The Autonomous Man in an Other-Directed World

by Brett & Kate McKay on June 11, 2012 · 89 comments

in A Man's Life, On Manhood

“The struggle between the autonomous few and the non-autonomous many — is only beginning.” -The Lonely Crowd

First published in 1950 as a sociological analysis of American life, The Lonely Crowd became a surprising bestseller; its authors, David Riesman and his collaborators, had expected it to be of interest only to fellow academics, and yet the book touched a nerve in the American public, resonating with a concern many felt about the changing character of the country.

In the book, Riesman sets forth three types of “social character,” three mechanisms by which people conform to the society in which they live: tradition-directed, inner-directed, and other-directed.

The tradition-directed type dominates in primitive societies. Rituals, routines, and kinship ties ensure each generation does things as they have always been done.

The inner-directed type dominates in industrial economies. This type is guided by an inner set of goals and principles. These values are planted within the individual by his parents during his childhood, and act as an inner gyroscope – spinning throughout his life and keeping him on course. The inner-directed type is focused on producing more than consuming. He enjoys going it alone, and while he conforms his outward behavior to match societal norms, the opinions of others have little sway on his inner life.  He would rather be esteemed than loved.

The other-directed type dominates in a service, trade, and communications-driven economy. This type is very sensitive to the preferences and expectations of others. He always has his antenna up to receive the signals of other people, and watches what they are doing, thinking, and feeling on his radar. The other-directed type is focused more on consuming than producing. He looks to his peers and the media for guidance on how to live and is group and team-minded. He would rather be loved than esteemed.

Riesman takes pains in The Lonely Crowd to point out that the above are types, not individuals, and that all societies and people are a mix of the types. This is not like a quiz in Cosmopolitan Magazine where you can figure out which one you are:

“There can be no such thing as a society or a person wholly dependent on tradition-direction, inner-direction, or other direction: each of these modes of conformity is universal, and the question is always one of the degree to which an individual or a social group places reliance on one or another of the three available mechanisms. And you can move from greater dependence on one to greater dependence on another during the course of your life.”

Also, knowing that most people would be drawn to the cowboy-esque inner-directed type, he stresses that the inner-directed are no “better” or less conformist than the other-directed. For while the inner-directed sticks by his internal gyroscope, that gyroscope was implanted by his parents; he lives their values, not his.

Instead (and this often gets ignored), at the end of The Lonely Crowd Riesman argues that the ideal to strive for is a fourth type: the autonomous.

The autonomous has “clear cut, internalized goals,” but unlike the inner-directed, he chooses those goals for himself; his “goals, and the drive toward them, are rational and non-authoritarian and not compulsive.” He can cooperate with others like the other-directed, but “maintains the right of private judgment.” He’s involved in his world, but his “acceptance of social and political authority is always conditional.”

Essentially, the autonomous “are those who on the whole are capable of conforming to the behavioral norms of their society…but are free to choose whether to conform or not.” The autonomous stands outside and above the other types; he understands them, can reflect on them, and then can freely choose when and if to resist them or act in accordance with them. He is able to transcend his culture—by turns overruling it and joining in with it as he himself chooses in order to further his goals. The autonomous man is both idealistic and pragmatic.

Riesman argued that societies tend to move from tradition-directed, to inner-directed, to other-directed as they develop. At the time The Lonely Crowd was published, he posited that most of the country remained inner-directed, but observed the growth of the other-directed among the upper-middle classes along the coasts and in urban areas. He predicted that the other-directed type would continue to expand and become the country’s dominant mechanism of social character.

In this prediction, and many others, Riesman was quite prescient. In today’s society, other-direction represents the chief mode of conformity and pulls at us in ways that Riesman could not have imagined. The man who wishes to become autonomous must understand what those ways are, so that he can reflect upon them, transcend them, and choose to conform with them only when he truly wishes to do so.

Challenges to Autonomy in the Modern Age

Socialization Through Taste and the End of Privacy

Inner-directed types flourish during periods where society places a good deal of importance on etiquette, while other-directed types rise when the rules of etiquette have waned.

This may seem contradictory; after all, aren’t those who are concerned about etiquette the kind of people who care a lot about what others think of them? This is how we see etiquette through a modern lens, and following the rules of etiquette could certainly bolster your reputation with others back in the day. But etiquette could also be used as a buffer by the inner-directed to keep people at arm’s length and to guard one of the inner-directed’s most prized possessions: his privacy. Riesman argues that “Formal etiquette may be thought of as a means of handling relations with people with whom one does not seek intimacy…Thus etiquette can be at the same time a means of approaching people and of staying clear of them.”

In a largely other-directed society, training in etiquette is replaced with training in consumer taste. Other-directed individuals define themselves by their taste in music, food, travel, and so on, and find marginal differences between their own tastes and the tastes of others in order to differentiate themselves from their peers. Socialization among the other-directed centers on “feeling out with skill and sensitivity the probable tastes of the others and then swapping mutual likes and dislikes to maneuver intimacy.” Did you like that movie? Have you heard of this band? Do you like this restaurant? Have you seen this funny Youtube clip?

This “swapping of mutual likes and dislikes to maneuver intimacy” has of course taken an exponential leap forward since Riesman’s day with the advent of social media. Sites like Facebook and Pinterest exist almost exclusively to foster this kind of interaction, allowing users to display their tastes and see if they get a thumbs up from others.

