December 20, 2011

Snowflake Logic

Good lord, it's been a while since I've managed to put a post up on this thing.  With work, holidays, AND the release of Assassin's Creed: Revelations (Awesome!), Skyrim (Awesomer!), and Star Wars: The Old Republic (Goodbye, social life; Hello, XP bar!) all piling up around me, there just wasn't a second leftover to finish this post.  But, as always, I've managed to scrounge together my thoughts into a coherent treatise (exaggeration) for you all to discuss as we enter the Christmas/Hannukah/Kwanzaa/Who-Cares week. 

So then...the topic at hand.  I feel it is best summed up by a single dictum:

You are NOT special.

That's right, my gentle snowflakes; you are most assuredly not anything special.  With cards now hurled onto the table hard enough to break all the legs, let's back up a bit and get at the real issue here.  I'm not saying that no-one has something about them that they are good at; I'm not saying that everyone is identical.  I'm saying that there is nothing special about ANY of us, inherently or otherwise. 

As we discussed in my post "The Tail of the Bell", I mentioned that "Normal" is defined, not by the center of the curve where the majority dwell, but rather by the great diversity found in the totality of the curve.  The oddities often seen at the tail ends are simply the results of some greater degree of variation of "the norm".  Since I don't want to get too tangential about this, let me just remind you all that the other point made in that post was that we are all "Normal" as defined by the bell-curve of existence and so we should strive for inclusivity of any who show interest, regardless of their place on the spectrum.

With this in mind, let's return to our subject: You. 

No matter where you come from, what you think you are, what you want to be, you will always have qualities unique to you.  DNA, alone, proves the utter uniqueness of individual organisms in the scheme of life, as even identical twins mutate differently as a consequence of their environments.  BUT...and it's a very big but...this doesn't make you "Special". 

"Special" is one of those buzz words that organizations like to use to describe talented individuals (or, in the case of marketing, the consumer) in order to make them feel some sense of self esteem or worth that they might not otherwise feel for themselves.  Sounds noble, but look under the surface of this insidious practice and you'll quickly see that the results are not only bad, they are outright destructive; not just of the individual, but of the society they participate in.

We hear the word "special" applied most often to children in their early years.  "Oh, Johnny's so special! He knew how to build spaghetti bridges at the age of 3 months!"; "Oh Cindy is such a special girl! She knew the whole map of the United States in-utero!" or other such nonsense phrases get dumped on these poor children early and often.  I know it looks like innocent praise, and telling your child he/she/it is special seems like a good thing to do.  It'll help them feel "confident" or "sure of themseles" as they face the tribulations of life.  Unfortunately, all the "Special" formula yields is an entitled jerk who will become the very thing we all need to work around every day.  And, as if that weren't enough, they'll stop their own personal evolution in its tracks.

See, being "special" inherently carries baggage.  Special implies you're something magnificent; something unparalleled in the universe.  There's no bigger lie you could possibly tell yourself or anyone else.  Unfortunately, life's problem is best phrased as follows (thank you, Vergere): Some are faster, some are smarter, some are stronger, and NOTHING at your command will ever make you better than your gifts.  I said before that we all have something we're good at.  Something we're great at, even.  But we are not "special" for it.  Someone is better than you at it.  Someone will out-do you.  Someone is "more gifted" than you. Don't despair; there are also plenty in the world who are worse than we are.  For all the people in the world who can out-perform you at sports, or math, or writing, there are just as many who will never come close to you at philosophizing, painting, engineering, or whatever.  You are quite capable of being good; great even.  But never, ever, delude yourself into thinking you're The Best.  There is always someone better.

"Fine.  Someone is better; I'm not special.  Why is special harmful?"  I'd need a whole book to go into all the ways, but the short version is two-fold.  Let's deal with the Self first.  If you can't come to terms with being great but not the best at something, you're destined for disappointment at every turn.  In the same way that we must embrace our faults, we must also embrace our shortcomings.  We're not perfect, we're not untouchable, and we WILL fail at much we do in life.  If you can't find a way to process this and grow from it, all it will do is crush you with despair.  Being told "You're special" effectively sets you up to feel conflicted and frightened when you inevitably do fall short of your goal.  The school system (lookin' at you, Board of Education) makes this mistake constantly.  They confuse self esteem with self efficacy and tell all the children they're special as opposed to helping them discover what they are good and bad at.  

