When you read the title of this email, the first thought you probably have is of someone who is unselfish and puts others before themselves.

A more literal interpretation of the word is the title of a new book by Brian Lowery, PhD at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business. In this provocative and accessible book, Lowery makes the case that there is no such thing as a self – inner or otherwise – that we control or create. Rather the construct of ourselves is strictly social. In answering this existential question, “Who am I?” Lowery states that your self is the result of the social, cultural and national influences

While in an individualistic society such as ours, we may cling to some idea of a strong integral self of our own making, Lowery makes a strong argument that who we are is not about our independence but wholly dependent upon others.

In one potentially controversial but compelling study, he talks about how the reminder of an external stereotype about ourselves has a significant impact on how we behave. For example, there are unfair historical generalizations regarding groups’ performance in math.  Stereotypes that say Asians do better than other races while women are not as mathematically inclined as men. In this study, Asian women were reminded of one aspect of their identity prior to taking a math test. The results were remarkable.  When reminded of being Asian they performed better when they were reminded of their womanhood. Same person, two different “selves” and two different test results.

This book is loaded with implications about how we see ourselves and others. It offers an incredibly thoughtful and nuanced discussion on issues of race and gender through the dual prisms of “who we can be and whom we allow others to be.”

Rather than making us feel less in control of our life, Lowery reminds us of the profound responsibility we have in shaping the self of others. At one point writing “We are mirrors – cut by biology, polished and shaped by relationship, made meaningful by culture – reflecting our reality to others.”

When we see ourselves as social creations then we must see others similarly. We can become more understanding, forgiving and kind. Above all we can be more thoughtful and careful about how our own actions shape the selves of others not just today but well into the future – perhaps even long after we are gone.

In this capacity, more of us realizing that we are literally selfless can help us create a society where more of us act, well, selflessly. How lovely would that be?

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