“Highlight Reels” and the Failures they Hide

During a recent Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders’ Seminar at Stanford University, DFJ Partner Emily Melton gave a great overview of her perspective on success in the world around us. In particular, Emily warned us about the “highlight reels” we see from others’ lives. To emphasize the point, Emily gave us a literal highlight reel of photos from her trek up the Grand Tetons: a couple photos of the scenery, a humorous-in-context sign, and a photo of her and her brother smiling at the breathtakingly beautiful top. Hidden behind these photos were the hours huffing and puffing up the mountain edge, various cuts and bruises sustained from falling on sharp rocks, and, as Emily humorously put it, “my brother doing his best to keep dragging me up the mountain”.

Although the proliferation of smartphone cameras and photo-sharing platforms have made our “highlight reels” more literal, humans have long been trying to showcase success over failure. Gilded tombs, larger-than-life statues, and “touched-up” family portraits all contribute to a grandiose image that, upon further inspection, hides the many cracks and flaws of these lives. In America, “keeping up with the Joneses” is a phrase coined in the early 1900s to explicitly reference this desire to emulate and perpetuate a veneer of success. All too often, we feel lonely and overwhelmed by the failures we try to hide. In reality, many people have faced and are facing the same issues, but hide them as well to create a rosier portrayal of their lives.

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Even LinkedIn has Stories now – a literal highlight reel of experiences.

How do we solve the issues behind highlight reels? It’s fun to post photos of events outside the dull realities: a recent trip to somewhere tropical, a fancy restaurant meal, going to a party with friends. One solution is to eliminate any exposure – delete your social media accounts, block out your friends’ successes, and keep moving on with life. Another option, and maybe one that comes with a better outcome in the long term, is to reframe and rationalize the things you see. If your friends are posting about accomplishments and exciting opportunities, congratulate them on their efforts. At the same time, remember the bruises that go into climbing a mountain, the long hours studying that lead to achieving that academic award, and the overall feeling of discontent that might have prompted someone into impulsively buying that fancy new motorcycle. Feel free to share your happy memories as well, and take some additional time to sit down and discuss life, good and bad, with the people around you. By finding a balance, we can enjoy highlight reels while remembering that’s all they are – highlights, not everyday realities.


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