Our prehistoric ancestors were simple people, speaking in grunts and chipping away at rocks
It is a miracle the human race survived at all. With their limited intelligence, primitive mindset and total lack of technology, their survival under some of the most impossible circumstances most have been dumb luck. Any evidence of global trading from prehistoric times should be attributed to nothing more than the random stumbling about of simpletons. Their megalithic monuments are just a product of brute force and stubbornness. It’s a good thing we modern humans have evolved so far beyond our brutish, stupid beginnings and are so much smarter than our primitive ancestors.
Let’s imagine, just for a moment, that you were transported back in time, to the world our pre-historic ancestors lived in. Surely you, with your superior intellect and sophisticated technological knowledge would soon be able to lead those poor dimwits out of their Stone Age into an Age of Enlightenment.
Or would you?
How much of the technology you have come to rely on do you actually understand? Do you know how to make even the most basic of the tools that are part and parcel of our modern world?
And how resilient are you, really, without any of those tools readily at hand? Would you be able to find and prepare food straight from Nature? Would you be able to navigate dense forests, vast open steppes, and even medium-sized seas without your technological crutches? Do you know how to carve a megalith out of a sheer cliff face, let alone how to transport it for 100s of kilometers, and then place it upright in a way that will last for millennia?
Before you assume you would easily become the King of the Stone Age people, consider this: not only did they survive and often thrive in situations you would perish in within minutes of your arrival; they did so using mostly their own brains, cunning, muscle-power, and verbally transmitted lore. All of the daily challenges you need modern technology for — technology invented by others, made by others, and kept running by others — they would have to find solutions for themselves.
Who is the clever one now? You, who can Google anything you need to know, stay in touch with 100’s of friends you never actually meet, and program a microwave to cook the perfect frozen meal? Or the ‘primitive’ Stone Age human, who had to remember 1000s of lines of verbal tradition, could survive solely on what Nature provided, and still managed to traverse the globe, and leave monuments that will outlast almost anything modern humans have produced?
Business is a means to make money. Nothing more, nothing less
Money is all that matters in the end. The sole purpose of a business is to make its owners rich. Everything else is just embellishment and sales speak, covering up primal greed in lofty words and false sentimentality. There is no room for altruism or empathy in this cold, hard economic reality of business.
This assumption of the ruthless, relentless drive for profit is the one constant argument used to push back at anyone suggesting we should strive for a more humane version of the current capitalist model of commerce. This model has won, we are told, and is the dominant – maybe the only remaining – working economic model in existence. You may not like it, but there is no alternative. Businesses exist to make profit, and even their most altruistic and humane actions can ultimately only be explained by that economic necessity.
Is that really all there is to it? Business is business and there is no room for sentimentality when it comes to the bottom line?
I find it hard to believe that a system that leaves no room whatsoever for human values, such as virtue, compassion, kindness, higher purpose, social responsibility, etc. can ultimately thrive for long in our human world.
Because businesses are not alien life forms or soulless machines, but a collaboration of human beings, like you and me. And I don’t believe human beings are purely driven by greed and a selfish lust for power. We are social creatures at our very core. Wherever there are people, there are social structures and social rules to encourage collaboration, protect the weak, help each other and balance the greater good against the individual’s needs and desires.
Some people would argue that the very existence of those structures and rules proves that without them we would all just be brutal predators, waiting for a chance to pounce on the weak and helpless for nothing but our personal satisfaction. We have societies, they would say, because without them we would be savages.
Yet, all over this planet and all through history, people have found ways to peacefully live together, to collaborate and support each other. We find evidence from before the dawn of history of injured or old individuals being cared for. We find ancient myths proclaiming the virtues of compassion, kindness and social responsibility. Ancient laws talk about justice and fairness and social responsibility as if that is the natural state of our being, and those who deviate from it are the harmful exception society needs to be protected from.
