Amongst all our wants and needs, the ability to express ourselves sits pretty high up there, and what exactly “self expression” can apply to is infinite. Anything a human says or does is arguably self expression. It drives how you behave, why you make certain decisions, and so on. It’s the bridge between your inner and outer world. The bridge between identity and action.
And I believe that bridge is becoming shorter and shorter, meaning all the decisions and actions you take in life need to be increasingly from a place of “identity” as opposed to logic.
I know that doesn’t make sense, but let’s dig..
If you look over the last hundred or so years, excluding the internet age, WHAT people express about themselves hasn’t changed much. Cultural trends will always come and go that influence the content of expression (fashion, music etc), but not the vehicles of expression. The fashion trends from 50 years ago are totally different than they are now. Doesn’t matter. Fashion as a vehicle hasn’t changed much, only the content and level of intensity.
The vehicles of expression are now changing. The literal definition of self expression itself is changing.
“…the expression of one's feelings, thoughts, or ideas, especially in writing, art, music, or dance.”
That’s the current definition, but self expression isn’t limited to just creative acts anymore. It’s seeping into more fundamental life decisions, the internet serving as a catalyst for that and Gen Z as fuel. We're entering (already in*) an era that’s primarily driven by the desire to self express as opposed to ones that represent more primary needs.
Think of it like this. There’s a spectrum of behavior. On one end let’s call them “simple behaviors” and on the other end “complex behaviors.” Now let’s look at that spectrum through the context of self expression.
Simple self-expressive behaviors are mentioned in the definition above. Fashion, music, art, lingo, hairstyles, tattoos, dancing, singing etc. These are actions you can take in the moment as long as it feels right. Things you can see, feel, and do immediately. Creative acts. TikTok is where this content thrives.
On the other hand, complex behaviors are things like jobs, relationships, health, families etc. These are realms of life that require serious life decisions, constant attention, and are not just spur of the moment bursts of creativity. For the longest time, complex behaviors were not usually associated with self expression. They were primarily driven by logic.
Pre - Internet: “I’m getting a job so I can make money to support my family and live a comfortable, stable life.”
Internet: “I’m getting a job so I can make money to support my family and live a comfortable, stable life, but I also really need to love my job. I should be excited to get up in the morning. I should be able to work from home if I want to. I should find a job that fulfills me day to day. I should find a job where I believe in the mission. I should find a job that’s respectful of who I am. I hate suits, I don’t want a job with suits.”
I’m not saying it’s completely black and white. There’s definitely overlap. What I’m trying to shed light on is the direction we’re heading.
This is where I foresee real change happening. The need to self express is infiltrating the core life decisions we make, not just the creative acts we typically associate with expression.
And I’m all for it. I think it’s fucking awesome. I’m an optimist when it comes to the internet, and I think this is one of the most positive impacts it’s had on us as humans. It’s forcing us to look inside, to find out who we really are. It’s turning us inside out.
And that’s where the spirit comes in. Self expression forces introspection, and introspection usually leads to spiritual (or religious) thoughts, practices, and beliefs. That’s why the same kid you see on TikTok dancing his ass off saying weird relatable shit to the camera is also likely questioning the entire nature of his existence.
The Evolution Of Self Expression
Conformity used to be cool! Everyone wearing similar things, growing up in the same neighborhood, getting similar careers, marrying similar people, all in the search for comfort, simplicity, and stability. There weren't many people dying their hair green and getting tattoos behind their ears in the 40's.
Then the 60's happened. Talk about an era. In some ways I feel like we're living through a modern day 60's (but will save that for another time).
But then the 60's went away? Or at least underground. To some extent things went back to "normal." There were standard roads in life and if you took a certain one you were more likely to end up happy and successful (one was called college, which I didn’t complete).
Then, Gen Z arrived. Armed with computers, the internet, and the realization that those standard routes didn't work out for their parents (or older brothers and sisters), they decided to rebuild the system. Individuality, not conformity, is king now. Those are sick red shoes but damn I'm gonna get blue shoes because I'm me, not you. That same type of authentic expression and decision making began to apply to all decisions, big and small, light and heavy.
What happens though when you have an entire generation chasing their authentic selves?
Why Self Expression Forces Introspection
I like to think of “discovering your authentic self” as hide n seek. Whoever you think you are is the one seeking, and the other more authentic versions of yourself are hiding behind trees.
The game is the point. In order to find a more authentic version of yourself and express it, we have to actually go look for it. We have to turn our attention inside. That part isn't always easy.
Imagine you’re in private school w/ uniforms your whole childhood, then one day you're thrown into public school where you need to choose what to wear now. You've never had to worry about this before. It didn't matter before. It's awesome you've been granted this newfound opportunity to express yourself, but now you also need to figure out more of who you are. You're forced to find your style, and in that process you might start to question other aspects of this "you" that you thought you were. Dominos fall.
