Social Drag

Social drag is what happens when you undergo a significant personal shift, yet everyone around you still treats you the same. Suppose you’ve decided to switch careers. Even though you’re still working in your old career, mentally you’ve already made the leap to the new one, and it’s only a matter of time before your external reality reflects that. But the people around you haven’t yet internalized your shift. It isn’t real to them yet, so they keep interacting with you as if you haven’t made the shift at all. Has this ever happened to you?

Every significant shift I’ve experienced has had a corresponding level of social drag. Whenever a person makes a significant change in their lives, it can take the rest of the world a few years to catch up. This is especially true with family and friends that you don’t see often. Their mental model of who you are is likely to drift behind the real you.

Whenever I experience a major personal shift, it always takes my extended family and friends a while to “get it.” After college when I started Dexterity Software, my parents still behaved as if I was looking for a job (like many college students would be expected to do after graduation). They mailed me job applications and sent me employment leads, but I just junked ’em. It took a couple years for them to internalize the idea that I was running my own business, even though I’d already made that commitment from day one and had no interest in working for someone else. I think it was around the time I received a check for $50,000 from a publisher that they finally got it. More recently when I told them I performed in an improv comedy show, they reacted with surprise. For Steve 2004, this behavior would be a little surprising, but doing improv is pretty consistent with Steve 2006’s behavior. My local friends weren’t really surprised. I’ve been giving humorous speeches for a year and a half.

Another cause of social drag is when there are artifacts of your old self left behind, giving people a glimpse of who you once were but not of who you are today. For example, while I was actively building Dexterity Software, I wrote a number of articles on game development and marketing, most of them between 1999 and 2002. Those articles became very popular, and I decided to keep them online in the hopes that people might still find some value in them. The copyright dates are listed at the bottom of each article. Unfortunately, people who read these old articles today often react as if I just wrote them yesterday, and people who knew me two years ago seem to assume that I’d offer the same advice today as I did several years ago. Heck no. The indie game scene has changed a lot since then. If I were active in the industry today, I’d do things very differently. My old articles serve as advice on how to run an indie games business five years ago, not how to run one today. Many of the high-level ideas still hold true, but the more specific details are largely obsolete. The shareware distribution model has changed markedly since I wrote those articles. Today’s independent developer should skate where the puck is going, not where it’s been.

Thanks to social drag, there’s this ghost version of Steve Pavlina that still lingers in the indie games industry long after I retired. People periodically debate his old ideas as if they’re modern ones. Some of the stuff people attribute to him is amusing in a sad sort of way. As time goes on, he drifts further and further away, performing whatever role social drag assigns. Social drag keeps him alive. Some people praise him for helping them. Others scorn him for giving them bad advice. Yet he exists only in their minds. The real human being from which this ghost spawned has long since moved on.

Social drag is mainly a nuisance, but it can be more serious if the drag threatens to slow you down or to erase your progress. You can choose to accept and then ignore it, which often works well when you’re dealing with acquaintances, like co-workers you’re about to leave behind anyway. But if you’re dealing with friends or family members who will be around for a while, I recommend doing something to interrupt their old pattern of relating to you, so you create space for them to get to know the new you.

What’s the best way to interrupt someone’s outdated method of relating to you? The most obvious approach is to verbally correct the person and remind him/her of your shift. This works well with some people, but I often find that it doesn’t stick — it lacks the power to break people’s old patterns. I find humor to be more effective. A little shock value can help too if used appropriately. It isn’t necessary to burn your old self in effigy, but feel free to poke fun at the person’s old way of relating to you until they finally “get it.” One of my favorite approaches is to do a reversal. You let the other person know their model is outdated by relating to them in a humorously outdated way as well, so you’re reflecting their error back to them and exaggerating it. For example, you might treat a divorced friend as if s/he is still married. This will get the other person’s attention and encourage him/her to update the mental model of who you are now. A bit of teasing works well on people with a healthy sense of humor, such as your typical ornery game developer. But a straightforward, heartfelt explanation tends to work better with people who are more sensitive to the emotions of others. I don’t recall ever meeting a game developer like that though. 🙂