I’m not (just) here to preach that you don’t magically become someone else at midnight, we’re talking some real change too.
You probably already know that the entire new year new me charade is bullshit. So I’m not here to tell you that, because you’re a reasonable adult and you know you don’t reverse-Cinderella at midnight on the 31st of December. Instead, I am here to explore three things: #1. why we do get the urge to believe in the new year new me fairy-tale in the first place, #2. what happens when the magic fails to deliver and Peter Pan grows old and blasé about his daily grind, and #3. what other strategy I’ve found works better for me instead, when trying to fill in for #1.
We clear on the plan here? Okay cool then let’s get right into the obligatory long-tangent-that-eventually-makes-a-point.
#1 The reverse-Cinderella effect
I work in advertising (i.e. will write stuff for food); I do not represent nor speak for the entirety of advertising, obviously, opinions are strictly my own.
Yet I’ve been doing this for a bit, and I’ve noticed that people outside the field seem to think what we do is way more arch-enemy-level cool than it actually is. People seem to think that advertising is this mass of evil money-hungry people in suits, but that’s a misconception. We are not that cool at all. About 80% of the people I’ve met working in advertising collect some sort of geeky weird ass thing: we’re mostly serious nerd material. While there are evil money-hungry people in suits out there in the world in general, they seldom are directly responsible for the actual advertising you see. They’re out there, into the big world, and most of the advertisers I know have never met any such black-unicorn. We work with, well, other normal people. But more on that later.
We’ve made it common knowledge in my field that people follow a certain pattern, on average.
Come the end of the year, we make a mental inventory of who we are and what we’ve achieved the past 12 months, and stick that shit up against who we’d like to be, carefully weighing in the discrepancies and making an overly-ambitious plan to fix everything we think is wrong at once. January and February kick in and we are all about that life, we try to do it all, go to the gym, see that therapist, stick to that balanced meal plan, or whatever else you may feel like you’ve been postponing for too long, at once.
Then, as spring starts rolling in, the weight of it all starts to pull us down. The determination starts to dwindle a little: we’re fucking tired, and we have good reason to be. The finite resource that is our willpower becomes strained to the max and gives in, often on everything at once, other times little by little, as we slowly transition into the advertising-cult-favourite, the summer of travel and indulgence. As autumn brings in all the fall-everything, we’re still chasing our blues away into oblivion best we can, swallowing our emotions whole with a side of pumpkin-spiced-xyz. Then December is just around the corner, so we do all that shit all over again.
This is why there are discounts for yearly memberships at the gym in January. Why the cooking channels all gear towards the healthy food during the first couple months of the year. Ads for personal planners, self-help courses, kick-off-the-new-year workshops, all double down in time for the December self-inventory.
Advertising is often made out to be the devil taking advantage of one’s poor innocent soul. Yet the devil can’t have your soul unless you willingly sign it up yourself in an attempt to fill a very real 21st century void. We who work in the field are not taking advantage of anything we don’t fall victim to ourselves. Seriously, everyone I know in this industry is obsessed with buying some sort of shit we can’t afford, myself included. You’d think we’d know better, since we you know are the devil. But trust me though, we don’t, and we’re not.
We are but observing human behaviour, often times our own, and catering to it. If people wanted to spend their time doing something else entirely, advertising would cater to that instead. If you don’t believe me, google some 1960s ads. Though it often seems like society has to fight to change advertising, we in fact just all have to fight to change one another and foremost ourselves, because advertising has been cooperating all along. It’s not being shoved down people’s throats, so much as it is being observed through social trends and taken to advertising-typical hyperbolic extremes we all know and love (the this mascara will change your life sort of thing). If people change what fairy-tale they want to buy into, advertising adapts to get you what you want. We don’t dictate this shit in the great advertising conspiracy tower. We all dictate this shit, those working in the field and those earning other types of capitalist living entirely, we dictate it as buyers.
Instead of looking to the advertising world for guidance, we may instead allow for the very real possibility that it was in fact a long series of brainstorming rooms each containing a handful of creative nerds struggling to interpret the interworking of social trends and cater to them so people buy the thing and they keep having a job, more so than it is a worldwide advertising conspiracy.