Riesman argues that “this continual sniffing out of other’s tastes,” becomes “a far more intrusive process than the exchange of courtesies and pleasantries required by etiquette.” In the days of inner-direction, “certain spheres of life were regarded as private: it was a breach of etiquette to intrude or permit intrusion on them.” In contrast, in an other-directed society “one must be prepared to open upon cross-examination almost any sphere in which the peer-group may become interested.”

This opening up of every sphere of your life to the public is today called “transparency,” a buzz word these days for those who seek “authenticity.” Social media has allowed people to share many more personal details with a much wider group of peers, extending far beyond one’s intimate friends and family. Those who like to keep some things private, who enjoy sometimes being alone, and who are not as connected (“He doesn’t have a Facebook account???”) are viewed with suspicion.

A Lack of an “Enemy” to Rebel Against

Autonomy , Riesman argues, “must always to some degree be relative to prevailing modes of conformity in a given society; it is never an all-or-nothing affair, but the result of a sometimes dramatic, sometimes imperceptible struggle with those modes.”

And herein lies one of the biggest difficulties in becoming autonomous in our day and age: with such a great diversity of groups and opinions and lifestyle choices, and without any real agreed upon social norms or expectations these days, there aren’t any true “enemies” to rebel against anymore. This is why, Riesman argues, it was easier to be autonomous in an inner-directed society, for the would-be autonomous during such periods “had no doubt as to who their enemies were: they were the adjusted middle-class people who aggressively knew what they wanted, and demanded conformity to it–people for whom life was not something to be tasted but something to be hacked away at.”

The counterculture movement of the 60s and 70s represented an effort by nonconformists to throw out the gyroscopes their parents had planted within them and rebel against what was perceived as suffocating middle-class values in order to pioneer a world where people were free to act and choose whatever lifestyles they wanted.

But now those battles have almost entirely been won—the idea that you should live authentically and do your own thing is the modern zeitgeist. We live in an Age of Anomie where there are very few cultural expectations for how people should live their lives.

Without a clear “enemy” to define themselves against, people often fall into two traps.

The first is continuing to fight the same battles the counterculturalists of the 60s did, even though those battles were won decades ago. For example, Antonio’s post about wearing shorts caused a great deal of consternation, and bred some reasonable dissension, but also garnered a peculiar kind of comment which went something like this: 1) “Everybody I know wears cargo shorts and t-shirts,” AND 2) “I would never follow silly rules like this about what I wear—I’m a nonconformist!” Of course both premises can’t be true! Dressing only according to the dictates of your personal comfort would have been rebellious 50 years ago, but in a culture where few rules or expectations still exist about style, it’s not something you can stake your autonomy on anymore. If anything, the man who dresses more formally in a very casual society has a better claim to rebelling against societal norms. How a man dresses — or for that matter marries, or has sex, or makes money — is no longer a reliable measure of his autonomy.

The second false way of attaining autonomy in an other-directed world without a clear enemy, Riesman argues, is to become part of a peer group that thinks of themselves as nonconformists, but who “are not necessarily free, as they are often zealously tuned into the signals of a group that finds the meaning of life, quite unproblematically, in an illusion of attacking an allegedly dominant and punishing majority…young people today can find, in the wide variety of people and places of metropolitan life, a peer-group, conformity to which costs little in the way of search for principle.”

Lifestyle Inflation

Another of the boogeyman relics left over from the 60s that modern autonomy-seekers build their identity around fighting is the striving for the “American Dream” of a house in the suburbs and a wife and kids. These “rebels” join with the like-minded in pursuing “lifestyle design,” which encompasses all sorts of goals but mainly revolves around being able to follow your passion, quit your day job, still earn a good (passive) income, and travel around the world.

While at first blush this goal would seem to be very inner-directed, it’s actually a pursuit that’s rapidly risen in popularity because of our culture’s move towards other-direction.

The old school inner-directed type sought after “stuff:” cars, house, wealth. These were the tangible goals that the gyroscopes planted by their parents told them were the symbols of success. The inner-directed conformed to others and kept up with the Joneses when it came to external things—but did not let others influence their inner values nor the arc of their lives.

The other-directed, on the other hand, seek experiences over stuff. This can certainly be seen as a better, less consumeristic aim. But for the other-directed, their drive towards these experiences does not come from within, but from watching other people. For the other-directed do not just conform to others as far as external behavior, but also seek to match the quality of other people’s inner experiences. They look to others for “what experiences to seek and in how to interpret them.”

When they feel they’re not on the right course, the tradition-directed feel shame, the inner-directed feel guilt, and the other-directed feel anxiety. And never does this anxiety rear its head more than when the other-directed see the different experiences that others are having. They look at Facebook and see a friend traveling the world, or partying in Vegas, or skydiving in South America, and wonder “Is my life less satisfying?” “Should I be living more deeply than I am?” “Is everyone happier than I am?” The resulting anxiety and restlessness can have the positive effect of motivating a man to get outside of his comfort zone and try new things, but it can also make him feel unhappy about his life choices, even if he made those choices willingly, consciously, and in line with his authentic desires. It can also keep him from making a choice he really wants, for he’s unsure of how it stacks up to what others are doing.

