The influence of social networks on self-development
I will start my essay with a quote of Arthur Schopenhauer, taken from his book “The wisdom of life”.
“Truly and deep piece of the heart and soul as well as good health, you can get being alone. No matter how we are connected to friendship, love, marriage, but truly we belong to ourselves and our children. The less objective and subjective reasons to face with people we have, the better for us. In loneliness you can avoid bad habits and idleness. The main science of the youth should be the ability to stand loneliness, as the rest is the source of happiness and piece of soul.”
For the modern reader those words may sound very contradicting.
Although there is a seed of wisdom in those sentences related to ability to stand loneliness and not spending time with those who practice idleness. At the same time, nowadays we have much more power to build our connections and we can choose the connections, that nurture our life to a great extent.
In this essay I try to observe, how the social life of the person can affect his personality and self-development process, how one can speed up self-development by building the social network mindfully.
There is no clear definition of the self-development, however in Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary it is the following: “Self-development is the process by which the character or person’s abilities are gradually developed”. Personal-development definition, however, is elaborated more and oriented at higher level standards of life and bigger goals than the process of self-development.
“Personal development covers activities that improve awareness and identity, develop talents and potential, build human capital and facilitate employability, enhance quality of life and contribute to the realization of dreams and aspirations.”
Personal development compared to self-development is aimed at achieving higher dreams, realizing one’s potential and talents. The goal of personal development is somehow very closely linked to the society where one lives, as the quality of life, identity is mentioned. Clearly self-development, as a form of developing skills and character is less global and can be implemented individually. In my essay, I will refer to the term self-development to take into account developing skills and character and try to show why self-development is a very social process nowadays.
Self-improvement sources in the past
Here I want to go through the main sources of self-improvement that could be used by ordinary people in the early-days: religion, education and philosophy.
Religion provides a system of beliefs and tries to explain the origin of the world. The moral values, ethics, the meaning of life can be inferred from the stories. It serves as one the method to unite people by introducing common view on the how the world was created and how one should live.
Religion itself does not provide the exact methods and the system of practices in comparison to esoteric systems. Esoteric systems as well as religion aimed at providing moral and ethical foundations, however religion does not provide exact means how to practice them. In comparison esoteric systems provide specific set of tools for that. Esoteric systems can be within the religion, like Sufism in Islam or Neidan within Daosism.
I want to illustrate popular esoterical system Yoga, that gains its popularity not only as the set of physical practices, but as the whole system for development mind, soul and body. It does not belong clearly to one of the religions but rather takes its roots from Vedic texts.
Yoga is spiritual, as it is oriented to the process of exploring and comprehending life by understanding one’s spirit.
Yoga is ethical and one of its main virtues is non-violence.
Yoga is practical as proposes the ways to manage your body.
Yoga is intellectual as it assumes using the strengths of mind.
Religion and esoterical systems were the most affordable ways of self-development for ordinary people. Although practicing religion has some social nature and it unifies people, it can be practiced being alone.
Education is the second way towards developing person’s skills. Although self-development these days is much more than basic education, in the past, education was one the first steps towards self-development. Education provides the system for learning, upbringing and development. In pedagogical terms educating is the process of transferring the socio-cultural knowledge from the previous generations and organizing the process of mastering this experience as well and ability to apply this experience in different situations.
Basic education for a long time was the privilege of high social class people, so that the majority of people did not have the opportunity for that. Moreover higher class representatives at different stages of history had their own teachers, attended gymnasiums or philosophical academia. Their education and some skills were important to maintain their class affiliation.
The third indirect group of sources for self-development are meetings, social events and clubs of interests. Again they were affordable to higher classes, for aristocracy and not so often for usual ordinary people. The gap between the classes was a crucial obstacle for the flow of ideas and spreading them. It was beneficial to have lower classes of people, who were not enough educated and implemented the most difficult work to serve the need of higher classes.
