Anonymity Thought Experiment: How Would You Live if No One Knew You?

I was thinking about Banksy the other day. You know of Banksy, right?

He’s that notorious, enigmatic England-based serial street artist. He’s produced countless iconic works of satirical graffiti, and his art often contains subversive anti-capitalist or anti-establishment messages. He’s also a writer, painter, and film director (his documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, is worth checking out).

Oh, and here’s the kicker—no one knows who he is. After more than two decades of work and despite plenty of speculation, he’s (or she’s) managed to remain anonymous. But hopefully you already knew most of that. Anyway, I was thinking about Banksy because it occurred to me recently that people might live their lives profoundly differently if no one knew who they were.

Art by Harisyuhud. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Art by Harisyuhud. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

“Think of Your Reputation, Son!”

From an early age, most of us are conditioned to believe that external validation is of unspeakable importance in our lives. We internalize a sense of needing to meet someone else’s metric of value because we’re raised within societal structures that constantly evaluate us via exams, performance reports, quality checks, etc. Beyond that, in American society it’s common practice to judge the ever-living fuck out of people based upon what they do for work, what kind of car they drive, where they live, where they went to school, who they know, what they enjoy doing, who they like to fuck, what color their skin is, whether they have a penis or vagina or something in-between, etc.

So, when most of us begin to consider what we might like to “be” (as if we have to be one thing) when we “grow up” (whatever that means), our ideas are (consciously or, maybe more often, unconsciously) enormously restricted by our understanding of what will be perceived as successful, uncontroversial, and clean-cut. Whether we’re aware of this or not, most of us tend to mold our future plans partially or largely in terms of what will impress others, what will make Mom and Dad proud, and what will convey the image that we are living squeaky-clean, well-adjusted, “upstanding” lives.

And even though the above situation tends to massively restrict our ability to do anything original, unorthodox, adventurous, and/or self-expressive, most people don’t question it or say to hell with it. Some even seem gung-ho about it—literally psyched to spend the majority of their waking hours doing something primarily to fulfill the expectations of other people.

Beyond external validation, there are certainly other factors that compel people to spend much of their time living up to someone else’s idea of who they should be. The main thing that comes to mind is economic pressure. With enormous income inequality worldwide and hundreds of millions or billions of people living in poverty or close to it, many people hardly have a choice (or would never dream up the idea that they do because they’re so focused on finding food for themselves and their families) but to take whatever job they can find and make their boss’ dreams a reality instead of their own. Even among people who aren’t poor, money and a desire for financial security (and loads of extraneous shit to try to signal wealth and power [this goes back to seeking external validation]) still play a colossal role in compelling people take jobs they don’t really care about and spend most of their time doing things that some third party wants them to do (and feeling discontented about it—one problem money can’t fix).

Anonymity Thought Experiment

The philosopher Alan Watts had a simple thought experiment for helping young people determine what to do with their lives: he just asked them to ponder the question, “What would you do if money were no object?” By removing economic consideration from their visions of the future, young people were supposedly able to gain clarity on which activities really moved and captivated them.

I love this idea, but I don’t think Alan (bless his kaleidoscopic mind) went far enough, in that removing money from the equation doesn’t remove all consideration of external validation. I would argue that if one wants to use a thought experiment to consider one’s deepest feelings about what one would like to do, one needs to consider another question, in addition to Watts’ original one:






How would you live if no one knew you?

Whereas Alan’s question considers a scenario that does exist for many people (i.e. being so rich that money is not a concern in any undertaking), this question is not meant to describe a real-life scenario (excepting the rare hermit who is totally off the map). Even Banksy, an “anonymous” artist, has millions of people who know who he is, or at least, what he’s done. Of course people will always know you.

The question is purely hypothetical, but I think it’s interesting to consider (in conjunction with Watts’ money question). Because if everything you did was completely anonymous, presumably external validation would never be a factor in your motivation. And when external validation is removed from the equation, your ideas about how you’d live your life might change dramatically. In the absence of a need for external validation, your motivation for action would likely shift toward something much more intrinsically determined. Intrinsic motivation refers to doing things for the love of the thing, or because it just “feel right,” or because of the joy it brings you, or because it just seems to be “your thing.”

