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The "Alpha" Myth

Updated: Feb 14

We see self-proclaimed “Alphas” everywhere nowadays. Spouting misogynistic ideas about what women want in a man. Self-obsessed and narcissistic. Consumed by the concept of appearance. Cheesy salespeople trying to sell you the idea that if you appear a certain way (financially successful, physically fit, aggressive etc.) then people will take notice that you are in fact, in fact, an Alpha.

But the term “Alpha” is simply a reductive label that we’ve started throwing around to rank people in a rudimentary hierarchical fashion.

It’s strange; we’ve somehow gotten to a point where we have conflated personality disorders, ruthlessness, and coldness with being “Alpha”. But bullies are not “Alpha” – they are insecure. Narcissists are not “Alpha” – they lie habitually to cover crippling anxiety. Psychopaths and sociopaths who hurt others are not “Alpha” – they have brains that are wired to exploit and manipulate.

None of this is Alpha by the true definition of the word.

Unfortunately, many of us have become so preoccupied with labels that we actually believe these deluded individuals, even when they themselves claim to be “Alpha” (and nothing could be further from being Alpha than trying to convince others that you are one).

Worse still, we encourage and enable them (social media and reality TV has not helped with this). We then start to internalise the idea that if we are not Alpha, then by proxy, we are Beta (a lesser tribe member). This is incredibly dangerous, particularly to a large community of young males who come to believe that if they’re not demonstrating the characteristics of the stereotypical Alpha male (who only really existed in the definitive sense when we were primitive beings), then they are worthless. And what happens? We breed and perpetuate misogynistic ideals. We stop caring about other people. We become preoccupied with status. We become obsessed with materialistic possessions. We mask our insecurities and vulnerabilities. We become empty.

The true definition of a stereotypical Alpha (which is a concept we typically apply to less intelligent lifeforms to understand their social behaviour) is the leader of a tribe. They can be male, or female. Their gender identity is irrelevant. In the animal world, Alphas are typically the biggest or strongest, most socially influential, the flashiest, the most determined, or the most intelligent. Consequently, Alphas have the best access to mates, food and shelter – the pillars of survival. Alphas tend to be constantly threatened, tested, and challenged by jealous and ambitious Betas, so it makes sense that they are generally the most adept at dealing with pain and suffering. In other words, they tend to be the most mentally and physically tough and resilient. The definition of what constitutes an “Alpha” of course depends on which animal we are talking about, but it pays to be a little reductive here when talking about such a reductive issue.

Let’s consider humans. It certainly wasn’t our immense strength, massive size or breakneck speed that allowed us to become the Alphas of the animal world – it was our superior intelligence. Our big brains made us natural problem solvers and much of our brain is dedicated to the movement of our limbs. What an amazing combination! Humans can theorise a response to a problem and have the capacity to use their bodies to make their critical thinking a reality. Dolphins are a highly intelligent species, but their lack of limbs really inhibits them. Generally speaking, (excluding those with disabilities or brain injuries) humans don’t have that problem.

So, intelligence is our greatest asset and therefore our most Alpha quality right? After all, it’s the preeminent characteristic that allowed our species to become the Alphas amongst Alphas!

…But do we consider our most intelligent people to be “Alpha”? Hardly. I don’t recall our most intelligent students at school being the most social, having the best access to mates, or being the biggest and strongest. Rarely were they considered “the leader of the tribe.” In fact, being too intelligent can often be more of a curse than a blessing – hence why our most intelligent are four times more likely to have a mental illness and often struggle with substance abuse. We also observe a litany of social ineptitudes in our most highly intelligent people; hardly the quality of an Alpha who must lead an inherently social species.

Social intelligence is a different thing altogether. We can be socially intelligent (high EQ), but intellectually unintelligent (low IQ). We can have low EQ and high IQ or be highly unintelligent in both EQ and IQ. Social dominance is certainly the characteristic of an Alpha; however, this requires sensitivity to others’ emotions, the capacity to be vulnerable, the requirements of empathy and compassion and creativity. In our modern world, I seldom perceive these qualities being espoused in self-proclaimed “Alphas.” They often take a back seat to financial successfulness, physical appearance and an unwillingness to listen to others; to do things their own way with little regard to the feelings of people around them.