Other-Directed Entrepreneurship

In an age of the other-directed, starting your own business seems like a good option for becoming more autonomous. And yet other-directedness has seeped into this area of life as well.

Whereas the inner-directed producer of old concentrated his efforts on crafting and offering a superior product, much of entrepreneurship these days depends on interpersonal relationships, popularity, and building a “personal brand.” Entrepreneurs are oftentimes selling themselves more than their products and thus feel that they must always be friendly and nice to others in hopes that they’ll be converted into fans or customers. Or as Riesman puts it, “Obliged to conciliate or manipulate a variety of people, the other-directed person handles all men as consumers who are always right.”

For example, something I’ve noticed about other bloggers who are hoping to build their reader base, is that even when someone leaves them a wholly inaccurate and asinine comment, the blogger will not reply by telling him to shove off or ignoring it altogether, but by saying something like, “Hey man! Sorry that we disagree. But thanks a ton for visiting and I hope you come back soon!”

Endless Feedback

I think the greatest challenge to not unthinkingly slipping into a wholly other-directed life is the amount of feedback from others that’s available to read and listen to in the modern age. Do you eagerly wait to see what people will say about your Facebook status or photo? Do you spend more time reading the comments on online articles than you do thinking about it yourself? Or perhaps you skip the article altogether and just read what other people have to say? Do you read the comments on a video while you’re “watching” it, thus letting others influence your perception of it before you reach your own conclusion? When you leave a comment on something, do you keep checking back to see what other people thought of what you had to say? Do you read reviews of books or music before you buy them, and then afterwards as well, to see if other people felt the same way about it as you did?

Conclusion

Now that we’ve gone through some of the challenges to becoming autonomous in our other-directed  age, it’s important to reiterate that other-direction is not necessarily a bad thing. The point is rather that you must be aware of its pull so that instead of letting it dominate your life, you are able to transcend and rise above it. Only by understanding something, can you free yourself from it. Then, from this position of freedom and autonomy, you can choose when to conform on your terms (in cases where it furthers your goals and principles, or even simply brings enjoyment), and when to resist.

Let’s close with a quote from Riesman:

“If the other –directed people should discover how much needless work they do, discover that their own thoughts, and their own lives are quite as interesting as other people’s, that, indeed, they no more assuage their loneliness in a crowd of peers than one can assuage one’s thirst by drinking sea water, then we might expect them to become more attentive to their own feelings and aspirations.”

 

Illustration by Ted Slampyak

{ 89 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jack Donovan June 11, 2012 at 6:44 pm

This was really substantive and interesting. Big thinks and big picture essays like this keep Art of Manliness relevant and worth reading.

2 Amjad June 11, 2012 at 7:00 pm

This article is simply amazing, I was reflecting on my life and analyzing myself while reading it, haha!

3 Amjad June 11, 2012 at 7:06 pm

Edit: To see which one I fit in to.

4 Brian S. June 11, 2012 at 7:28 pm

Excellent article, which raises a ton of issues. When I read the quote at the end, I was tempted to post it on my facebook, ostensibly for the likes.

Would you be willing to do further articles about self disclosure and overcoming the need to conform inner thoughts and preferences to peer expectations?

5 Brian S. June 11, 2012 at 7:30 pm

Also, I agree with Jack. These sorts of articles keep the Art of Manliness substantive and relevant.

6 Jim Poland June 11, 2012 at 7:59 pm

Enjoyed the perspective though I suspect if I say agree with it, I may be leaning towards other-direction. ;)

7 Keith June 11, 2012 at 8:13 pm

Very interesting article. I’ve often thought a lot about this general idea but its nice to have it laid out in one synopsis. I liked your idea of a “lack of an enemy to rebel against” I think we see a lot of this manifesting itself in movements such as Occupy Wall Street. While there is some validity in this form of ativis, I really see it as young kids wanting something–anything to take their media driven aggression out on. They see footage of protests in the 60′s and wonder why they don’t have anything like that today. They watch movies like V for Vendetta and wish they could be a part of a sensationalized rebellion. Like you said, as society has become so overly accessible through social media, instantaneous feedback, and continuous media exposure people are anxiously trying to distinguish themselves from the herd while still clinging to its “norms”.

8 Stephen June 11, 2012 at 8:18 pm

If I may, I think your argument about the success of the 1960s counterculture overstates the gains. There is still a very strong cultural trope about buying a house, owning a car, getting married (to a woman, to about half the US population), and having kids. It’s no longer as restrictive, but it is still the dominant narrative in our culture. If you don’t believe me, try telling people you don’t own a car. I don’t, and people look at me like I’m crazy, even though I live in an area with excellent bus service.

Maybe it’s not as oppressive as the 1950s, but there are still a lot of narratives that get pushed on people.

9 Benjamin Cooper June 11, 2012 at 8:29 pm

This was an amazing article. I expically enjoied the section about how Autonomy was hard to achecive without anything to rebell against. However, it did not focus on the solution.

Riseman, doesnt focus on antinomianism nearly enough or how to achieve it, as it is the only sure fire way to become your own man.

And even if you did have something to rebel against, it is only the first step. Eventually you have to find love in the philosophy and quest for antinomianism itself to come into being yourself instead of being a collection of external beliefs, either cultural or familial.

