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Thursday, 10.14.04: Self-Delusion

"When God created people, they turned out to be imperfect, so God gave them the gift of self-delusion."

That's a paraphrase of something I heard over the past few days, probably on television. It is a gift and some use it with artistry. Maybe it's the basis for reinventing yourself. You have to believe in your future self, become your future self like an actor submersing herself in a role. No inner skeptic allowed.

Management gurus have also puzzled over the phenomenon: espoused beliefs ("I lead through consensus-building.") vs. beliefs-in-action (My way or the highway!!!). It takes a clever observer to separate the two. Other experts will say that this hypocrisy can precede a true transformation. Sometimes you need to talk the talk before you can walk the talk.

Self-delusion works with nations too. As the United States begins to discover rampant corruption and fraud in our voting systems, we will continue to believe that we are the purest democracy on the planet. If we can clean up the mess while maintaining our illusion, that'll be dandy. If not...

That brings me to Russia. In the 10.11.04 New Yorker, Michael Specter writes about "The Devastation" in Russia. Now there is a nation that has been destroyed by its own delusions of grandeur. For decades, as the Soviet Union, they were determined to show the world that Communism worked -- how many dictators and failed 10-year plans would it take to create a communal utopia? Hmmm...

The Soviet Union collapsed. Now the people are dying off. Their birthrate is one of the lowest in modern peacetime history. Heart disease, alcohol consumption, tuberculosis, and nicotine addiction have depressed life expectancy. A boy born in Russia today has a life expectancy of 58 -- less than Bangladesh. And now they have AIDS.

The epidemic is rampant and snowballing, but barely recognized and not a priority with Putin. Brazil, with comparable population and slightly lower per capita income, spends a billion dollars a year on AIDS. Russia spends only 4 million. Why?

Self-delusion. Russia still wants to be an only slightly tarnished superpower. They committed $20 million to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS. They pride themselves on being seen as a "donor country" helping out poor third-world nations combat disease but not seeing that they themselves are now a third-world nation.

This kind of sudden collapse is scary. We've seen it in companies like Enron, too. Glossy on the outside, deteriorating on the inside. Then poof, they're gone.

Here's a question: when is self-delusion functional and when is it toxic? When does keeping up appearances get you through the rough spots? And when does it simply spin you into self-destruction or paralysis? Maybe it's the capacity of our psyches or our organizations to work "behind the curtain" to get reality to match up with the "brand." That assumes some basic understanding of cause and effect. But how popular is that discipline these days?

To anyone trying to "live their dream," this seems like an important question.




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