I think the simplest explanation for this very human tendency to form complex, regulated and collaborative societies is that we are at heart a complex, regulated and collaborative species. We are NOT ruthless individuals only limited in the harm we do to other by the force of law and the fear of retribution. We WANT to live in peace. We LOVE to help each other. We THRIVE on collaboration. The rules and structures are there because we know societies are fragile things and can easily be twisted and broken by the few individuals that ignore their social side in favour of their individual desires. Precisely because we value a just, fair and functioning society so much we keep building them. Since we are far from perfect, our attempts to create the perfect society are bound to be imperfect, too. But we keep trying. Because what we really want is to live in peace.
Which brings me back to business. Businesses are human organisations and the people that come together to form a business bring all their human characteristics with them. That means that next to their individual needs and fears and insecurities, they bring their very human social instincts. They bring their desire for collaboration, for contribution, for attention, appreciation, affection, and acceptance, for fairness, for meaning and purpose.
Yes, they want money, too. They need to earn at least a living wage and most of us would love to earn a comfortable income, enough to put a rest to our – also very human – worry of not having enough in the future. But that is hardly ever the sum total of what we are after. Once our basic needs are met, most of us want more from work than just an income. We want to feel part of our organisations. We want to be proud of the work we do. We want to feel proud of the organisations we work for. We want to feel we’re making a positive contribution to our work and to the world.
With all the evidence we have that human beings are more, much more, than purely self-centred egoists, isn’t it sad that our corporate methods are so focused on bringing everything down to the lowest and meanest common denominator? More than sad, even. I have a strong suspicion that because the accepted business narrative has become so devoid of social and human considerations, the people working for them also lose touch with that side of their own socio-emotional needs and desires. By leaving no room for human needs other than money, status and power – by denying even that such needs exist – our organisations push people into a state of almost pure survival mode, where everything becomes a win-lose transaction, and every relationship and collaboration only exists for its utilitarian function.
The sad thing is that our society seems to have fallen for this false narrative of human nature. Business has become the dominant force in shaping our culture and with that its portrayal of humans as ‘homo economicus’ – the individual always out to maximise personal gain – has become the standard we measure everything by.
So, does that mean business has won and this is what we have to learn to live with?
As I said, I don’t believe that this model and its way of thinking is ultimately sustainable. We all get pressured on a daily basis to believe in this model. We all are forced to obey its rules even if we don’t believe in it. Yet, humans will be humans, and when a part of us remains unfulfilled and unexpressed, this will, sooner or later, create a reaction. When we can’t express our social nature, we will get stressed, uncomfortable, dysfunctional and sick. When we can’t satisfy our need to be a good person, we feel unfulfilled and unhappy. We know there is something missing, even if we can’t exactly put our finger on it. Even if we belong to the lucky minority that succeeds in the material race for money, status and power, if we can’t express our essential social character, we will not be satisfied.
By ignoring the social nature of the people that make up their organisations, businesses are pushing them to a breaking point. In this time of change and uncertainty, just when businesses need their people to be at their best, their most creative and most daring, they are reducing their people to the most basic state of survival. This makes it harder, almost impossible, for people to live up to what is expected of them, which only increases their stress and fear of failure, making things even worse. Something will have to give. Something will give.
I think we are close to breaking-point right now. The very success of the current way of thinking is creating the conditions for its own downfall. By taking over all aspects of our lives, the cold, self-centred homo-economicus we are made to believe we are has driven the altruistic, caring homo-socialis1almost completely underground. But there, with its back to the wall, it will become stronger. Like all suppressed emotions, our social needs and desires have not disappeared, they are just gathering strength. They are collecting the tension, the sadness, the disappointment and the longing and turning it into energy, like tightening a spring. And when the right moment comes, the spring will be released. All that stored energy will come out with an unstoppable force when the breaking point is reached.
I don’t know how this is going to end. I am not a prophet. I am not even a futurist2. But I do know we are facing a fundamental choice here. When the breaking point comes, what are we going to break? Are we letting it break society and all the people in it, or will we break the business model causing all this pain and dysfunction?
