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 Friday, November 30, 2012
On Uniqueness, and Difference

In my teenage formative years, which (I will have to admit) occurred during the 80s, educators and other people deeply involved in the formation of young peoples' psyches laid great emphasis on building and enhancing our self-esteem. Self-esteem, in fact, seems to have been the cause and cure of every major problem suffered by any young person in the 80s; if you caved to peer pressure, it was because you lacked self-esteem. If you dressed in the latest styles, it was because you lacked the self-esteem to differentiate yourself from the crowd. If you dressed contrary to the latest styles, it was because you lacked the self-esteem to trust in your abilities (rather than your fashion) to stand out. Everything, it seemed, centered around your self-esteem, or lack thereof. "Be yourself", they said. "Don't be what anyone else says you are", and so on.

In what I think was supposed to be a trump card for those who suffered from chronically low self-esteem, those who were trying to form us into highly-self-esteemed young adults stressed the fact that by virtue of the fact that each of us owns a unique strand of DNA, then each of us is unique, and therefore each of us is special. This was, I think, supposed to impose on each of us a sense of self- worth and self-value that could be relied upon in the event that our own internal processing and evaluation led us to believe that we weren't worth anything.

(There was a lot of this handed down at my high school, for example, particularly my freshman year when one of my swim team teammates committed suicide.)

With the benefit of thirty years' hindsight, I can pronounce this little experiment/effort something of a failure.

The reason I say this is because it has, it seems, spawned a generation of now-adults who are convinced that because they are unique, that they are somehow different--that because of their uniqueness, the generalizations that we draw about people as a whole don't apply to them. I knew one woman (rather well) who told me, flat out, that she couldn't get anything out of going to therapy, because she was different from everybody else. "And if I'm different, then all of those things that the therapist thinks about everybody else won't apply to me." And before readers start thinking that she was a unique case, I've heard it in a variety of different forms from others, too, on a variety of different topics other than mental health. Toss in the study, quoted in a variety of different psych books, that something like 80% of the population thinks they are "above average", and you begin to get what I mean--somewhere, deep down, we've been led down this path that says "Because you are unique, you are different."

And folks, I hate to burst your bubble, but you're not.

Don't get me wrong, I understand that fundamentally, if you are unique, then by definition you are different from everybody else. But implicit in this discussion of the word "different" is an assumption that suggests that "different" means "markedly different", and it's in that distinction that the argument rests.

Consider this string of numbers for a second:

12345678901234567890123456789012345678901234567890
and this string of numbers:
12345678901234567890123456788012345678901234567890
These two strings are unique, but I would argue that they're not different--in fact, their contents differ by one digit (did you spot it?), but unless you're looking for the difference, they're basically the same sequential set of numbers. Contrast, then, the first string of numbers with this one:
19283746519283746519283746554637281905647382910000
Now, the fact that they are unique is so clear, it's obvious that they are different. Markedly different, I would argue.

If we look at your DNA, and we compare it to another human's DNA, the truth is (and I'm no biologist, so I'm trying to quote the numbers I was told back in high school biology), you and I share about 99% of the same DNA. Considering the first two strings above are exactly 98% different (one number in 50 digits), if you didn't see the two strings as different, then I don't think you can claim that you're markedly different from any other human if you're half again less different than those two numbers.

(By the way, this is actually a very good thing, because medical science would be orders of magnitude more difficult, if not entirely impossible, to practice if we were all more different than that. Consider what life would be like if the MD had to study you, your body, for a few years before she could determine whether or not Tylenol would work on your biochemistry to relieve your headache.)

But maybe you're one of those who believes that the difference comes from your experiences--you're a "nurture over nature" kind of person. Leaving all the twins' research aside (the nature-ists final trump card, a ton of research that shows twins engaging in similar actions and behaviors despite being raised in separate households, thus providing the best isolation of nature and nurture while still minimizing the variables), let's take a small quiz. How many of you have:

  1. kissed someone not in your family
  2. slept with someone not in your family
  3. been to a baseball game
  4. been to a bar
  5. had a one-night stand
  6. had a one-night stand that turned into "something more"
... we could go on, probably indefinitely. You can probably see where I'm going with this--if we look at the sum total of our experiences, we're going to find that a large percentage of our experiences are actually quite similar, particularly if we examine them at a high level. Certainly we can ask the questions at a specific enough level to force uniqueness ("How many of you have kissed Charlotte Neward on September 23rd 1990 in Davis, California?"), but doing so ignores a basic fact that despite the details, your first kiss with the man or woman you married has more in common with mine than not.

If you still don't believe me, go read your horoscope for yesterday, and see how much of that "prediction" came true. Then read the horoscope for yesterday for somebody born six months away from you, and see how much of that "prediction" came true. Or, if you really want to test this theory, find somebody who believes in horoscopes, and read them the wrong one, and see if they buy it as their own. (They will, trust me.) Our experiences share far more in common--possibly to the tune of somewhere in the high 90th percentiles.

The point to all of this? As much as you may not want to admit it, just because you are unique does not make you different. Your brain reacts the same ways as mine does, and your emotions lead you to make bad decisions in the same ways that mine does. Your uniqueness does not in any way exempt you from the generalizations that we can infer based on how all the rest of us act, behave, and interact.

This is both terrifying and reassuring: terrifying because it means that the last bastion of justification for self-worth, that you are unique, is no longer a place you can hide, and reassuring because it means that even if you are emotionally an absolute wreck, we know how to help you straighten your life out.

By the way, if you're a software dev and wondering how this applies in any way to software, all of this is true of software projects, as well. How could it not? It's a human exercise, and as a result it's going to be made up of a collection of experiences that are entirely human. Which again, is terrifying and reassuring: terrifying in that your project really isn't the unique exercise you thought it was (and therefore maybe there's no excuse for it being in such a deep hole), and reassuring in that if/when it goes off the rails into the land of dysfunction, it can be rescued.