In effect, we are marketed the reverse-Cinderella new year new me bullshit because that’s what one does at the end of the year in the 1st world of the 21st century. Though the purpose is obviously to buy more, it isn’t some big buy-more conspiracy; we are taking note of what we all feel like we’re missing and tailoring our campaigns to that. It’s not because there’s a conspiracy to get you to sell your soul to the devil of capitalism. It’s because the people who do have a soul to sell (i.e. money) want to sign that soul off to the illusion that they can magically transform overnight.
From my experience, if you’ve been writing stuff in exchange for currency for the better part of the last 10 years, you’d wish we did something else at the end of the year. I’m tired of finding new creative ways to cater to my own unfulfilled need, risen from setting myself some really big standards and then not being willing to put in the long-term patience to achieve them realistically. I honestly wish we were doing something else. Yet here we all are, myself included, at the end of another year, tempted to buy into the fairy-tale, clicking on some of the new year resolutions and 2018 epiphanies articles, thinking about what I’m doing with my life and shopping for things to fill the void, dancing to my own tune, selling my own soul (to myself? other anonymous nerds in the industry? the people who pay the nerds? who exactly am I to blame in this case for my own shopping behaviours?).
Where the advertising budget comes from is a case-by-case thing; the advertising itself though, mostly comes from a bunch of anonymous creative nerds doing their best to earn a living doing something they’re good at, which is observing human trends and catering to them. There are corner cases of those who pay for the advertising holding outdated views and forcing them down onto the creatives who work for them. But it’s mostly just us as a society. It’s us, feeding the numbers that dictate what kind of campaign trends stay and which die, with our shopping behaviours, it’s us being that statistic with our own wallets. Just like you are the traffic more so than you are stuck in it, you are the advertising trend more so than you are subdued by it.
All this to say, we should be shifting the spotlight back onto ourselves: why does advertising sell this particular type of story over and over again? Obviously, because we’re buying. But why are we? Why do we want to believe?
In part, it’s because we are privileged enough to afford to envision a so-called better version of ourselves, i.e. to take our self-demands beyond survival and onto an entirely new arena of tweaking and fine tuning. Our ancestors could not afford to care about a balance diet: we were not cut out by evolution to fit so much worrying and tweaking into our brains. Yet, to do so is a privilege of the 1st world that many still do not enjoy, and we should be forever humbled by the mere prospects said privilege is awarding us. With that in mind, the urge to self-improvement is a positive. Kind of. It’s also a double-edged sword.
We set ourselves up for disappointment with standards based on other people’s curated social media feeds and business-porn dispensed from atop one’s multiple zeros net worth, while most of us live pay check to pay check. Instead of facing up to the reality of what making real progress with the goals we set for ourselves might entail, we like to believe that we can magically make everything happen overnight. We want to buy into the reverse-Cinderella, we want to hope that we can transform into a new person entirely come midnight.
But the truth is all that’s not going to happen at once, and those changes will take time and effort you may not be willing to spare, if they even are realistic to begin with. And I’m here to tell you, that this is okay. Everyone feels like this in the 1st world. You are not alone. We are all selling our souls to the big capitalist dream, to the fucked-up ideal we hold ourselves up to.
#2 The adult Peter Pan with student debt
Peter Pan never grows old for a reason. And that reason is, the crippling responsibilities of adult life in the present day. That’s also why Cinderella and her newly chosen life partner are not seen facing the prospect of doing joint taxes.
The fairy-tale doesn’t hold up to real life. We crumble under the weight of our own unrealistic expectations. We hold ourselves up to a meticulously crafted set of standards that are just not possible under our current circumstances. We set ourselves up for failure through refusing to accept our limitations with kindness.
The easiest way to help change advertising is to shop for something different yourself. Don’t like that particular type of Victoria’s Secret most recent ‘fairy-tale’? Flip that shit the bird and buy into something else, and eventually, come the yearly roundups, numbers on desk, people who are responsible for approving those campaigns will catch the drift, and they will adapt and play a different tune or die out in the grand corporate jungle.
Pragmatically speaking, you still need underwear so you have to shop for something — and, with the debatable exception of apocalypse scenarios, there will always be plenty of people out there with the cash to cater to that in order to make more cash. The campaigns those people with the cash give the thumbs up to are shaped by what continues to look good in the numbers, because 99% of times their interest is not in feeding you a particular fairy-tale, their interest is in feeding you any fairy-tale that gets you buying more so they make more money, because duuh.