More information automatically leads to better decisions
The more I know about something the better I can weigh my decisions: instead of having to guess and assume, with enough information I can simply reason my way to the best decision. With all the information at my disposal I will always make the right decision.
But is this true for all decisions? When there is only one choice, the decision is obvious. When there are two options, one of the two usually stands out as the better choice. When there are five choices, however, making a decision becomes difficult and I need information to work out what is best. When there are dozens of choices, the decision is complicated, and I need a lot of information to work things out. When there are a hundred choices or more, the choice is now complex, and even a single new bit of information can completely change the outcome. What exactly is the best decision when the outcome changes with every new bit of information and the information available is never complete?
Is the constant demand for more information an example of believing you can never have enough of a good thing? Sure, without any information at all, your guess is as good as mine – or as random. So a bit of information can be helpful. But piling up information from different sources, of varying quality, of variable levels of relevance, does that clarify things for us, or does it merely confuse us?
Maybe we need to come to terms with the limits of our decision-making abilities, and the limits of what information can do to improve them? Maybe we live in a world that is too complex to fully fathom and all we can hope for is on average to get things more ‘right’ than ‘wrong’, trusting that we have more than just our rational thought processes to guide us; and trusting that in a complex, highly dynamic, and never fully understood reality even our ‘wrong’ decisions can be portals of discovery leading to completely new and unimagined opportunities?
When the total sum of wealth in the world increases, should we care about its distribution? We are all related, and everything is connected, so when the wealth of the world increases, the whole world is better off, even when only a lucky few benefit directly. Feeling left out and disadvantaged is just a narrow-minded, selfish reaction of the misguided ego that fails to see the bigger picture. A rising tide floats all boats, they say. And the trickle down principle works better when there’s more at the top to trickle down from. So let’s just keep slaving away at increasing the size of the pie, and not look too closely at how the slices are divided.
But if all the food of the world ends up on one table and the rest of the world is starving, does it really matter how richly stacked that table is? Does it matter how big the pie gets, when its parts are shared more and more inequitably? Does it benefit the world that a lucky minority can waste water on pools, parks, and fountains while the masses are dying of thirst? Is it right to boast of our fabulous cities and technological marvels while the rest of the world is turned into a wasteland to make those wonders possible? Does concentrated wealth really count as wealth, or it just another name for distributed poverty?
There is something deeply flawed about our current economic models. It all sounds really good in theory: in a free market, with all players having equal access and the freedom to choose, supply and demand, surplus and shortage, production and consumption will all balance themselves out in a dynamic equilibrium. The most deserving will get a bit more, the most productive will make the most profit, while the least productive and least deserving will get a bit less. But that is only fair, and much more fair than any centrally led economy or government-regulated system could ever be.
For a long time I have tried to believe this narrative, in spite of the plenty of evidence to the contrary. I wanted to believe the fundamental theory was sound and that a free market was – in theory – the best solution to our economic needs. I tried to explain the obvious failings of the system – the rising income inequality, the massive environmental damage, the overwhelming power of the wealthy elite over the poor majority of humanity – not as a flaw of the system but of the people running it. It had to be because of bad people, corrupt politicians, greedy businessmen, and criminal governments that the system refused to balance out. Surely, if we could find a way of weeding out the bad apples that were ruining the beauty of the free market, everything would work out OK?
An article in this month’s Scientific American, titled “The Inescapable Casino”, changed my mind. What the article claims, using fairly simple mathematics, is that the free market theory is fundamentally flawed. Even a truly free market, untainted by the distortions and machinations imposed by bad and greedy influences, will not move towards a balanced distribution of goods and value. Instead, small ‘errors’ of value exchange – where one party receives slightly more value than they should – build up over time. Once the value distribution is skewed, the unfair advantage of having received slightly more builds up over time, invariably leading to a lucky few owning almost everything, with only a few scraps left over for the rest. Instead of trickling down, the authors state, a free market tends to trickle up: shaving off value from the poorest to add to the increasingly disproportionate abundance of the rich.