Based on what you imagine when you think about these two questions, you can come to understand a lot about the extent to which your course in life is being influenced by money and the wills of other people. So, yeah, maybe marinate on it for a while. And if you realize that you would live in a considerably different way, or pursue something you’ve often dreamt of doing, ask yourself why it’s totally unfeasible to just go do that. It might be that you really are restricted by a need to pay off debts or provide for your family, but it might also be the case that you’re afraid and have been totally conditioned to see “living as a good life” as being inextricable from impressing people and earning a handsome salary.

Do Your Thing

I am not suggesting that we should all drop everything and start living our lives in the most bohemian manner imaginable, with no regard for money or the opinions of others (though if you really want to go do that, fucking do it [but probably don’t hurt anyone]). I think that would be ill-suited and nearly impossible for most.

I’m just positing that reflecting on this question can provide clarity/perspective on why you’re living your life as you are, and whether or not, somewhere deep-down, you wish you were living it totally differently. If you find that this is the case, it’s completely up to you whether to act on the realization or not, though I have a hard time imagining how not acting on it at all wouldn’t result in some feelings of dissonance and discontentment. Even if you simply can’t quit your day job, I would argue that it’s possible for the vast majority of people to carve out a few hours a week to begin practicing/working on the projects or hobbies that really interest them.

Ultimately, it seems to me that living purely for external validation results in constant insecurity (“what if they don’t like me?”; “what if they laugh at me?”; etc.), excessive self-consciousness, and an unhealthy need for attention. Conversely, living for intrinsic joy and seeing life as an opportunity to express yourself and  “do your thing” in the way that only you can seems to make one a more content, self-assured, colorful, and courageous person. And to quote that wily poet Dr. Seuss: “Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”

In sum, we might do well to reflect on these questions from time to time—to use them as tools for gaining insight into what the hell we really ought to be doing with all of our time on this planet and how we might live in way that is in harmony with our deep-down us-ness.



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“A lot of mothers will do anything for their children, except let them be themselves.”

Banksy

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About Jordan Bates

Jordan Bates is a creator, entrepreneur, and perpetually curious autodidact interested in just about everything. He tweets a lot. He questions all the things. He makes unusual rap songs. He wanders the globe and writes about the most vitalizing, useful, and/or world-changing insights he happens upon. He dreams of a more compassionate, cooperative global community in which every human being’s basic needs are met and all sentient beings are respected. Befriend him and/or get his free eBook on how to exit the world of traditional work and live a radically free life. Amor fati, humans.

  • Derick Van Ness

    Jordan,

    As always, great post!

    I’ve actually had the opportunity to live anonymously a few times in my life and found it to be incredibly liberating.

    Most notably, when I moved to Los Angeles after graduating college and didn’t know a single person, I found out a LOT about my motivations. I discovered that the way I dressed, the music I listened to, and even what activities I spent my time on were VERY motivated by what others expected me to do.

    I tried on different ways of living and, although I’m hardly radical, stepped into situations I’d always dreamed about trying out but had been afraid to experience. In the end I found out that many weren’t a fit for me AT ALL.

    On the other side of the coin, I found things that I’d always done out of expectation now became truly important to me because I wasn’t doing them on ‘auto pilot’ – rather, I was taking ownership because I wanted to, and that was immensely powerful.

    I know that I’m highly motivated by what I believe others think of me (which is usually dead wrong anyway), but this anonymity gave me a freedom I’d never known before.

    I highly advocate people take your advice, even if it’s just during a 2 week vacation by yourself, and see what comes up. It was HUGE for me in stripping away a lot of superficial baggage I’d been carrying around, and rather than losing my sense of identity, I actually became more confident and independent.

    Thanks again for sharing!

    • Derick, man, thank you for the praise and for another insightful and enriching comment. I’m loving your thoughts and feedback on what I’m writing.

      When I moved to Lincoln, Nebraska for college, I had an experience similar to what you describe when you moved to Los Angeles. I knew no one, and it was very eye-opening for me, as I too discovered the myriad ways in which I’d been living and doing things purely because of the pressure I felt to conform to what others did or wanted.

      I’ve also tried on different hobbies, lifestyles, and situations, and for me, many of these new things I’ve tried have become very important to me. However, I’ve also definitely had the experience of, as you say, “taking ownership” of things I’d always done instead of doing them on “auto-pilot”, and coming to love and understand them in new ways.

      Now that I’m in Korea, I’m once again surrounded by people I don’t know, and I’m having the anonymity experience all over again. To my satisfaction, I’ve found that I’m not having the experience of feeling like much of what I was doing was because of the expectation of others. I’m still doing most of the same things, just in a new country, and it’s empowering to feel that my identity is based on my intrinsic motivations.

