how to put the awe into awesome
“TGIF — Thank God I’m Fabulous”
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect.” – Mark Twain
All over the web, it seems, there is a call to Be Awesome.
(One of the most recent is Johnny Truant’s new free ebook HOW TO BE LEGENDARY — perhaps using the word ‘legendary’ because ‘awesome’ has been pummeled to death — and it’s good. You should read it.)
What does it actually mean, to be awesome?
To inspire awe.
And my favorite definition of ‘awe’ is Jane McGonigal’s, from REALITY IS BROKEN:
“Awe is what we feel when we recognize that we’re in the presence of something bigger than ourselves. It’s closely linked with feelings of spirituality, love, and gratitude – and more importantly, a desire to serve.”
When we talk about being awesome – at least online – we talk in terms of kicking ass and dominating the world. What we’re often missing is this whole other dimension that McGonigal is referring to – ‘the presence of something bigger than ourselves’.
She’s talking about meaning.
Meaning is about making a difference, about doing something that actually matters, that has resonance in the world beyond our own little lives.
Meaning is about connecting our daily actions to “something bigger than ourselves”.
Our culture doesn’t really encourage this: everything starts and ends with the power of the individual to buy something. But the self, as Martin Seligman points out, “is a very poor site for meaning.” What actually makes us feel fulfilled isn’t shopping for another pair of boots (although that has its place) but those moments when we can get over our own damn selves, and hook into something so major that it humbles us in the best possible way.
“Our ability to feel awe,” writes McGonigal,
in the form of chills, goose bumps or choking up serves as a kind of emotional radar for detecting meaningful activity. Whenever we feel awe, we know we’ve found a potential source of meaning. We’ve discovered a real opportunity to be of service, to band together, to contribute to a larger cause.”
In the book GREAT BY CHOICE, Jim Collins refers to “level 5 ambition”. While analyzing the characters of some of the most awesome leaders in business – called 10xers because they’ve achieved 10 times the results as their competitors — Collins and his team discovered them to be, as he politely puts it, “somewhat extreme”. Despite the image we have of the swashbuckling charismatic entrepreneur – Richard Branson, for example – these 10xers emerged as
“paranoid, contrarian, independent, obsessed, monomaniacal, exhausting, and so forth….We labeled them PNFs, short for ‘paranoid neurotic freaks.’”
And yet, if this was all they were – weird, selfish, antisocial, etc. – they probably could not have built such impressive organizations. So Collins asks the very reasonable question: Why do people follow them? And then he answers:
“Because of a deeply attractive form of ambition: [they] channel their ego and intensity into something larger and more enduring than themselves. They’re ambitious, to be sure, but for a purpose beyond themselves, be it building a great company, changing the world, or achieving some great object that’s ultimately not about them.”
We hunger for purpose and meaning. We follow those who can hook us up. This also might explain why cause marketing is on the rise. The consumer doesn’t just buy a chocolate bar or a pair of shoes, but becomes part of a larger story in which she is helping the physical and social environment or enabling children in a third-world country to go to school.
It’s story that takes a bunch of facts and makes meaning out of them. In the case of cause marketing, story creates a context around the product that imbues it, and the action of buying it, with a sense of significance.
When we get it, we like to spread it around. Awe is contagious. A study at the University of Pennsylvania attempted to decode word-of-mouth by investigating what motivates readers of the New York Times to email articles to friends. Through an examination of the articles that were emailed the most, the primary finding was this:
people pass on the stories that inspire in the reader a feeling of awe.
In this case, awe gets defined as the “emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self.” Stories that trigger it have two important dimensions: 1) their scale is epic, and 2) they require “mental accommodation”, meaning they force the reader to somehow alter their view of the world.
Awe broadens your perspective.
It shifts your personal paradigm.
In her book GENERATION ME, Jean M Twenge argues that the youngest generations today are “more miserable than ever before” because of our culture’s heavy emphasis on self-esteem and self-fulfillment. We try to make ourselves happy alone. But true happiness – as psychologists, philosophers and spiritual leaders have demonstrated through the ages – comes from making and fulfilling commitments to others. We want to be recognized for the impact we have. The legacy we leave. We want to know that our lives actually meant something.
The ability to be awesome, then, isn’t about – or just about — kicking ass or being a badass – but the ability to unlock meaning and connect to something bigger.
What awesome forces are at play in your own life?
How are you awesome?