Peer Ethos

I’ve been hit in the head repeatedly with some epiphanic lightning recently.

Recently Giles Bowkett blogged “Right now I’m stuck between two competing ideas. The ideas are superficially opposite, which bothers me a great deal, because I think they both contain some truth.”

The competing ideas come first from Derek Sivers: Shut up! Announcing your plans makes you less motivated to accomplish them.

and second from Dallas Travers: “If you sheepishly talk about your acting career only in safe environments after much poking and prodding, expect your goals to be reached just some of the time and only in safe environments.”

In an offline discussion, Giles wrote: peer pressure is important, although I’m searching for a new term for peer pressure, because it’s not really about pressure—it’s more like peer subconscious feedback.

There is a very clear delineation between these thoughts. What they share in common is a group of peers: people you would tell your intentions to, people you would announce your goals to. But why is one case bad and the other good?

Simple. In the first case, you have this crazy idea. You really need to go do something about it, and it’s ticking away in the back of your head, bugging you to get it done. When you blurt it out to your peer group, you are doing enough of something about it to scratch that itch, and you no longer need to follow through with the actual work. This is especially true of writers; you should never talk about a story idea until it’s written. An untold story fires the mind and drives you to write, but once you tell somebody your clever idea, you no longer have the need to tell your story. I have recently learned that I can’t talk about something on Twitter if I need to blog about it. Twitter is too short to really explore a topic, but once I tweet I no longer have any need to get the idea out there.

The second case is very different, however. When my wife and I decided to start the adoption process, we told everybody we knew. The process is long and discouraging, but every time we see friends they always ask us, “So… how’s the adoption coming along?” In the second case an expectation was created with our peer group that we need to satisfy. At best, outstanding, unmet expectations niggle away at the back of our minds incessantly; at worst they hook into our very tribal identities. We must satisfy or reject the expectations placed on us by others or go mad.

Giles, I have your word for you: Peer Ethos.

In rhetoric, the Greeks used “ethos” to describe “argumentation by character”. It has to do with how much we trust and accept the arguer. It’s very much a tribal identity thing, but here’s the interesting bit: ethos means “accustomed place” or “habitat”. It means psychological or social environment. So ethos, in argumentation, really just means whether or not you meet the cultural expectations of your listener.

I like this concept. It’s succinct, yet loaded with contextual information:

1. Participating in your peer ethos means that you understand that cultural expectations are placed upon you by your peers.

2. Because ethos also means character, the cultural expectations aren’t just about what you do, but about who you are. There is an incredibly strong motivator available to us here.

3. (For intermediate readers) Because you can choose your peers, you can change your peer ethos. You can examine the kind of character demands that your peer ethos places on you, and consciously seek out folks who will help you get where you need.

4. (For advanced readers) Because cultures are living ecosystems, and because you contribute to it as much as you draw from it, you can change the culture of your peers.

Peer ethos. I can’t begin to tell you how excited this makes me.

But wait! There’s more! (I seriously can’t begin to tell you how excited this makes me.)

Ethos is the same word we get “ethics” from. Ethics are the ethos of an entire culture: what is acceptable, what is good, what is right. This has always bothered me, because good and evil, right and wrong are unchanging concepts… yet our culture’s ethics have been continuously shifting and changing. 30 years ago it was ethical to smoke. 50 years ago it was ethical to castrate gays. 150 years ago it was ethical to inject heroin, own blacks, and shoot mormons.

Ethics, then, change over time. But do you see it? Do you SEE it? Our culture’s ethos draws from US as much as we draw from it!

Get busy, guys. Your peer ethos needs you.

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