In the website part of this post, I linked a pretty good definition of antinomianism and how to strive for it.

10 Julian June 11, 2012 at 8:31 pm

Great read. I find myself going straight for the comment sections of different blogs sometimes to give my two cents on a topic, or to laugh at the ridiculous comments ( the biggest one being yahoo). I feel like we live in a culture where more than ever we want to be heard and have our beliefs affirmed by others. @BrettandKate Its funny that you added the *Endless Feedback* section. Do you two also do the same thing? Jus curious, I try to humanize you guys sometimes seemingly perfect words!

11 Father Muskrat June 11, 2012 at 8:33 pm

I’m going to wait about forming an opinion until I’ve read more comments.

12 Rich June 11, 2012 at 9:21 pm

Great article although I felt a bit guilty while skimming the comments…

13 Joe June 11, 2012 at 10:31 pm

Thank you Brett for this amazing article. I’m sending it to all my friends.

14 Damien June 11, 2012 at 10:42 pm

I agree with Jack. I assume, anyway.. I didn’t read the article, I prefer to just jump straight to the comments to find out what I should think about it.

15 Brad June 11, 2012 at 11:12 pm

Well Brett, once again you succeeded in twisting my brain into a knot leading me to read the article 3 times! I enjoy your easy reading articles as well as your bottom of the ocean, deep philosophical ones. The latter ones tend to leave me to soul search as I drift off to sleep.

16 Brad June 11, 2012 at 11:13 pm

Sir, you are missing out!

17 Cody June 12, 2012 at 12:00 am

I love the deeper, more involved posts. Thanks, Brett and Kate.

18 Jonathan June 12, 2012 at 12:24 am

This is some pretty insightful shit. Are there any resources beyond The Lonely Crowd that address these (or conceptually similar) issues?

Personally I find myself swinging wildly in the other direction with regards to the approval seeking behavior that is so prevalent in our society – e.g. people posting pictures of their breakfast on facebook: “HERE’S WHAT I’M EATING – GIVE ME LIKES.” I find my blood boils at this type of behavior, but I’m cognizant of the fact that my attitude is probably only marginally healthier than those seeking approval. A more mature approach would be simply to not give a shit (but hey – where’s the fun in that?).

Anyways, very cool (and surprisingly thought provoking) article. I appreciate the time you devoted to noting that while the idea of the lone cowboy or whatever might FEEL cool, no single mechanism of social character is necessarily BETTER than another. I think simply being aware that these forces exist (not literally, but to x degree) is good food for thought.

19 Brad Alexander June 12, 2012 at 12:59 am

I love these in depth articles that really make you think. Might have to check this book out.

20 Kaz June 12, 2012 at 1:56 am

A very interesting article. It has given me much to think about.

21 neal June 12, 2012 at 1:57 am

This is an interesting article. I wonder what Thoreau would think reading it, or how one would compare its various points to similar ones in Walden, for instance. Thoreau would, I think state very emphatically that some of the types are BAD, and that a certain type is GOOD, although he might not label them exactly the same way. But a lot of interesting crossover, I think.

22 Rahul June 12, 2012 at 4:21 am

Hats off to you sir. I have recently been thinking intensively about this very same thing in the context of my career and how a guy like me who neither likes to follow or lead but who likes setting up and creating new things would fit in.

It seems to me that the only difference between an autonomous and inner-directed type is that an autonomous person has questioned all values- whether those they got from their parents or those being followed in society. Am I right?

Also, would being autonomous also translate into being rigid or almost hostile in guarding one’s interests/beliefs and private life (since our beliefs might often clash with those of the majority)? How does one reconcile a desire to lead life in a certain way with the desires of friends and family?

You have covered a lot of ground with this post and also generated a lot of questions here.

23 Ray June 12, 2012 at 5:02 am

choosing when to conform. choosing when to resist. great struggle.

A+

24 Danny June 12, 2012 at 6:50 am

Outstanding article with an array of valid points to have a think over. The example of a man choosing to dress more formally in casual surroundings was particularly relevant to my location.

In the end I guess you’re never really conforming if you make a choice, be it to act as a consumer of a certain product or lifestyle, so long as you make that choice to meet goals which you have arrived at independently and satiate a want you knowingly want for you and you alone and not because you think you should want it or have been influenced to do so.

25 David Y June 12, 2012 at 8:00 am

Thanks for another interesting perspective on modern life.

I would guess that I may be a mixture of inner-directed and autonomous. I still seem to have the inner gyro-scope of values from my parents, but have gone in my own direction on many things. Also, I don’t seem to have a problem with rebelling against todays culture and technology. Much of it does not seem to suit me well. Does that make me better? No, just different.

I will disagree with you somewhat about the 60′s counterculture being noncomformist. I was around then(but wasn’t part of it). Yes, they did rebel against our parents values. But, they were very conformist within their own circle. They all dressed alike, listened to the same music, had the same politics, and used the same drugs.

26 Martin June 12, 2012 at 10:00 am

Great article. Really makes me question my automatic thoughts and actions and see if I can live more deliberately. Cheers!

27 David June 12, 2012 at 10:21 am

Great read. I’ve added The Lonely Crowd to my list of books to read so that I can dig into the details more.