Children don't have self-esteem problems. Not at the core, anyway. They have problems understanding achievement.  The children I taught (an appropriately apt example of one's shortcomings and failures) came from very poor communities and often from families that were not kind or caring.  Turns out, children put in such environments end up thinking very highly of themselves. It's a defense against all the people who have told them they won't amount to anything.  It's inevitable and natural in such circumstances.  What they DID have a problem with, was recognizing when they had a chance to do something good for themselves.  They didn't understand that their actions determined anything. They didn't need to be told they were special.  They needed someone to tell them it's ok to fail, so long as you look for success.  Succeeding doesn't make you special.  What it can make you is confident in your ability to move forward.  No one is "special"; we all need to fail and succeed, and we all need to find something we love to succeed at. 

Coming around to the second problem, we have damage done to society by "special" people constantly. It actually flows quite naturally from the above problem.  Imagine one of these people who has been told they're "special".  They're afraid to fail, constantly trying to pass the buck (so they don't get seen as "failed"), and always think less of YOU.  Why wouldn't they?  You're not special; they are.  After all, we can't all be special. Just ONE of these people is already intolerable, isn't it?  Now imagine an entire culture full of these "special snowflakes" that all think less of the other and think too much of themselves. The result is a culture that CAN'T come together to achieve anything since everyone is convinced of the superiority "inherent" in themselves, and the inferiority "inherent" in everyone else.  No one can trust the other and nothing can be accomplished.  And to that end, look at the Board of Education, where all the children consider themselves superior to their teachers (who have experiences, and therefore are "Better" at life then they are by our earlier definition) and disrespect one another constantly.  This, ladies and gentleman, is what snowflake logic will create for as long as it persists.

We're running long now, so I'll close this out by saying this: we are ALL talented in some ways and miserably awful in others.  That's ok. That's the way it always has been and always will be.  Don't be special; just be "you".

I hope you look a little more carefully at the snowflakes this year; metaphorically and literally.  Don't judge or condemn, but just enjoy them for what they are.

Happy Holidays, all.

I'm Trevor, and that's my Frame of Mind.


  1. Given the day I just had, this post was almost disturbingly timely. (I almost didn't read it when I saw the topic.) As usual, though, once you set out your definitions I'm inclined to agree.

    You could go much deeper into the dependency on approval that develops in these snowflake people and the defense mechanisms that run the Board of Ed... but on the other hand, I'm kind of glad you didn't.

    In an attempt to make this comment more stimulating, I'll offer one more remark: Psychological research has shown a tendency for all people (save the depressed) to overestimate themselves on a variety of criteria. Given the pervasiveness of these obviously false beliefs, one could argue that in spite of your objections the "special" phenomenon is ultimately good for [e.g. acts to preserve] society-- or, if that doesn't appeal, is somehow important to human nature/the survival of the species. What price realism, then-- or what value?

  2. Geez! And I thought _I_ was special because you're my son! ;-)

    Seriously, though, I think you've made some very important points here. The misplaced emphasis on _faux_ self-esteem is extremely destructive. Writ large, it has allowed America to blunder on and ignore all our problems while our society disintegrates around us. And who knows what price the rest of the world will pay for this when we finally recognize what has happened to us and go looking for scapegoats to nuke.

    Real self-esteem, I believe, comes from actual accomplishments. And I think that most people have the brain circuitry necessary to recognize a real accomplishment when they make one. I don't deny the value of praise in reinforcing good or useful behavior, but cheap compliments given for doing things an amoeba could accomplish lead, I think mainly to cynicism, and maybe even to learned helplessness.

    I disagree with Pat B above about the "special" phenomenon being ultimately protective or important to survival of our species. Not all highly prevalent traits are adaptive: some flourish because they are not immediately devastating and selective pressures are mild. Some arise just by genetic drift. I think the main usefulness of this in our society is a bit like the usefulness of narcotics: it enables us to ignore, and continue to wallow in, bad situations without being disturbed by the pain.