When President Obama urged Americans to “win the future” in his recent SOTU address, he called upon the innovative, communal spirit that’s enabled us to “do great things.” Ironically, that part of his message exposes a glaring contradiction: How we’ve defined achieving “success” in our lives has become outmoded and maladaptive in our 21st Century world. To meet the challenges of our “Sputnik moment,” we need to revamp our thinking about what success is, as well as what psychological orientation is necessary to achieve it.
Consider this: The old, conventional view of a successful life is mostly defined by financial and self-interested criteria — getting, consuming and possessing for oneself. As Ronald Reagan once said about pursuing the “American dream” everyone “...wants to see an America in which people can get rich.”
But as President Obama pointed out in his address, “That world has changed. And for many, the change has been painful.” The reality of today’s interconnected, highly interdependent world, greed is not good. It’s psychologically unhealthy; it undermines the values, mindset and actions people need to strengthen in order to meet the challenges we face as individuals and as a nation.
That is, our security, success and well-being now require strengthening communal values and behavior; working towards common goals, the common good. Acting on self-interest alone, especially in the pursuit of personal power, steady career advancement and money… well, that’s a non-sustainable way of life. Even when it “worked” it left a hollowness inside, that people longed to fill but didn’t know how. Today, the consequences of that old vision have become heightened for many men and women in the aftermath of the recession, as they struggle to deal with a world that feels turned upside-down and insecure.
But more ominously for “winning the future,” the consequences of the old definition of success are taking an emotional toll on the younger generation. The very next day after Obama’s SOTU speech, a major survey of college freshman was released. It found that their mental health has declined to the lowest level since the survey began 25 years ago. Rising numbers report depression, anxiety and a rapid rise of using psychiatric medication.
However, the explanations offered for this decline were all filtered through the same lens: that the students’ mental health is being damaged because they realize that they won’t be as “successful” as their parents’ generation; or as much as they expected they would be — all defined by financial success and career advancement. No question, economic uncertainty creates anxiety. But I think that one-dimensional explanation ignores a broader problem that the younger generation struggles with: It looks at the adult careerist culture that equates self-centered careerist and financial goals with a successful life; and then considers the rapidly changing world they will be entering. As a result, they don’t see much to look forward to, as a way of life.
That is, they don’t see a whole lot about the adult career world worth aspiring towards. They know they’re living in the midst of major social and political transformations within a globalized world, but they continue to be sold the old 20th Century careerist message that happiness, success and — yes, mental health — are derived from achieving personal power, more money and career advancement in a stable environment. It feels false and unauthentic.
Of course, the hollowness of that singular vision has been visible for generations, but it’s even more pronounced today. J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye was the most impactful for the generations that grew up after World War II. And as Kenneth Slawenski has emphasized in his new biography of Salinger, that novel also tapped into a larger theme — the search for ideals, authenticity and something that makes life worth living; necessary for both personal meaning and survival.
Those themes are current today, in the new world environment. David Foster Wallace’s writings are a good example. They’ve generated a following within the current younger generation, in particular. His themes — longing for authentic connection in the face of chronic disillusionment and ongoing life crises — resonate with many experiences of today’s young adults, although his own tragic end leaves many of his admirers lost in confusion.
Nevertheless, Obama’s call for a shared, communal vision for our future points the way to an antidote to the emptiness of having nothing to look forward to adult life. It’s through defining success to include the happiness and fulfillment from helping and supporting others; expanding beyond just your own self-interest by recognizing that we’re not isolated entities on a planet that exists for our personal benefit, alone. We all need and depend on each other.
Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum captured the essence of this shift in a recent interview, saying that,
…we have to recognize that the post-crisis world will be very different… from the pre-crisis world. We have to deal with a completely new reality. We have the millennial generation coming up, which will change certain social patterns.” And, “We have to learn from one another. We are now much more in a multicultural world. (One) has to be… not only very understanding about cultures and very at ease in dealing with different cultures, but someone who accepts cultural differences as a natural way of doing business.
All of these shifts contribute to redefining what a successful life is, and how to deploy our personal capacities in ways that benefit all of us, not just ourselves. In fact, we can see many examples of people who find creative and personal fulfillment through serving something larger than just themselves, what I called “forgetting yourself” in a previous post, and through serving the common good.
One example is Abraham Akoi, one of the “lost boys of Sudan,” who escaped his village at the age of 11, and was able to come to the U.S., where he excelled, eventually received an MBA. Despite several offers of six-figure salaries — for pursuing success defined by money and traditional career achievement — he decided to return to Southern Sudan to assist the new government-to-be with his skills; and to put his skills and capacities in the service of ideals and a vision, rather than just his own personal financial reward. �He said,
I have a commitment and integrity to do the right thing for south Sudan… our biggest challenge is creating a system that is bigger than one person, to create a system that will stand the test of time.
A second example from a whole different realm is the decision by injured Kansas City Royals pitcher Gil Meche to walk away from collecting on his $12 million contract, by retiring at age 32. He could have collected the balance of his contract for doing nothing, but said that he needed to keep his self-respect:
Once I started to realize I wasn’t earning my money, I felt bad. �I was making a crazy amount of money for not even pitching. Honestly, I didn’t feel like I deserved it. I didn’t want to have those feelings again.
Examples as disparate as these share an enlarged perspective and different set of values, of ideals, about what makes life worth living. These are not exceptional capacities or shifts. It’s abundantly clear that people are capable of “evolving” in these ways. For example, the mounting scientific evidence that people can build the capacity for and behavior that demonstrates empathy and compassion. It’s “hard-wired,” as is the capacity to changed our brain activity in ways that promote new capacities, as the eminent neurologist Oliver Sachs recently described.
As such examples become more visible in business, personal relationships, and career choices, they define a growing shift towards redefining personal success in work and life with broader criteria that include the common good. And that’s more consistent with something else Obama said, in calling forth Americans’ best spirit: Such attitudes as, “I might not know those people in trouble, but I think I can help them, and I need to try.”