Prior to reading it I have to question the conclusion that “other-direction is not necessarily a bad thing.” I’m sure that some degree of other-direction is fine but I have a feeling that the overwhelming amount of other-direction in our society can’t lead to anything positive. I think that is true of society as a whole and also of individuals who lean primarily on other-direction in their own lives.

Without having a term for it I have always wanted to be the autonomous but I probably need to have a more complete understanding of the other three types before I can really get to that point.

Steven,

Nowhere was the argument made that there were no longer any narratives being pushed on people. The argument was that the primary source of what was being pushed on people had shifted from decades past.

28 Trent June 12, 2012 at 10:25 am

It is articles like this that keep me coming back. Most of the AoM articles are excellent, but these are truly unique anywhere on the web.

29 Anders June 12, 2012 at 10:29 am

Thanks for this article, it was thoroughly interesting (something I can’t say for the most part of articles I read).

30 Paul Frazier June 12, 2012 at 10:40 am

Thanks for the article. I needed to hear the ‘conforming’ part. It was all I could do not to check the other comments before posting this one.

31 Matthew June 12, 2012 at 10:49 am

I don’t know … Maybe we don’t have conformity to rebel against these days, but don’t we still have homogeneity?

Even the people who set out to be “individuals” can shop at the mall and still do a pretty good job of distinguishing themselves.

32 C.M. Thompson June 12, 2012 at 11:10 am

It sounds like a practical playing out in detail of some of the principles Walker Percy laid out in the central section of his profound work, “Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book”. I’d recommend it as a helpful complement-prequel to what Riesman has to say.

33 Tomaž June 12, 2012 at 11:18 am

And the next review is Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism? Or basically any Žižek book? We are long past other-directed type.

34 Jon June 12, 2012 at 12:40 pm

Bret and Kate,

Being autonomous people, I am sure you won’t care to read my opinion, but here goes.

Excellent article. My wife and I are questioned and often derided, sometimes aggressively, regarding our decision to not text, have very few TV channels, and in general, not participate in all of the socially accepted media options of today. We are 39 and 40 and it’s not like we communicate via smoke signal or anything. She has a Facebook account and we use Skype, Netflix, have a Wii, etc. We both use computers in our jobs. We simply choose to not conform to the norm of being in absolute, constant contact with the entire world. I find without a huge TV and a lot of channels, I and my children tend to read more books. In fact, we have two daughters who are avid readers. I think this will serve them far better in the future than being glued to an I-phone. Occasionally, I will think that maybe I ought to come into the 21st century, but then I see some people’s Facebook posts regarding the temperature of their coffee or their latest paper cut and I just get irritated. No one cares about my little afflictions and I certainly do not care about theirs. This was a great article because it just reinforced my desire to remain autonomous. I have very clear goals and understandings of where I want myself and my family to be. I am very happy with our life and very content with our decision to value those things that are tried and true and not just the newest, trendiest thing to come about. Thanks for a very insightful article.
Now soak up all that I have said and feel great about yourselves! :)
Best Regards, Jon

35 Andrew from Canada June 12, 2012 at 12:58 pm

This was a really good article that ties into something I read last week about the mall shooting here in Toronto a couple weeks ago. It’s a column by journalist Christie Blatchford called, “Eaton Centre shooting isn’t a sign of the apocalypse, no matter what the columnists say” (I didn’t include the link because it could be flagged down here as spam, so Google it).

I was thinking, if Riesman argues that we go from being tradition, inner then outer directed, if we stay in the outer-directed too long, could that make us tradition-directed and start the process over?

36 Jon June 12, 2012 at 1:08 pm

I appolloggize foor misssspeelling your mame, Brett.

37 Nathan June 12, 2012 at 1:29 pm

“Culture is not your friend.” – Terence McKenna

38 Kevin June 12, 2012 at 2:49 pm

Great one. I imagine I’ll find myself thinking back to this article well into the future.

39 Christopher Martinez June 12, 2012 at 3:00 pm

I need a drink now…..I may as well have just read a character sheet of myself in the ‘endless feedback’ section. Time to reroll.

40 Jonathan S June 12, 2012 at 3:01 pm

Tremendous article. I don’t enjoy reading books, but I love reading book reports. I mean this sincerely.

You have me thinking how religion plays into tradition/other/inner direction. It would seem that from the Christian perspective, that God gives all 3:

1) Tradition direction through scripture
2) Inner direction through his creating us in his own image (Genesis) and giving a new identity in Christ (Gal. 2:20, 2 Cor. 5:17)
3) Other direction through the Holy Spirit and fellow believers.

I also agree with the consensus that nonconformity can be a kind of conformity. I try to steer clear of signifiers (words) with such fluid meaning when I contemplate my own decisions.

I assess my steps using these questions:
1) What do I ultimately desire?
2) Should my ultimate desire be my ultimate desire?
3) Am I equipped to answer question #2 with the knowledge and experience I have?
4) Will my current path get me what I ultimately want?

Then I act.

I suppose this makes me an inner-directed man.

I do not have a Facebook account.

41 Tom King June 12, 2012 at 3:43 pm

Bravo! Excellent piece. Your point about being aware of the forces that pull at you is well taken. Too many men today simply drift along, acting without thinking through why they are doing what they are doing. They ought to make Reisman’s book a textbook in high school for every emerging young man to study.