To put it another way – our conception of what constitutes an Alpha is far too reductive, often misconstrued, and manipulated by nonsensical rhetoric.

Then is being “Alpha” simply a measure of how big and strong and aggressive we are? Hardly. Our strongest person in a population of 8 billion wouldn’t stand a chance against a hippo. And in our socialised environment, aggressiveness towards others is generally seen as a net negative, not a net positive. In fact, that aggressiveness we see in certain people is often masking deep and crippling self-esteem issues. Hardly the quality of a confident tribe leader.

Then by deduction, being Alpha must be the person who is the most social, has the best access to resources and is the flashiest, right? That would mean our true Alphas are the rich and famous. This is likely as close as we can get to the definition of a true Alpha in a social species like Homo sapiens. But then why is it not abnormal for our most rich and famous to be miserable or self-doubting? Why do people not universally follow and be influenced by all rich and famous people? Why does being rich and famous have little to no correlation with how fulfilled or content or confident a person is? Why are many of our rich and famous poor role models and leaders? Why is it that the richer and more famous we become, the more we typically preoccupy ourselves with smaller and more trivial aspects of suffering? One thing we know for certain is that there is no correlation with how rich and famous a person is and their capacity to be resilient, or endure suffering; in fact, being rich and famous may be a detriment to resilience in many cases, as we conversely observe that our most mentally tough individuals have often suffered intensely and overcome immeasurable odds.

I firmly believe that it is because we are far too reductive in our assessment of what a human “Alpha” really is. Most of the time, it’s because we are being sold a complete myth about what is, and what it is not “Alpha.”

The one thing we know for certain that is true of all humans is that we suffer. Not a single person who has ever lived has been able to avoid this. We all experience trauma. We all grieve. We all experience pain. What do we know about Alphas in the animal kingdom? They are the very best at navigating suffering. They will typically experience more pain and suffering and failure than other members in their tribes because they are the leader. When you are a true leader, you protect those around you and wear a heavy burden. You take more than your fair share of suffering so those around you do not have to. This is vital for the Alphas’ survival, and for the prosperity of their tribe.

My mum, who escaped an abusive marriage; raised three emotionally secure boys through extreme adversity and on little salary; who has survived, endured, and thrived in suffering far greater than any other person should or does experience in their lifetime; who is still alive 6 years removed from a stage four cancer diagnosis; who lets herself be vulnerable and has an astronomical support network of friends and family members willing to help at any moment; that is a true Alpha to me. She isn’t wealthy. She isn’t famous. She isn’t physically strong, nor is she tall or quick. But wow, what a tribe leader she is.

The leader of a tribe must protect their tribemates. They must own their vulnerabilities, so they can strengthen themselves, navigate risks and connect deeply. They must inspire those around them and build their confidence. My mum is the toughest person I know. She can go toe to toe with anyone and come out on top. She is my Alpha, my tribe leader, and I’ll take her over an insecure little man like Andrew Tate any day of the week.

Please stop being preoccupied with labels like “Alpha” and “Beta”. If you can learn to own your insecurities, to inspire those around you with your fortitude and resolve, to continue fighting when you have nothing left to give, to protect your tribe and connect deeply with other people, you will see that our current preoccupation with the term “Alpha” is simply a myth. We no longer live in 10,000BC. We are far more complex than any other living organism.

Anyone alive has the capacity to do these things – it just takes consistent hard work, discipline and most of all, courage. Sometimes you won’t be up for the fight and that’s okay. But this is precisely when you need to fight at your hardest. The more you fight, the more resilient you will become.

You don’t need to look up to insecure people who claim to be “Alphas.” You already have all the resources you will ever need inside of you. You just need to harness and utilise them.   

In other words, be your own Alpha.

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