      You mentioned that people should try out this experiment in their lives. One thing I want to mention — I think that in today’s world of interconnectivity and social media, it’s very difficult to ever feel like there aren’t people who know you and are connected to you at all times. Also, by “no one knew you” in the article I was referring to a situation in which literally no one on the planet knew who you were, which for 99.99999% of people, will never be the case. However, I love the idea of attempting to enter a new area where you can feel anonymous to learn more about your motivations. I think that concept, in large part, is why I ultimately felt that going to a college where I knew no one, studying abroad, and now teaching abroad were the best decisions of my life.

      Thanks again for the comment, Derick, and take care.

  • Peter Scott

    Jordan,

    This is an incredible post man! And thank you Derick for sharing it on Facebook.

    I’ve been guilty of living the majority of my life with a desire to gain approval and validation from my family and friends.

    The first opportunity I gave myself to live anonymously was a few years ago when I spent 2 weeks in Spain. Then again last year when I spent a couple weeks in Peru. And again this year, when I spent the month of January traveling throughout SE Asia.

    Each experience of truly living anonymously in a foreign land chipped away at my facade of what I portrayed myself to be back home.

    Traveling to distant lands have been the most liberating experiences of my life and enabled me to find comfort in just being me, no matter what others may think.

    I still struggle with this today, but have come a long way. I’m going to meditate on this thought for a while and explore the insights that are bound to appear.

    Loved the article Jordan…keep it up man!

    To Your Bad Ass Life,

    Peter Scott

    • Peter,

      Dude, thank you so much for taking the time to write your comment. I truly appreciate the praise for the article, and I’m glad it resonated with you.

      I can relate completely with what you’re saying about the power of traveling abroad. I actually wrote a long post about why traveling abroad is the best decision one can make (read that one here if you’re interested: http://www.refinethemind.com/traveling-abroad-best-decision/).

      It is just so damn liberating to stop caring about what’s expected of us and start being unapologetically ourselves. I’m glad to hear of the progress you’ve made and wish you all the best. I’m not all the way there either, and I don’t know if we can ever totally rid ourselves of the desire to live up to other peoples’ ideas, but here’s to making the effort and being more completely authentic each day.

      Thanks again for the comment. Take care and all the best to you.

      Peace,
      Jordan

  • kitty loving Kris

    Wonderful question and explanation, and I thank you for it! I hope I will continue to consider this, as my life continues to unfold. As I was thinking about this just now (first reading)… I was talking out loud with myself about this/these questions… and I wondered… within this “rule” of not knowing anyone, could I still know that my work/actions/choices helped to make others happy? Even if they did not know me or know it was me who shared the photos, words, songs, etc? Could I know that I made a positive difference in someone’s outlook or day? Or…. does that count as validation and I should not consider it part of the scenario?

    Then I started thinking about validation and how important it is to me… admittedly important. I feel like I need to know that I am doing good. Yes, I also like other people to know I am doing good… that is a nice rush but as you mentioned, kind of short-lived, not deep to the core in the way of good feeling. But… to see that my actions and work affect others… this is deeply satisfying, and I hope it can be part of the paradigm. If no one knows me and I need no one’s approval, I hope I can still “need” their smiles… or increased awareness… or improved peace of mind.

    That is just one of the wanderings of my mind as I contemplated your question and idea. I know it’s not quite the direction you were going and I also did look at the whole idea of not needing approval, which is a big deal in my life, always has been. In fact, I just mentioned it yesterday in a conversation… the realization of how important my parents’ approval is to me (I am in my mid-fifties, not just fresh from my parents home)…

    …one thing I realized is that I would not be on facebook all these hours a day, if no one knew me and no approval was necessary. Yet again, another reminder that facebook is stealing my hours away when I could be doing….???… what? Fill in the blank. I would need to fill in a big blank if I wasn’t sharing ideas and feelings on facebook. And… I would not have read this wonderful article in the first place, and would not have it to consider. 🙂

    So… yes, very interesting and I thank you. I will continue to run with this and see where it take me.

    xoxxo

    Kris

    • Kris,

      You raise a really interesting hypothetical question here — if people don’t know who we are, but we still know that we made them smile or brightened their day, and that makes us feel good, are we still living for external validation?

      This is interesting because there is still an external stimulus — people feeling good — that makes us feel good. HOWEVER, I think the reason we’d feel good would be because we’ve come to value helping other people, which is a selfless way to live.