For me, this insight changes a core part of my own thinking about our economic future. The flaws in our system have always been obvious to me, but I kept thinking we could correct these by limiting the damaging influence of the bad people involved. I was hoping that a free market without their distorting influences would be possible, so we did not have to rethink the entire foundation of our current economy. But I am coming to the conclusion this was a naive and idle hope. The system itself is fundamentally flawed. Even without ‘evil’ influences in it, it will never lead to a just and fair distribution of wealth and power.
But hidden inside this realisation is some (perhaps unexpected) good news.
It means we can change our focus. Instead of fighting the bad people and thinking up ways to limit their evil ways, we can turn our minds and energy to solving the real problem. Fighting evil people may give us the satisfaction of righteous indignation and moral superiority, it will not, however, solve our current problem of income inequality and massive over-concentration of wealth. It may smoothen the curve a bit, and soften some of the edges, but it cannot ‘cure’ a system that is so fundamentally flawed. We need to find a better system if we want to have a sustainable future. We need a system that is fair, balanced and equitable at its core.
So, let’s keep calling out bad behaviour and abuse of power where we see it. But let’s stop blaming bad people for all the problems in our world. They may be taking advantage of it but they are not the cause of our economy’s failings. The root cause is our economic system itself. Finding a better system should have our full attention and complete devotion. This is not a matter of winning a battle between good and evil. It’s a matter of finding a way of life that offers us a future.
If growth is good, continuous growth is better, slow growth is bad, no growth is a disaster
When things grow it means they are getting bigger, stronger, more. The faster they do so, the better it is. Failing to get bigger, stronger, more – even for a moment – must mean falling behind in the race towards dominance. Losing that race means death. When we look at Nature, growth is a sign of health and vigour; of youth and potential. As long as things grow they thrive. So, with Nature showing us the way, isn’t it logical – natural even – that we humans strive for perpetual, ever accelerating growth?
Or is it? Most things in Nature do not grow all the time, but slow down, decline, and die. In Nature things have a natural limit to their growth, to keep the eco-system diverse and balanced. Only pests, diseases, and cancers don’t seem to obey this rule, and end up destroying the very environment that gave them life. Maybe ours is the choice between growing up or growing on: finding peace with our world or finding ourselves without a world at all?
What if bigger, stronger, more are not the dimensions we should focus our efforts on? What if there are other forms of growth we overlook? Growth in complexity, variety, experience, wisdom… Could it be that our obsession with material growth is blinding us to the real growth opportunities around us?
An enterprise is like a machine we design, build, and operate
An enterprise is very much like a machine. It is engineered to perfection. Powerful and unstoppable, if properly constructed if will fulfill the function it was designed for without hesitation or deviation. Like a train it will thunder down the track its masters lay down for it, squashing all that comes in its path.
If this were true, why do Enterprises so often surprise us? Why is there no guaranteed best formula for creating and running an Enterprise? Why can good companies turn bad? Why do winning Enterprises stop being successful?
Is it because the machine of Enterprise is being operated by humans and those humans are fallible, unpredictable, flawed? If that were true, the less human interference we need, the better our Enterprises would become. The perfect Enterprise would not need any human operators at all. The perfect Enterprise would be perfectly engineered to perfectly run without human intervention.
Or could it be that the reality our Enterprises operate in is not a mechanical reality? Could it be that the complexity of the Enterprise’s environment defies a full analysis, complete enough to robustly design the Enterprise for all the variables and variations it has to deal with in its existence? If that is the case, no purely mechanical approach will yield a workable Enterprise. Resilient, intuitive, intelligent, unpredictable people will always be needed to steer the Enterprise through the frothy waves of complex reality. The perfect Enterprise would be approximated but never complete. No design, however detailed and well-thought-out can capture all the possible variations branching out at every future moment. Without humans to give it life, purpose, awareness, and responsiveness it would remain a perfectly lifeless abstraction, incapable of sustaining itself in the real world.
There is plenty of reason to believe reality is too complex, chaotic even, to be fully predictable. Why then are we still trying to refine human action and human agency out of our Enterprises’ design and operation? Why do we keep thinking that less human control and influence equals more effective operations?