Advertising is not the devil. It is instead a hyperbolised, over-dramatic mirror of our collective 1st world consciousness as it appears reflected by our buying behaviours, and we should stop blaming the mirror for our not liking what we see staring back at us.
So share advertising you do love and wish you saw more of, so that others in your circle see more of it too. Give Instagram feedback on those irrelevant ads, so the numbers add up. Shop advertising you like, because if you’re not liking what you’re seeing in the ads and are privileged enough to spare the mental energy to complain about it, your own purchasing decisions add up into the ads you see.
In time, with different trends and buying behaviours, that mirror will show a different reflection. In the meantime, I worry more about the woman who still holds herself up to unrealistic Victoria’s Secret standards, than I do about the people who decided to go with that particular campaign. If we manage to change women’s minds about their own self-worth, they will no longer feel the need to buy into that particular set of beauty standards. Advertising that will not adapt to the resulting shift in buying behaviour, will die out.
We must examine why we buy into the things we buy, and start buying into different fairy-tales. That there are so many more indie brands starting to gain traction when selling alternative fairy-tales, is proof that it does work. It applies to the underwear we buy as much as it does the art we consume, the news we click on, and everything else we can choose to either blindly dive into or self-examine and make a conscious decision about.
I am, therefore, looking to make more conscious choices in regard to the self-improvement I buy into. Here’s what I’m in the market for when it comes to self-development — and what I’ve found works for me in terms of actually getting there.
#3 The proceeding slowly and with kindness
I know, proceeding slowly and with kindness sounds much less fair-tale-esque. It does not possess the glam appeal of the bullet journal that will change your life. But it works for me.
See, I have a lot of bad habits. Like, a lot. I looove me some good ol’ self-destructive coping patterns. And I’m constantly working on replacing those with more healthy or productive alternatives.
In doing so, I’ve learned two vital things:
· sudden changes without a backup plan never stick;
· beating yourself up won’t force a better progress rate out of you, if anything it will achieve the contrary.
This set of (albeit empirical) observations delivers us to my two golden rules: your own pace is fine life is not a competition, and for fuck’s sake show yourself some kindness.
Regardless of what I’m trying to achieve, I strive to apply those two golden rules as best I can throughout the way. Doing anything else is only detrimental in the long run.
For example, seeing as I haven’t engaged in any sort of sport other than avid trekking in literally 20 years, it is unlikely that I will manage to suddenly fit attending the gym 4 times a week into my life and have that be a sustainable change. It will be too much to cram at once into an at times already overwhelming average middle-class-adult life; I would get discouraged by each failure and become less and less likely to face my own shame and get back into the routine. Personally, I cannot improve like that. I know a lot of people who can and do. Yet somehow it doesn’t look pleasant. I am not convinced. I don’t want to buy into that.
I’m in the market for starting at my own pace and building up from there as my self-confidence and comfort around the changes begin to build a little, too.
Willpower is a finite yet renewable resource, like the proverbial mana bar. And the way to fill that bar back up and allow for more willpower to be cast is an intimate, custom endeavour for each of us. What the way into filling the willpower bar back up is not for either of us though, is beating ourselves up and forcing self-improvement down our own throats. No, really, I’ve tried.
What works for me (and what I, for example, intend to apply to taking up some sort of physical activity), is incremental steps and not thinking about how far I have left to go. Like a good heavy book, the journey through will not feel long, if I get into it.
As it follows then, these are my two action-points: breaking it down into small achievable steps that I feel would best help boost that willpower-bar-full feeling as I go — and then taking those small steps one at a time, trying not to think about my progress in comparing-myself-to-social-media terms.
I understand, from practice, that the above is way harder to actually do than it is to write down. Which is where the two golden rules we’ve discussed come in: your own pace is fine + kindness.
This upcoming year, I plan to be the same person, because it is unrealistic to expect anything else of myself. But I do plan to be an infinitesimally better version of myself every day, even if it means that some days my only progress is learning from my own mistakes.
This upcoming year, I am going to give myself permission to fail and try again. Maybe, in a sense, this resolution is my own way of buying into the reverse-Cinderella story.
As ever, thank you for your time debating with me — and do feel free to share your own reverse-Cinderella effect resolutions for the upcoming year. I wish you (as well as myself) the patience and self-kindness to achieve them.