I haven’t written on this blog since before November 8 – the presidential election. Obviously, a lot has been going on since then. This election has shaken something loose in me, in many of my friends, that will not let us rest. We are each tackling this challenge in our own ways. That’s all I will say about that for now.
One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, given the importance of social media in this election cycle, is the affect of positive social feedback on our behavior. When someone “likes” our photos or shares our work, what does that trigger in us?
Studies have shown that children praised for being smart are reluctant to accept challenges. When they receive positive feedback for a specific trait, kids want to preserve that good feeling, and avoid situations that might undermine their perceived intelligence. On the other hand, praising effort and cultivating a “growth mindset” sets children up for success down the line. This kind of encouragement fosters a less fragile self-image.
Much of the research in this field focuses on children, but I think the principal is generalizable. When people seem to like what I’m doing, I want to be seen doing those things more. At the same time, when people have expectations of me, I don’t want to let them down, so I avoid situations where I might disappoint. For example, a lot of my friends from the gym think I’m a decent runner. After a few workouts that reinforced that perception, I started to feel nervous about running with those friends. I started to avoid going to the gym on days we had running workouts. It took a lot of the fun out of running.
This week, I had planned a big cooking project. I was going to make one of my absolute favorite foods: da pan ji, or big plate chicken. It is (in my humble opinion) the ultimate comfort food. Paired with hand-pulled noodles, which are themselves an art form, it is perfection.
I ordered the ingredients in advance, and picked up the chicken from the butcher Saturday morning, ready to make Saturday dinner. But the whole time I was cooking, I wasn’t really thinking about the food. I was thinking about what it would look like, how I would describe it, how to stage the photos. Social media by its nature emphasis outcomes over process. So, instead of just two recipes, the chicken and the noodles, I threw in another 2-3 hours commitment in making Chinese bakery-style raisin buns. Because that would look more impressive in the end.
I didn’t time the meal so Jay and I could eat together at a reasonable hour. I just wanted to post pictures by the end of the night. People think I like cooking, and I try to do interesting projects, so they needed to see me making hand-pulled noodles. Which, in retrospect, in writing, sounds ridiculous. Even as I was doing it, I knew I was being silly.
Instead of enjoying my favorite meal, I ruined it for myself.
And there was so much to enjoy! I love kneading dough by hand. It’s weirdly fun, like messing around with Play Doh as a kid. It feels good to really sink your fingers into it. Pulling noodle dough is even more fun – it’s so squishy and stretchy and springy at the same time. It tastes good even before you boil it, hitting all those trigger-happy starch receptors. I wish I’d just given myself the mental space to enjoy that experience, my first time making la mian, instead of stress eating and staging photos and taking myself out of the moment entirely. As soon as I finished photographing the “big plate” that I bought specifically to photograph this recipe, I dumped everything back into the pot and lost my appetite.
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. And I will keep saying it until I started to act it: Always follow your joy. If you are truly living your best life, the positive feedback will come. It will buoy you up, but it will not define you or change you.
Always follow your joy.