That's why I've always coupled the word "authenticity" with "experimentation" and "exploration." No one just suddenly wakes up and knows who they are. You need to play with your identity in order to discover what feels right. On top of that, we age. And with age we gain experience and wisdom. And with experience and wisdom, your “authentic self” might change. Your authentic self is arguably a ghost you never catch, but it’s the act of playing that game of hide n seek that teaches you more and more about that ghost of yours. You don’t need to catch it to experience it and express it.
Anyways, enough with ghosts, I want to use another example to paint the picture. Let’s analyze a complex behavior through the context of self expression. Relationships.
Why do you want to be in a relationship? Yes, for love, support, growth etc.. fundamental human needs. Classic reasons. But, why do you choose THAT specific person?
Relationships feel like they happen naturally but I’d argue it’s pure decision making influenced by powerful emotions, especially these days when you can connect with any type of person you want. You CHOSE to date that person and you CHOSE to evolve the relationship every step of the way thereafter.
Why'd you make that decision? It's probably not a straightforward answer. You could list out personality traits or shared experiences, which is all valid and adds to the pot, but I’d argue the core reason is likely deeper. That person fulfills you in some way. They have something you have, or they have something you don't, or they allow for something you have/don’t have to flourish. All of those are strong reasons to be in a relationship. All of those are also acts of self expression.
Why is van life so popular? The desire to be a creator/entrepreneur? Why are people getting married later in life? Jumping from job to job? Doing mushrooms all the time? This way of life has been building up for a long, long time. The pandemic accelerated this sentiment and was also just the excuse everyone needed to jump in. People are discovering what they want, what represents them best, not just following the norms. We want to express ourselves in EVERYTHING we do now, not just the creative acts. Creativity is not just the arts anymore, life itself is quite literally one long creative act.
The core reason I believe this is happening though, if we want to dig even deeper, is our level of collective self awareness is increasing (fueled by the ability to share and relate online), and the more self aware you become, the more you feel this innate drive to chase and hopefully discover your authentic self, and through that process you feel the need to express yourself.
The goal in life is shifting to be more internal, less external, and we're trying to fit our external models of life to our internal world. Which is why I also believe we’re not going to enter some dystopian future ruled by AI, because as tech advances so does our collective self awareness. Future generations will build with a heightened level of awareness, not just on auto pilot building for the sake of building. At least that's what I hope. We could have some millennials or boomers that fuck it up before then, though (disclaimer: yes, I’m a millennial building).
The result of this increase in collective self awareness is an existential "crisis" (I don't like calling it that but I couldn't think of another word). More and more people, especially within Gen Z, are questioning the nature of their reality (don’t overlook the comments).
I call it the "itch." It's when you suddenly become hyper aware of what you're doing and you ask yourself "what am I doing?" or an equally common one is "who the fuck am I?" As soon as you have these thoughts, they never really go away. There’s always that itch to find the answers. The game of hide n seek begins. 10 or 20 years ago, as a teenager, you would usually keep these fun thoughts to yourself or push them aside, but now you can go on TikTok and find an entire generation your age rallying around these questions. Everyone is helping you play the game by sharing their stories and tips.
(On a totally separate note, I think products that help tackle the "itch" will be wildly successful in the next 50 years. I haven't seen one quite yet. Possibly TikTok, but mostly due to the fact that it’s become a platform to share thoughts and experiences around the itch. A community. Meditation, kind of, but people are using that to cope with symptoms of the itch and in other more commercialized ways, but not necessarily to deal with the itch itself).
What Happens Next?
Well, self expression and authenticity rule all now.
We're entering an era where the number of digital tools to help us express our authentic identity will increase, giving us more and more ways to peel back layers of the onion. As we continue to question who we are and what we're doing here (on earth), while tech simultaneously and rapidly advances, we're going to enter a very odd time. People will become more and more spiritual as tech becomes more and more ingrained in our lives. A time of heavy contradictions. When you're wearing your AR glasses talking to your friend's avatar but you're also on the way to the sound bath to soothe your existential anxiety. Just wait until Gen Z gets to the age where they're driving most of the creation. That will be exciting to see. I think Gen Z will positively impact this world more than any generation before them. Their minds are more equipped for the future than any of ours, they’re the 1st truly digital native generation, and they have more tools available to them than ever before to build the future they want. Who cares if they get nervous when they’re ordering at Starbucks? Those are empty, inauthentic interactions anyways. Try sharing a vulnerable moment on camera and building an entire community/dialogue around it. Gen Z has an entire generation of support at their fingertips, all chasing an authentic world.