In one of Jack Benny’s classic comedy skits, a robber confronts him, demanding, “Your money or your life!” Benny — in character as a notorious tightwad — pauses for a long moment. The robber shouts his demand one more, with urgency. Finally, Benny says slowly, “I’m thinking it over!”
Many people today are caught up in a real life version of this dilemma. They acknowledge the stress, the physical and psychological perils of our prevailing view of success. The Third Metric movement is raising awareness of this, and surveys continue to document it. But, while most would prefer a more balanced, integrated life, they also feel reluctant or frightened to alter their endless pursuit of money and related measures of success. One of the reasons many keep “thinking it over” is visible in a lament coursing through the lives of many successful careerists: That “I don’t like the person I’ve become,” as one corporate executive expressed it to me.
George is an example. A highly successful executive in his mid 50s, he’s had a solid educational background, a steady career rise, and a functioning though not especially energized marriage, and two children. As he worked with me to deal with chronic anxiety and general malaise in his “always on” life, he awakened to having always “followed the program” in his life. That is, performing well, shaping his values, personality and goals along a path that was laid down and expected by his parents.
George was drawn to public service and journalism when younger, but that wasn’t part of the “program.” He craved parental approval and security from his parents, for whom nothing other than a conservative business career was acceptable. By adulthood, he learned to squash inclinations of his interior self that might clash with or even threaten to diminish devotion to his career-driven life. For example, his capacity for witty, insightful observations. Adventurous desires that he doesn’t pursue. Or imaginative ideas that don’t fit with his career environment.
That’s one version of the theme: Paralysis about your sense of self; the person you still believe you’re capable of becoming, however unlikely it might seem within the confines of your current stress-filled, conventionally successful life. It’s a core of dissatisfaction with the personality and life you’ve become constrained within. Life then feels insufficiently fulfilling, especially around creative inclinations to expand dimensions of the person that you know, inside, is constrained or stifled.
Creating “Whole Life” Success
Stifled dimensions of your unique personality and capacities reflect healthy yearning to expand and grow dimensions of your creative being, your total personality. They may remain underground but are always there, conscious to some degree. For example,a capacity for greater liveliness and spontaneity; wise perspective about people’s foibles; compassion for other’s life conflicts, even when they’ve brought them upon themselves; an innate sense of humor; a less materialistic lifestyle; or unmined talents that remain untested.
Overall, expanding towards “whole person success” means enlarging your entire being and creative passion about life, including the freedom to just “be” more fully — in work, in how you relate to others and how you “live” your values in your actual conduct. And, freedom in how you express your mental powers, your emotional strengths, your intellectual and spiritual capacities.
It’s natural to feel a pull towards greater creative expression of your personality’s capacities. But it butts up against constraints that serve people well, via the intoxicating pursuit of money, power and material rewards. The narrow values and rewards of careerism rooted in a traditional (but now disintegrating) view of “manhood,” as I wrote here in another context. In that view, a successful man is equated with power to control and dominate, high social status and material wealth.
Of course, both men and women are ensnared by those criteria. They exist in the realm your outer life and over-immersion in it suppresses your inner life. That is, because we’re socially conditioned into wanting — or lusting for — external measures of success, your inner life awareness becomes dimmed — who you really are inside, your sensitivities, passions, vulnerabilities. But your inner life is the source of healthy awareness and action regarding how to live and what you live for in your outer life. Without enough grounding in your inner life, you lack a strong guide towards knowing your true self; what really defines you.
Semi-awareness of your suppressed capacities underlies much of the unhappy, symptomatic lives that often accompany high-achieving, materially successful people. It’s visible in rates of depression and corresponding heavy use of anti-depressants; chronic anxiety; escapism through drugs, alcohol, affairs or personally corrupt behavior in politics, business dealings or personal relationships.
Your Childhood… And Our Society
To redefine success in healthier ways for both individuals and society, it’s essential to see the interplay between childhood experiences, and the behavior, social values and rewards that people are steadily conditioned into within the larger culture — often with minimal awareness.
For example, an undercurrent of insecurity can take root from inadequate, destructive or insufficiently supportive parenting. For some, this may lead to successful adaptation to convention norms of success, but with a lingering sense of having become someone other than who one really is, inside, like George.
For others, insecurity may express itself more extremely through greed, as Sam Polk’s recent story in the New York Times portrayed. One might pursue money as an endless attempt to build self-worth, symbolic love or acceptance. But calling this a childhood-based “addiction” is only half correct. It ignores the social and cultural standards and rewards that are held out as the pinnacle of success to strive for.
Similarly, a recent article by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld about factors underlying highly successful minorities stressed intense, unrelenting focus and impulse control. Those may be important for anyone’s success, but we shouldn’t ignore the role of the social values that condition you into what you believe is worth striving for to begin with. After all, many financial swindlers or psychopathic individuals embody those same capacities.
This dimension of social conditioning was underscored in a recent interview with Robert Skidelsky, co-author of How Much Is Enough? The Love of Money, and the Case for the Good Life. He said, “If you spend a lot of time doing things that you like instead of making lots of money, you’re not judged as successful by society.” And, “If you live in a society where success is measured mainly in money, that means you want more money.”
How true. Childhood emotional experiences lay the groundwork for adult lives. But they mesh with and are reinforced by the norms of “success” that dangle in front of you in the adult world. If the “success” you embrace requires an unfulfilled creative life and stunted capacities, it ensures paralysis. But that condition is also the catalyst to redefine success through expanding your being, your entire self. As the novelist Graham Greene wrote in The Heart of the Matter, “A single feat of daring can alter the whole conception of what is possible”