42 Jonathan June 12, 2012 at 4:29 pm

Sounds like Neutral Good to me.

43 Michael S June 12, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Am I other directed if I read this article and decide I want to live an autonomous life?

44 Justin June 12, 2012 at 4:53 pm

Absolutely brilliant article posting thank you so much, like many of the other readers I was analyzing how my life has lined up with what was being discussed. I also plan on reading the full book as soon as possible.

Keep posts like this coming!

45 Mattoomba June 12, 2012 at 4:55 pm

Tremendously germane article. I have always seen the dangers in such sites such as Exile Lifestyle and Nerd Fitness. But now I have a name for those dangers.

Not to say there aren’t bona fide positives to these sites and the lifestyle they dangle in front of us — quite the contrary, there is much to be taken from these blogs — but the dangers must be noted and clearly considered.

46 Christine June 12, 2012 at 7:23 pm

Thank you for this article. :)

It’s thought-provoking for me.

47 Gianfranco June 12, 2012 at 9:10 pm

Great post, I’ll read this book as soon as I can

48 Brad June 12, 2012 at 9:17 pm

This article reminds me of the (2005?) speech by David Foster Wallace, which is often called “This is Water”. The speech, given at an undergraduate college graduation, revolves around the idea that in order to be truely fulfilled in life, one has to constantly be conscious and autonomous in and of one’s actions and feelings. To break from the solipsisms that are so tempting in order to break from the loneliness they cause. Basically, everything is water and it’s very easy to forget that you’re swimming.

49 Brad June 12, 2012 at 9:18 pm

This article reminds me of the speech by David Foster Wallace, which is often called “This is Water”. The speech, given at an undergraduate college graduation, revolves around the idea that in order to be truely fulfilled in life, one has to constantly be conscious and autonomous in and of one’s actions and feelings. To break from the solipsisms that are so tempting in order to break from the loneliness they cause. Basically, everything is water and it’s very easy to forget that you’re swimming.

50 Brad June 12, 2012 at 9:20 pm

This article reminds me of the speech by David Foster Wallace, which is often called “This is Water”. The speech, given at an undergraduate college graduation, revolves around the idea that in order to be truely fulfilled in life, one has to constantly be conscious of our natural tendency toward solipsism and loneliness. Basically, everything is water and it’s very easy to forget that you’re swimming.

51 Leo June 12, 2012 at 10:33 pm

Reading this was like enjoying a slowly cooked, rich flavored beef stew. Now I’m ready to sit back and digest it.

52 mifkin June 13, 2012 at 12:24 am

Thanks for posting this up, have put the book on my to read list. Very intriguing post.

53 Leo June 13, 2012 at 12:38 am

This is very good, I can honestly say this has been the most interesting read I’ve found in a blog in a good while. I usually follow your blog and read what you have to say, but this was by far the most impressive article you’ve produced. Good job.

54 Rod June 13, 2012 at 3:05 am

There are 3 types of people. Fat, Skinny, Medium. 3 types of people. Smart, Dumb, Average. 3 types of people Cold, Temperamental, and Nice. 3 types of people. Poor, middle class, Rich. Three types of people Evil, Good, and Angelic.

My point is that my autonomous self sees all these distinctions as being silly and stupid distinctions. Why do people always try to classify everyone including themselves into 3-4 bunches or types of people? Its too traditional thinking for me to want to seperate and sort people into lines and tell them purely random and vague demarkations that really don’t exist. Now you stepped over this imaginary line so you are Type A person, didn’t go far enough then Type B. Oh but its more ideal to be Type C instead of Type A or type B because I said so.

Duh!!!!
Rod

55 Pal June 13, 2012 at 3:40 am

Lol, I began to read the first few comments before I formed my thoughts on it.

Very insightful.

56 tiffan June 13, 2012 at 5:10 am

Great article!!! I am glad to say that I never conform to the insane culture we have been born into in the U.S. – ever never have and never will. Interestingly my foolish mother pushed me ruthlessly to conform and “play the game” I resisted her to my own detriment, as she decided that screaming, belittling, knocking me down to the floor and kicking me, and bad mouthing me to my siblings for resisting her was the way to get me to do what she wanted. I am grateful to my own spirit that I resisted with everything I had and left as soon as I could, and went as far away as I could. I call her once in a while and oh yea she is still on her war path after 20 years believe it or not, needless to say I never go back except for a couple of funerals where she acted the fool. I deserve a better mother but didn’t get one. Nonetheless my spirit is strong and it is enough to be me and be happy on my terms. It is noteworthy to state that the woman in the fifties and sixties who became moms that I know are all nuts. You may disagree with this statement and perhaps you were lucky and your mom is not nuts. But I guarantee if you ask around about those 2 generations of moms, you will find more often than not that I am right. It is important to note that in the end it is about following your passion, and becoming love. No one on their deathbed ever cares about what they owned, or what accolades they “received.” All they care about is if they spent enough time with those they loved, and if they themselves were loved. All material things remain at death, they are not important enough for the spirit to take with them when they leave the body, the spirit only takes the love they shared and were given, that’s it. Nothing else goes, nada!
If you don’t believe the spirit leaves the body at death, you need to spend some time with the dying. It leaves and it is visible. You have only to look!

