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The Confidence Trick #3: remember, this is not The Truman Show

Ever feel like everyone's watching you? | Jim Carrey in the Truman Show 1998

In the event that you:

a) Are too young to remember the golden age of Blockbuster, going to pick out a movie on VHS (as long as nobody else had rented it) that had to appeal to every member of the family (because there was only one screen in your house)

b) Have an aversion to Jim Carrey - or even subsets of the concept of Jim Carrey: e.g. gurning, being Canadian, spontaneously changing into Jenny McCarthy's bikini for the paparazzi, incredibly white teeth, improvised "hilarity"

c) Feel uncomfortable with an eery prediction of our obsession with reality television, made in the days when Big Brother was still associated with George Orwell and not a diary room

Then maybe the title of this post means nothing to you. Or maybe an amount of time that is unacceptable to me has passed since 1998, and it feels like a hazy memory, something to do with Ed Harris in a flat cap and an ear piece. In which case, let me explain/refresh your memory.

The premise of the Truman Show is a reality show that the whole world is in on - except the principal protagonist himself, Truman Burbank. Adopted by a TV network before birth, every moment of Truman's life has been broadcast, 24 hours a day, to 2 billion people around the world. He lives in a wholesome, cloying 1950s-eque American small town, and everyone else in his world is an actor. The big life moments - his first steps, his high school graduation, his wedding - get the same kind of blitz coverage as, say, a Royal wedding.

But even the minutiae of his life draw the ratings; viewers are fascinated by his innocence, a genuine and authentic human being untouched by the cynicism of the reality of life, or of reality TV. Because he's never known any different, and he has no idea that he is constantly being watched, even (especially) while he sleeps. Ultimately, after 30 years of unwittingly being exploited as the world's most recognised everyman, the facade cracks, the truth is revealed, and Truman has to decide if he wants his reality as he's always known it, or, you know, real reality.

The message of The Truman Show is that we unquestioningly accept the reality we're presented with. Why would we do any different? If you have the desire to dig deeper, you can also find plenty of discussion on what it has to say about topics as broad as consumerism, theology and the philosophy of hyperreality.

The point of this post, on the other hand, is that most of us have the tendency to believe that we are the stars of our own Truman Show. Maybe not to the extent of merchandise with our face on, theme bars dedicated to us, and cameras behind the bathroom mirror. But the very centre of the universe, constantly under scrutiny, our every utterance under the microscope of public opinion, either to be torn to shreds on the spot, or dissected with derision by the powers that be at some point in the future.

I hate to break it to you... actually, it gives me great pleasure to break it to you, but... you aren't.

Whether you have a regular ego or you give Elon Musk a run for his money, we are all the heroes of our own story. Not because we're narcissists, or sociopaths with an unshakeable belief we deserve to take over the world. Because we all spend our lives in our own heads, and nobody else's.

We all know what we meant to say, even though in reality it came out sounding really rather different. Something that was groundbreaking and astute in a cortex, that came out sounding incredibly obvious as a comment. As an added bonus, we get the unique "benefit" of our own internal commentary. The one that points out that, only a pillock would have used that word, or it takes some kind of donut to forget that this project was all the CFO's idea (your inner critic might have less British vocabulary, but, regardless, I'm sure you get the idea.)

As a species, we're also "blessed" with a cognitive bias for disaster over victory, or even neutrality.

So we all remember that meeting where we called the CEO Jane, when her name is Julie and always had been, or claimed that the gross margin was 40% when it's 24% on a good day, or said "Home Depot" instead of "Lowes", or the time we got verbally smacked down for suggesting that maybe we should ask customers before we implement that change?

If you're someone who suffers from Truman syndrome, here are two thoughts that might blow your mind:

1. Nobody else cares nearly as much about anything you say, do or think as you do. So nobody else remembers that time you mispronounced the name of the brand you were pitching for the account of. Nobody else is thinking - why say that after he very clearly said the opposite? Or if they are, it's a fleeting thought that darts through their mind like a shooting star in the Utah desert.

2. One of the biggest reasons for point 1 above is that everyone else has their own inner dialogue, mental shopping list, pondering on what will happen in the last episode of Succession and, yes, own neuroses to contend with. I will guarantee that while you're agonising over whether to speak up after Tom said something fundamentally wrong... but will that look like you're not ALIGNED with the overall direction...? someone else is pondering their own inner battle about a comment from 5 minutes ago... is it too late to mention that now? Will it look like I've been trying to sabotage marketing by keeping quiet ...?

All of which is to say: so many of us spend out lives agonising over whether to speak up or not because WHAT WILL PEOPLE THINK? What will they say? How will they judge me? What if I get it wrong? What if I don't have all the answers?

It is so much easier to do nothing than do something, to keep quiet than to make a statement, to let things slide than to make a point.

But easy does not a presence make. Nor does it make us feel like - I have made a difference. It matters that I am here.

So for confidence trick #3, when your inner voice hisses at you what if you say something and you get it wrong/everyone thinks you're an idiot/ the spotlight shines on you so brightly that you shrivel up, hiss right back:

I am not on the Truman Show. Everyone else is the centre of their own universe. And last time I checked, there was nobody monitoring my bathroom mirror.

(I very much hope for your sake this last part is true.)

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