The foundations for self-development were based mostly on the religion or education, available for certain social classes. Due to the gap between social classes, communities or geographical borders, existing for centuries, people could learn mostly from their closed community. Due to low mobility, interaction with people from distant locations was not affordable easily. The information spread through the authorities or people who travelled, like traders or discoverers.
Despite of the fact that self-development concept did not exist or was not widely spread until the 19th century, the theory for that was already establishing since Aristotle times. He introduced the concept of moral and intellectual virtues in his work “The Nichomatian Ethics”, as the base for becoming a better person. In my opinion, he tried to describe the core difficulty of self-development, that is training the virtues and making them a habit. The virtues were introduced in different religions, but they do not bring the gain, unless being practiced. Another difficulty while training, that he found, is making mindful choice for the virtue. Voting for making virtue act involves much more will, that choosing a pleasure. Besides, moral and intellectual virtues he also stressed that the virtue of man should include not only the proper state of character, but also making his own work well using his character.
Self-development and the role of social networks nowadays
So far, we have observed the most classical sources of self-development that were exploited by people. Education, culture and religion were slowly evolving and provided to people a way to pass the knowledge from previous generations.
Despite of the fact, that people exchanged the experiences within their social group due to the limited flow between those groups, new ideas were introduced significantly slower in comparison to last two centuries.
I try to illustrate why nowadays it is much easier to grow faster and getting the support for that. How horizontal connections (people from your circle of friends, acquaintances) affect your habits and shape the world view.
Social Network is a term introduced quite recently. I mean by the social network a network of social interactions and personal relationships between individuals. At the same time it is the web-platform for interaction, for example, Facebook. I will use the term social network in a broader sense and cover both virtual and real interactions between people.
Social Networks are studied not only by humanitarians, but also by interdisciplinary teams with mathematicians and computer scientists. Imagine, people are represented as nodes and nodes are connected if there is a direct interaction between 2 people, for example friendship. Nodes and connections between them form a structure of a graph. There is a field of study called Computational Social Science that studies how interactions between the individuals, represented by graphs, can be studied. Many interesting questions are asked given the social network: how fast the news can spread, how to predict the spread of decease in a certain region, how to predict a new friendship.
In book “Connected” Nicholas Christakis shows how greatly we are affected by the social circle that we belong to. They say, that people are often can be described by taking the average of their 5 friends. It goes from the assumption, that friends are chosen based on the homophilia.
Nicholas Christakis goes beyond that. He shows that we people tend to learn from the behavior we see around and perceive this behavior as normal. Therefore we have a higher possibility to repeat the behavior we have seen, then the new one. It is a well-known fact that children copy the behavior of their parents. Still, for grown-ups, learning some behavioral patterns continues, although less, then for children. The fact, that we learn behavioral patterns especially from people, we see often, gives a clue, why self-improvement and growth can be accelerated or delayed in a certain environment.
I will try to illustrate with several points, why it is significantly easier to grow by having diverse and proper social interactions.
“A fundamental assumption is that learning from the examples of other people behavior is a major and likely dominant mechanism of behavior change in humans.”
– Alex Pentland from “Social Physics”
First of all, behavioral patterns, that one might want to improve are very hard to learn from books. As behavior is a system of complex actions and it is studied better on the examples of real people. Let us imagine, Alice has decided to become from a real lady and develop her manners to visit official important political ceremonies and talk to important people there. Can Alice prepare for the ceremony by reading a book? Probably, she would not be confident at all by only reading. She would need to get acquainted with some people of higher class before, try to spend more time with them and may be getting a friend from that circle. This way, it would come naturally to embrace new norms and ethics by getting closer to representatives of the specific social class.
Except learning from the individual behavior, individuals, striving for growth, can go further and be inspired by certain people. Inspiration from the study case with a real person works better than explanation of possible achievement, which can be made. Again people intrinsically learn better from other people and trust their words after seeing the results. In addition, people achieving extraordinary results show to others that it is possible to do. In the history of running after one person achieved significant improvement in time, some other top performers achieved the same time several years later. Thus “winners” can establish new limits and establish new norms of excellence. Advantage here is that we do not have to know them in reality, but we can learn by following their life virtually. However, there is an advantage being a close friend, because person can see the whole picture of struggling towards the better performance and how much effort one should actually do before having some good results.