57 Brenden June 13, 2012 at 3:32 pm

An interesting article that introduces some valuable ideas. Thank you.
I have to disagree, however, about the value of “an enemy to rebel against.” Rebellion against an idea or group is not inherently autonomous.
In fact, I would argue that most rebellion is born of immaturity. Many adolescents push back against the beliefs and customs of the culture they were raised in simply because, for the first time in their lives, they can. Their rejection of accepted views and flaunting of societal norms is not usually founded in a well thought out philosophy, but instead is a byproduct of their search for their own unique identities.
The mature and autonomous approach is not to blindly accept the gyroscope handed down to you. Nor is it, I would suggest, to find something to push against. Both actions are reactive, true autonomy is proactive. The mature, autonomous man thinks and decides for himself. Thus, he is free to agree with his parents/boss/culture/religion on one issue and disagree on another. He is defined by his own evaluations, not his relationship to the evaluations of others.
As a side note, no action can be externally judged as autonomous or not. I can’t know whether you actually understand and agree with the philosophy of Kant, or if you are saying that to impress a girl.
Each man, in his own mind, has the option to exercise his autonomy, and only he knows if he is doing so.
(It would seem incomplete to talk about rebellion without quoting the band Cake. From their song Rock and Roll Lifestyle: “Excess ain’t rebellion/ You’re drinking what they’re selling.”)

58 Doug June 13, 2012 at 3:34 pm

I couldn’t help but think consistently of the Anomie article as I was reading this one. It’s quite thought-provoking to see how our culture how changed as rapidly as it has, and in the way that many people from previous years predicted.

59 Doug June 13, 2012 at 3:35 pm

Something tells me however that, while many people found this article to be thought-provoking, not many people understood what it was trying to say.

60 Paul X June 13, 2012 at 4:46 pm

Interesting article, yes and thought provoking. However, one can over-analyze things, seems to me. It also depends on putting people in pigeon-holes.

61 Frank June 13, 2012 at 7:00 pm

Great read! This should be a series! Maybe a profile on being in that fourth group, the autonomous.

Either way, lots of great points and analysis. I love thought provoking articles like this. Keep up the great work!

62 Kaitlyn June 13, 2012 at 7:40 pm

The ideal autonomous man is highly reminiscent of the ideals of Ayn Rand. I strongly urge anyone interested in this to read her novel Atlas Shrugged, which does a wonderful job of depicting life as it can and ought to be, which seems to be a shared goal of this website and its viewers.

63 Jacob June 13, 2012 at 11:10 pm

Great post. Found myself challenging my own habits and thoughts throughout the whole article. It was also evident that Brett and Kate were challenging themselves as they wrote it! I always look forward to these kinds of articles.

64 Wilko June 13, 2012 at 11:45 pm

I find it more productive to think small when tackling big ideas (like working out what to do with a life!). I mean, I find it relatively easy to figure out what is going to make me happy this hour, or this weekend; ride the scooter down to the beach for a chilli dog; shoot some coconuts with my crossbow; flirt with a cute girl over cocktails.

This is the kind of stuff I’m going to concetrate on – I figure my life will be richer and more satisfying for having had a few thousand weekends doing exactly what I enjoyed, rather than exhausting myself trying to find the “perfect” career or life-changing holiday (I’m a travel skeptic incidentally, done my share, left me genuinely non-plussed, not in my DNA)

I also find it easier to work backwards, eliminating, or minimising sources of discomfort. And, I don’t ever expect to feel wholly satisfied, I can understant that, acknowledge that, and live with it.

65 AC June 14, 2012 at 9:11 am

The triumph of other-directedness in American society doesn’t only manifest itself in social media, as Brett and Kate so perceptively point out, but also in what we could call “American nice”, that saccharine-sweet, sterile, corporate, “bubbly”, ultimately futile “niceness” which governs every human interaction in American life following the rules of customer service.

It’s also worth pointing out that what sometimes passes for independent thinking is nothing more than yet more other-direction caused by asimilation – witness the ubiquity of “leftfield” words such as “karma” or “narrative” or the increasing quasi-religious , totemic status of concepts like gay marriage.

66 Natalie June 14, 2012 at 9:22 am

Another article-inducing book for you could be “Sex at Dawn” by Christopher Ryan. Very topical to your website. The subtitle is “How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships.”

67 Jake June 14, 2012 at 5:13 pm

Modernist economic and social theory like this is really interesting stuff. Another great theorist who had similar things to say was Thorstein Veblen in “The Theory of the Leisure Class.” This book, written around the same time as Reisman’s work, is where the concept of “conspicuous consumerism” originated.

My senior thesis was about this same topic. Social media is as popular as it is because it’s the most conspicuous apparatus of displaying the expensive things we can buy and the extravagant ways we spend our leisure time.

Humans have always harbored the erroneous tendency of determining self-worth from the contingent approval of others. Real men rise above the fray and recognize that, while functioning and contributing well in society can be both pragmatic and satisfying, it is most important to draw motivation from doing the right thing regardless of how it might be interpreted by others. This self-motivation builds integrity and instills the manliest of principles- sacrifice, humility, and courage in the face of daunting opposition.

Great post. We need more of these theoretical forays into discovering what it means to be a real man.

