Impression Management

I was recently reading where pop artist Andy Warhol famously prophesied that “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” He seemed to anticipate social media as it has turned his prediction into an aspiration of the masses.

Human beings seem to have this unexplained desire for recognition. We want to be noticed by and well thought of by others. Our lives seem to be focused on what John Ortberg calls “impression management.” We are consistently seeking ways to impress the world around us, so that people believe we are important.

Therefore, so much of what we say and do is intended to impress others. We may casually name drop, mention our child’s accomplishments, or talk about an exotic place where we have vacationed in the past. This happened even back in New Testament times, as Jesus says of the Pharisees, “They do all of their deeds to be noticed by men” (Matthew 23:5).

Sociologist George Herbert Mead explains this principle in a concept called “the generalized other.” In our minds, there are certain people on whose judgment we measure our success and failure. Our lives are validated by what they think of us. However, the problem is that we never know in totality what any one person actually thinks of us.

Jesus provides some great instruction on this issue. He says,

Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:1-4).

The philosopher Dallas Willard has written some thoughts on what he calls “the discipline of secrecy.” He says that we should intentionally abstain from seeking to make our good deeds and qualities known, although it should never involve deceit. He believes we should look to God to enable us to tame our hunger for fame and trying to gain the attention of others. Over time, as we practice this discipline, we will learn to embrace anonymity without the loss of our peace, joy, or purpose.

Willard says one of the great tragedies in our lives is holding the belief that all our virtues and accomplishments need to be advertised. We have this deep yearning that they must be known. The discipline of secrecy, rightly practiced, enables us to place all our public relations in the hands of God. By doing this, we allow Him to decide when our deeds need to be known. Willard says, “When we desire godly secrecy, our love and humility before God will develop to the point we’ll not only see our friends, family, and associates in a better light, but we’ll also develop the virtue of desiring their good above our own.” Ultimately we will be content with who we are and therefore what others think will not matter.

Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.


Add grace and understanding to your day with words from Richard E. Simmons III in your inbox. Sign-up for weekly email with the latest blog post, podcast, and quote.

Fill out the form to receive wisdom in your inbox from Richard E. Simmons III.