      Thus, if the warmth we feel comes from our knowledge that we helped someone, I think it is a type of internal validation — we’re sort of allowing ourselves to pat ourselves on the back for living up to something we value. I didn’t talk much about internal validation in this article, but I think this type of validation is perfectly okay and healthy.

      It too could become a problem if you developed a God complex or something (I’m like the modern Jesus Christ!).

      Facebook is a really interesting example to bring up because it is so entirely built around external validation. For this reason, I try to limit my usage (sometimes unsuccessfully), but I think more importantly, I try always to take the focus off of me. I try to post things that will help others or make them think or make them laugh, and I do get satisfaction from that.

      Still, it’s always easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “Yes, 10 people liked that link I posted and wrote about. Clearly I am an intelligent or hilarious person or whatever.” I think this often goes on unconsciously too, and that’s why Facebook is so addicting. I really try to see the “likes” and comments on my stuff and simply be glad that what I shared resonated with people or improved their day, even in just a tiny way. I try hard to take myself out of the equation, but it’s quite difficult — we’re only human, and we like to caress our egos like they’re fluffy little kittens or something, haha. I’ve thought many times about deleting my Facebook, and at some point maybe I will, but I really do feel that I’m putting more good out there into the world by using it in the way that I do. I think we just need to limit our usage and keep the activity in perspective — a few ‘likes’ doesn’t really say much about who you are as a person.

      Also, it doesn’t matter so much where I was taking the article, but rather, what it made you think about! The point is always for my writing to be valuable and thought-provoking to others, in whatever unique way they process it. So I’m really glad this got you thinking!

      Thank you for the poignant comment (it got me thinking), and I hope to hear from you again sometime! Take care, Kris.

      Warm Regards,
      Jordan

  • Francis Meyrick

    Well written, Jordan. Balanced, thought provoking. LIke the hyperlinks.

    1) Living as a Nony Mouse.

    I enjoy company immensely, chatting, swopping ideas, BUT I enjoy prolonged solitude equally. In the 1990’s I headed off on my little ownsome, maybe somewhat embittered and frustrated, definitely disillusioned, to the Orient, and ended up as the only White Caucasian on a Taiwanese fishing boat, crewed by Taiwanese, Chinese, Indonesians, and Philippinos. I learned a lot of Chinese, including swear words, and they learned a little bit of English. A warming cultural experience that was initially very, very lonely, morphed into a mind broadening experience of immense value. And a whole new window on Life. I recommend what you say here from experiencing the highs and the lows of going it alone. Not always easy.

    2) Money

    Oh, phooey! Bloody stuff… I made a lot, lost it, got mad, kind of quit trying, then, oddly, started getting it back. One thing my dull mind has perhaps – slowly- grasped. Money is a TOOL. You make good things with your tools, nice things, or you F##k it up. If I told you: “Hey, Jordan ! Guess what? I’m a MILLIONAIRE, man! I got a warehouse with a MILLION hammers, screwdrivers, wrenches, laptops, shovels, printers, paint brushes, drills, scrubbing brushes, and two hundred toilet plungers… what do you think of THAT?” What would you say? Being a gentle soul, you would probably say, tactfully : “Errr…. that’s real nice, Francis… but…what are you usefully going to DO with all that…?”
    Good question.
    So what’s different if I say I’m worth A MILLION BUCKS? Or a BILLION?
    Same question:
    “”Errr…. that’s real nice, Francis… but…what are you usefully going to DO with all that…?”
    Key word: “usefully”… It’s just a TOOL.

    • Francis,

      I too love company and wouldn’t want to live without the time that I spend with other people. The anonymity experiment is useful for introspection, but I certainly wouldn’t want to drift through the world unable to know another soul. Your experiences in Asia sound incredible. I can relate (possibly) to the loneliness you described. Glad to hear that you eventually felt it was a beneficial and broadening period of your life.

      I really like your point about money. I too view money as a means to an end, whereas so many people seem to view it (and all of the hollow, cumbersome, “luxurious” objects it can by) as an end in itself. I would love to find a way to earn enough money doing things I care about that I can live a frugal and simple lifestyle. That’s really my baseline. Beyond that, I think if I had more money I could ultimately have a larger impact on the world, help some friends and family, and probably travel more. Overall, though, I hope I’ll never be the type of person who wants to do things just for the money. I really do try to allow my intrinsic motivations to direct me.

      Thanks for the comment, as always. Cheers.