Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Problem with Our Way of Defining Success

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers: The Story of Success. Although I enjoyed it immensely, there have been a few thoughts niggling in the back of my mind--a few things that don't quite add up for me. One of those involves the way that Gladwell defines success. Well, no, it's not the way he defines success--because he never actually defines it--it's the underlying assumption that in our society everyone already knows what success is, and therefore it's not even open for debate.

But I think it should be open for debate.

There were several points in the book where I became uncomfortable. One point was in the chapter, "The Trouble with Geniuses, Part 2", where he was comparing the way wealthy parents raise their children to that of poor parents. He referred to a study conducted by sociologist Annette Lareau on a group of third graders. She found there were only two identifiable parenting styles: one which was employed by the wealthy parents and the other by the poor parents. The wealthy parents were deeply involved in their children's lives, shuttling them to and from lessons and practices, asking questions about their playmates and school, scheduling an endless array of activities, and constantly processing and talking things through with their kids. The poor parents, on the other hand, took a laissez-faire approach to child rearing. There were no scheduled practices. Instead, the kids were sent outdoors to play with the other kids in the neighborhood. There was no advocating for the needs of their children at school, and generally the kids were simply left to fend for themselves.

Lareau called the strategy of the wealthy parents "concerted cultivation" and the strategy of the poor parents "natural growth." The "concerted cultivation" strategy created youngsters who knew how to take initiative and act on behalf of their own needs and interests. They knew how to "gain advantage". The "natural growth" strategy created youngsters who were"often better behaved, less whiny, more creative in making use of their own time, and had a well-developed sense of independence" but they also had "an emerging sense of distance, distrust, and constraint." [The words and phrases in quotation marks in this paragraph are Lareau's words, not Gladwell's.]

It's clear to me that the children of the wealthy parents were being shaped for success in our society, and the poor children simply weren't. But this gets me to the heart of the matter. Gladwell notes, "Lareau stresses that one style isn't morally better than the other." Morally better, no. But scratch out that word--morally--and you can be sure almost everyone will think that one of those styles is heck of a lot better--generally--than the other, and I think you know which one.

Why is it better? Because that style of parenting churns out youth indoctrinated into the western model of success. These kids have learned how to push their way to the top, they know how to work the system, they can get what they want. It's a system based on self-absorption and self-promotion and I believe frankly that it's unhealthy, not only for individuals, but also for the planet.

What initially caused me to think there might be a problem with our definition of success was my reading last year of Amy Chua's book World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (see my earlier post "Infiltration and Naturalization, Part 1"). When outsiders strode into a country--outsiders who shared our Western model of success--and it was a country that didn't share that model, the outsiders were able to essentially snatch control of that country's markets and resources. As I said in my earlier post, outsiders are like invasive weed seeds--entering an ecosystem that has never had the opportunity to evolve a line of defense against it. "They ride in with their wads of cash, and what human ecosystem has yet evolved a defense against that?"

An undeveloped country develops through "natural growth" in the same way that poor children develop through "natural growth". It seems to me that a philosophy of "concerted cultivation" only begins to happen when people, countries, or the corporations that spring from them, lose their connection with the land and a more natural way of being. When you are connected to the land and you are living small (i.e. living within the confines of your own ecosystem, and living sustainably) there is no need for extreme self-promotion, expansion, extraction, growth, profits and transactions. There is no need for manic doing. People who have lost their connection with the land become those who are likely to exploit the land, particularly on foreign soils, where they don't have to see the damage they do.

Amy Chua found that when market-dominant minorities were driven out of a country, that country often collapsed economically. The citizens who remained usually didn't possess the business skills and financial acumen to keep the country going. What occurred to me was that this was not a failing of the native people; it simply demonstrates a very core difference in cultural values. Business skills, financial acumen--those are skills valuable to people who have no connection with the land. They don't possess the land in their hearts or their souls, so they seek through transacting and exploiting to possess the earth physically. Indigenous people, however, still at least to some extent are part of the land, inseparable from it. Capitalism has little appeal to them. There is not much motivation to become materialists, brilliant entrepreneurs, leaders of industry. They still remember how to live in harmony with the earth.

What our world suffers from right now is way too much doing. We've been way too busy, way too "productive" (i.e. destructive). Manic soccer practices are the precursor of manic gold mining, manic coal burning, manic rainforest-chopping-down, manic suck-every-drop-of-oil-out-of-the-ground. This is success??

It's only been in the past century that we've begun in earnest to move off the land (of course the roots of this go back to the industrial revolution and--before that--to our first city-states thousands of years ago). This exodus from the land which was once a trickle is now a torrent, and the implications are enormous. Over half the world's population now live in cities. It's an unprecedented situation. Our current ideas about success have been birthed in the urban landscape. This is not what we need. It leads to exploitation. What we need is to redefine success from a global perspective. We don't need to go back to the land, necessarily, but we need to take into account the land and its limits.

If we got back to living locally (in the cities as well as the countryside), and if we worked to create a steady-state economy, we could achieve a model of success that would be far less manic, much more satisfying for everybody, and sustainable. What we need is to work towards balance. Balance in the lives of our children, balance in our own lives, and balance in the world. To me, success is not success if it's exploitative. And most of what passes as success today rests on exploitative practices.

There's more I want to get to on this subject. Richard Louv's book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder would tie in very nicely here, but it will have to wait for another day.

1 comment:

  1. Very thoughtful and a paradigm shift for me. Your ideas brought to mind what I considered the tragedy of the book, The Blue Zones. The authors studied the 7 longest lived peoples of the planet. They sought what habits attitudes and foods these people had in common that led to longevity. Unfortunately they also found that in some places these influences would end with the current generation as America's cultural influences were creeping in. Fast food restaurant chains opened selling the people convenience and robbing them of their heritage of a long, healthy life.