68 Victor June 15, 2012 at 9:45 am

my good sir, this article is suberb.

greetings from madeira island

69 Rundel June 15, 2012 at 5:43 pm

It would be interesting to read an article on autonomous men. Seems the cream from the book would be that.

70 Nate June 16, 2012 at 10:46 pm

So how many of you readers are reading these comments right now, and more importantly, why?

71 Kirra June 19, 2012 at 3:29 am

Excellent article.

I remember reading in high school that the rebels who do the opposite of the majority are not actually rebels but conformists to a different norm. The true rebels are the people who think about what they truly want and act on that. Its something that helped me a lot during high school to make choices that I knew were my own, not my friends or peers.

I still read the comments, mainly because I do have a keen interest in other people’s opinions; this doesn’t worry me because I’m not easily swayed simply by something someone has said or done, even if they are someone I admire.

72 Fred June 20, 2012 at 1:02 am

As I began to read this, I wondered which of the three types I was most like. Then I realized I was hurrying through the article to find out which type I should be.

73 Dave June 20, 2012 at 2:36 pm

I’m rather fascinated that the posters here all seem to be “Autonomous” or there abouts.
Articles like this seldom attract those who can’t or won’t think for themselves.

74 Karl June 20, 2012 at 11:13 pm

Thought provoking and interesting. Thank you.

75 Michael Nagel June 21, 2012 at 9:17 am

Good to read that other persons also are addressing the issue of autonomy. This and other skills of living an authentic life should be taught in high school, but alas we’re taught to be like others, not ourSelves.

76 Jimmy June 22, 2012 at 8:55 am

“541 Likes. Sign up to see what your friends like.”

That little FB note at the bottom of the article gave me a good chuckle this morning. Thanks!

77 Sam Gagliardi June 22, 2012 at 10:10 am

“are those who on the whole are capable of conforming to the behavioral norms of their society…but are free to choose whether to conform or not.”

Isn’t most of this related to self awareness & critical thinking? – kind of related to being able to turn on and off certain ways of being as they are relevant, tbh I think this is what drives a lot of success..this critical kind of perception and the ability to give people what they want in the right kind of circumstance

78 Andrew June 22, 2012 at 11:36 pm

I saw a lot of myself in some of the examples… it makes me realize the impact of social media. Good food for thought. Very much appreciated.

79 Ed June 27, 2012 at 6:55 pm

One of the premises seems to be that autonomy exists. I think its a good article and something people may be able to use, but people have been saying basically the same thing since plato’s republic and aristotle’s nichomacean (I don’t know if I spelled that right) ethics. I think the reason this problem of autonomy as an important part of ethics seems to never be resolved adequately is that autonomy can only be an illusion.

Anyway, I know neuroscientific experimentation is providing greater evidence to show that our thoughts, decisions, and actions are predetermined by our brain structure. The evidence is by no means conclusive, but strong correlations are being drawn. Or at least this was the general lesson learned in my Philosophy of Neuroscience class taught at UAB.

On a more abstract note, philosophers since Kant have discussed whether free will and even the principium individualis is an illusion or not. I’m under the opinion that the differentiation of people and objects is a category imposed and generated by the anatomy and physiology of our brains and sensory systems. But that’s just speculation.

Basically what I’m getting at is that this article is all very well and good — I do think that it may be personally useful to think of things in this way. But I wonder, does it have substance or is it just a crude demonstration of symbolic language imposed on vague sensory impressions. Does it really fit, or is it like fitting a square block into a circle hole? It seems like it works, but only because the block has been hammered in so many times the hole has been distorted.

80 Tim June 28, 2012 at 9:39 am

Exceptional article. This is why I keep coming back. I will obtain a copy of The Lonely Crowd and share it with my son.

81 James June 30, 2012 at 7:05 pm

A well researched article. The best style for AoM and why I keep coming back. Thanks

82 Ryan July 2, 2012 at 5:03 pm

Great Article. Not only did you shed some light on the book, but how you see it relating to our culture. Just ordered the book!

83 Randy July 4, 2012 at 6:00 am

This was a great article. I really enjoyed reading it. I’ll never look at society the same again. I might check that book out.

84 Matt Verlinich July 5, 2012 at 6:04 pm

This is an excellent article. In the spirit of the article I’ll have to read the original book, so as to not be influenced by your summary of it. You make a very valid “dig” at Tim Ferriss’ “lifestyle design”, but I like to think that I’m merely trying to use his 80/20 methods to transcend its inherent “other-directed” nature.

85 Ben July 11, 2012 at 8:12 am

Just love this often forgotten wisdom. This has special meaning in this contemporary age, where, let’s face it, walking with the crowd is generally not the way to shine! Neither, however, is blind contrarianism – an element of self-Mastery is surely the ability to examine one’s self and one’s actions alongside those of the crowd, and then to choose your own best path whilst holding true to your personal values. Brilliant!

86 Tommy April 4, 2013 at 11:31 am
87 pooleside May 9, 2013 at 10:13 am

Autonomy ain’t all it’s cracked up to be…

88 Justin Taylor August 12, 2013 at 8:41 pm

If you guys want a crash course in cultural paradigm shattering information, just look up Terence McKenna on YouTube. His material on culture being like an operation system is very good. Although I don’t agree with everything he says, in an indirect way he helped me become more autonomous.

89 Jade August 12, 2013 at 10:19 pm

Good article!

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