravitas at all (yet defiantly proud of it - a sort of anti-gravitas gravitas) but no real-world leverage, either.
9. Me
Utter lack of superiority...and not particularly proud of it. Absorbed in endless - and perhaps slightly unsettling - bemusement.
10. Senile/Crazy
Too captivated by whatever's drawn you into a stupor to even consider external phenomena.

See this followup posting.

Level 5 ("Get ‘Er Done") is the lowest socially-acceptable gravitas level. Below that, we start delving into the detritus of society. Not on the merits, per se; just in terms of gut instinct. Shlubs make us roll our eyes. Slackers revolt us. The Dude in real life would be an object of scorn and ridicule. Beyond that, our visceral reaction to a mere glance is "Yeah, I definitely don't have time for this nonsense." I'm below this threshold. And the next level below me is so stigmatized that any bluntly descriptive terms - e.g. "senile" or "crazy"! - sound rude and offensive. I am, in terms of status signalling, one notch below a bathrobe-wearing eccentric, and just barely scraping above senility. This explains a sizable chunk, no?


The thing is, if I were to wear, like, a saffron-colored monk's outfit, my Level 9 affect would at least have context (accurate, to boot). It would also, however, create a new slew of grinding incongruities, e.g. my sardonic sense of humor, high energy and enthusiasm, and craft beer obsession. What kind of weird-ass monk is that?? To make it work, I'd need to cultivate a smiley, conspicuously gentle and soft-spoken persona. Yet more posing. Ugh!

One final note. This is getting complicated, but the heart of the problem wasn't that I'm dismissible. It was the clash between that visceral dismissive reaction and the discordant fact that I'm actually interesting. A person three notches below "shlub" is not ordinarily the least bit interesting - or accomplished, talented, insightful, hip or funny. Or any other noteworthy thing. That's edge case stuff right there, and it's also unconsciously registered, and the unconscious discordance might understandably provoke irritation, anxiety, and general unease. 

As an illustration of the weird-out effect of confused expectations, behold Mr. Six Flags:



Thanks to Paul Trapani, who also collaborated on "Eating by the Numbers", for his input on the Arrogance Levels.

Continue to Grand Unification Theory of All Jim-Related Enigmas

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