Appropriate community as well can accelerate self-development by establishing high norms, to which their members should adjust too. Although self-development here is partially social process and controlled by the community, one holds the responsibility for the quality of implementation of these norms. For example, a student can enter Harvard University, but still would not be motivated to achieve the average performance at the university. This way good opportunity can be lost, although it is much easier to study harder, when the majority of the people do that around the person. Community has the advantage as well due to having a possibility to choose friends according to your will and to form a strong friendship for the future.
Our social networks help us greatly with exploration of new ideas that is one of the components of self-development. Getting new ideas and knowledge helps to shape the world picture and continuously update it. In my opinion, being open minded and ready to update your beliefs is one of the base quality of progressive people. The beliefs make us who we are in the end, we get in what we belief. Moreover, we are able to change as long as we are seeing the opportunities for it or creating this opportunities. Opportunities are more available for open-minded people.
Exploration of ideas enhances decision making and Alex Pentland in his book ”Social Physics” makes the good reasoning about that. He defines exploration as a part of idea flow that brings new ideas into a work group or community. There are three main blocks needed for good exploration:
- Social learning – using other people knowledge when individuals knowledge is week
- Diversity – listening to different groups of people
- Contrarians – having those people with different than standard opinions
In my opinion, exploration nowadays is significantly improved not only by direct social connections, but by the internet community as well. Taking into account the opinion of thousands of other users, helps to enhance our decision making, choose a better product, get useful advice and reduce the time needed to figure out something ourselves. Although one should not avoid taking into account the opinions and advices of other people, the responsibility for filtering out the information and making a final decision stays with the individual. Here lies the wisdom to listen to the others and form finally your own decision.
Thus, we covered in this part the main question of this work is how the social connections can accelerate our personal development to great extent.
How I filter the information from people to protect myself
Although my essay stresses the opportunities for self-development by social interactions, one should know how to filter the information. One should know when to avoid some information to protect the mind from negative influence. Filtering information means not trusting all sources or not even trying to be exposed to some sources of information. Self-development and our views are closely related to the information that we consume every day, from people we interact. Although interacting with certain “difficult” people can strengthen our character, we should avoid being exposed to such people on a regular basis, as they can affect us.
Below I try to summarize some of my principles to filter out the information I read and how I filter advices and opinions:
- Not to follow only one life-coach, but rather listen to several trusted ones to choose working for me solutions and to avoid extremes cases
- To check the opinion of the majority, as majority could be also be wrong. Some of the beliefs that seemed to be true eventually turn out not to be true later.
- We belief in what we see and hear everyday, so I try to surround myself more with prevailing successful examples
- Avoid asking the advice from people, who do not have enough information or experience to advice. I try to be very careful with choosing a friend when I need to discuss some important question. For example, relationship questions I discuss with the best friend, who has very good relationships already.
- Try to avoid excessive flow of information and news not to be filled with negative information, but rather concentrate on good achievements to be more inspired. I stopped reading news very regularly and try to read short summaries not in the morning, as they can make me less concentrated on my work during the day.
- To respect yourself and protect yourself from negative statements towards you. I believe that to grow person should have a strong belief in himself and at the same time real picture that helps to have objective assessment of himself. Respecting yourself and being honest with yourself (understanding week points) helps to have enough belief and find the right direction to go forward.
Before finishing my essay, I want to point out the importance of self-development not only for the individual, but also for the people around and for the society in general. It does not matter what kind of task or job one does, but what matters is the desire to make it on the level and with love. Self-development makes us enjoy the life fully having a better relations, feeling yourself in a healthier body and implementing your duties and work on a descent level. By opening our talents, sharing our light with people we show that we are worth the gift given to us once, named life.