The Echo Chamber

I've made a lot of changes in a short amount of time. Carrie has been repeating it lately. My counsellor shared the same sentiment. The other day, Carrie saw me folding clothes, whereas I used to just leave everything in the hamper, and she said it was one of the sexiest things she ever saw me do. Understanding my new identity will help guide me through the new waters. When I face my old challenges again, it'll be with a new perspective. I got a new attituuude.

I chatted with some old friends from high school this week. Of the many topics we covered, one that stood out was how social media serves to reinforce a false reality which damages our self-esteem, an echo chamber if you will. It's a topic of concern now because how Facebook's insulating effect, showing only content that increases engagement and therefore ad revenue, had a big impact on the US election. The type of echo chamber I'm talking about is less about fake news and more about people only sharing their best moments. People tend to only share the high points of their lives, which is nothing new but it amplifies with online social networks. I read a tweet somewhere that said "If Snapchat has taught me anything, there's always a music festival somewhere." We compare those highlights to our mundane everyday existence, which makes us feel bad about ourselves.

“The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel." - Steve Furtick

For people from my high school, it's especially different because everyone is so unrelentingly and unapologetically successful in their careers. It's nice to catch up with old friends who get it. For those that don't know, I went to Old Scona Academic, a public school in Edmonton where classes each year are limited to 100 or so students filtered by an entrance exam, among other things. After university (pretty much everyone from OSA goes on to post-secondary), we skew highly towards becoming doctors, lawyers, engineers, and PhDs, many of whom have big salaries, fancy vacations, nice material possessions, etc., so it's especially hard for us keeners on social media because it's impossible to keep up. It's interesting to observe as your peers drop off from Plan A towards Plans B, C, and D. This person couldn't get into the med school of their choice, so they went somewhere else. This other person's relationship didn't work out, and now they're with this new person. A few people seem to be capable of keeping with their Plan A's, and I'm learning to not be jealous of them. For some people to keep on their grind like that, it requires the ability to ignore certain problems in favour of the ones that move them forward on their plan, and there's an archetype for super successful type A career people who have a whole host of personal problems, whether they be physical or mental, relationship and intimacy, family, drugs and alcohol, etc. Despite what Liz Lemon thinks, we can't have it all. I'm probably on my Plan D here. My Plan A was to be a doctor, but luckily I switched out of that six months before going to university. Plan B was to work as an engineer, marry Carrie in Calgary, but I'm not working in engineering right now. Plan C was to work in tech and support Carrie through school, but I'm not doing the former and barely doing the latter. Plan D is surviving, getting healthy mentally and physically, and not going broke. As we get older, we aim to be more authentic to whom we were meant to be. It's impossible to be happy if you're always comparing your life to others' Greatest Hits, whether on social media or otherwise. Instead, success is what you define it to be, so moving the goal posts on a regular basis is a healthy exercise.

Who am I? (Non-exhaustive list, in no particular order):

  • Vietnamese born in Canada
  • Studied engineering at the University of Alberta
  • Married to Carrie
  • Like the Toadstools in Super Mario, I'm a fun guy (fungi).
  • Funny. I'm always joking. I like punning. "Punny" isn't a pun.
  • Dancer. I started learning to do the robot in junior high, and it just picked up from there. Downloaded dancing videos on Napster and practised in the mirror.
  • Music. EDM, hip hop. I played piano, guitar, and drums once upon a time.
  • Techy. I built some headphone amplifiers. I like 3D printing.
  • I like to create things. I'm done consuming, and now I'm ready to make.
  • I love to read.
  • Writing. I've done a bit of technical writing, but now I'm a personal blogger. I got terrible grades in English class in school, but I attribute my writing ability to my love of reading.
  • I'm a good friend. I'm very loyal.
  • Take care of myself.
  • Ambitious. I push myself hard. Too hard, one might say.

A topic that kept repeating (like an echo) was reconciliation with my family. Am I caught in an echo chamber that's keeping me from doing the right thing? People can get fixated on happy endings, but the situation right now is happy for me. Talking to my family is like being around cats even though I'm allergic. I can take antihistamines so I can breathe, but I'm coughing up phlegm for four days afterwards. I love cats, I wish I could have one, and I can handle them in small doses, but it's a tiresome exercise to constantly take in cat dander, medicating myself, coughing it up like a hairball. Similarly, interacting with my family requires so much effort to process their impacts out of my system. Compounding this problem, my parents used to insist that I stay at their home when I visited Edmonton, even though I was allergic to the cat. I'd be in a miserable mood on the drive back to Calgary, rolling down the window constantly to spit out the phlegm.

Why do I have to reconcile with them? Why does everyone want a happy ending for them? Why do I have to be the one to fold? Why am I the one who has to resume making all the sacrifices? I want to live at peace with everyone, I wish we could be okay too, but the ball isn't in my court. I'm not the one being difficult. Doesn't anyone care about my happiness? Some people don't have any problems, and Carrie and I seem to have an inordinate share. There are other people who need help in this world, and how can I do my part to help them if I spend all my energy running between family members and afterwards repeating the same complaints to all my friends?

I've been living in an echo chamber from high school, being surrounded only by super successful people and throwing off my perception of reality, but with respect to reconciling with my family, I don't think I'm caught in an echo chamber of Yes Men only agreeing with me. In fact, the majority of people disagree and disapprove.

Jonathan Phan Lê @jon_le