Isn’t it time to stop that train before it takes us over the edge of the abyss?
This is going to be a series of assumptions I believe we should not always take for granted. They may be true sometimes, they may sound quite obvious, but are they always right? I am not claiming they are never true or useful, just arguing we should occasionally stop and question them. If we never critically examine what we assume about the world, how will we ever correct the flaws in our thinking?
1: Unlimited Wealth
If wealth is good, limitless wealth is infinitely better
Can you ever have too much of a good thing? If wealth enables people to do great and good things, limitless wealth should enable them to do an unlimited number of even greater and better things. But many great and good things are not happening in the world right now, whilst many deplorable and bad things are.
Why is that?
Is it because the wealthy are not wealthy enough? Are we limiting their ability to do all the great and good things they would do if only we let them grow even wealthier?
Or maybe wealth itself is not enough. Maybe wealth needs the human spirit to turn its potential into good. Maybe strong spirits with limited wealth can do great things, where weak spirits with great wealth do little good at all.
Maybe, when focusing on growing wealth, we are focusing on the wrong side of the equation? What would happen if we focus on developing the human spirit? If we encourage our children to be compassionate, fearless, strong, kind and caring before we teach them to be selfish, afraid, needy, greedy and aggressive? What would happen if we change the rules of the games our society plays by, so that wealth is not automatically equated with success, and money is not automatically equated with power over others?
It seems an inevitable truth that we are defined by where we come from: our country, our city, our religion, our upbringing, our culture… So many forces shape and confine us, knead and define us, mould and refine us, I sometimes wonder if any of us can say we are ourselves, truly our own individual self, rather than just an amalgam of everything that was poured into us from the moment we were born. Maybe what we call our ‘self’ is just the emerging complex of thoughts, beliefs, and behaviours rising up from the chorus of voices from our past – not something we can claim as ours, but something that claims us for itself and its own sense of identity. “You are what we made you into” those voices from the past seem to say, “There is no escaping your cultural heritage.”
And that poses a dilemma for me, a struggle that seems to become more prominent the more I feel the need to find a voice of my own; a voice that feels genuine; a voice that I can stay true to because it feels like the voice I would adopt if I had been free to create my own identity from the start. For many years now I have been trying to find that one true voice inside me by systematically extracting all the influences I could identify as coming from outside, studying them, and deciding what part of each of those influences I felt close to, or – on the contrary – did not want to be part of anymore. My hope has always been that by stripping away everything I objected to, everything that didn’t feel completely right and fitting, I would end up only with the parts that I could truly own and agree with: my own true and genuine voice.
But is that even possible? Aren’t the very preferences I am guided by in choosing what feels ‘true’ as much a product of all those past voices I’m selecting from? Can I claim my choices as my own?
And why do I even bother?
What is wrong with letting go of this elusive genuine self I’m chasing and just accepting the self I have ended up with? What is wrong with being a product of my past, my upbringing, my culture, and my history? Why not be content with the collected wisdom and experience of all the generations that came before me; the countless men and women that lived, struggled, and died so that one day I could be born and be who I am today? Isn’t that ungrateful and selfish?
Possibly. Maybe there is merit in just accepting the wisdom of the past and the collective learning of my ancestors and the culture I was raised in. Maybe I should just let go of my fixation on being an individual, let go of my ego, and go with the social flow.
But… and herein lies the struggle for me … my cultural heritage is a mixture of great deeds and horrible crimes, heroes and villains, sages and fools, merit and malice, greed and generosity, angels and demons, all woven together into this complex tapestry of contradictions, conflicting assumptions and dubious certainties I see when looking at ‘my’ culture.
Am I supposed to mindlessly accept all of this heritage? Must I accept the horrible deeds of our history’s villains and call them heroes, because that’s how they were seen and portrayed by the chroniclers of their time? Do I have to be proud of my country’s past achievements and accumulated wealth, knowing that these accomplishments often came at untold and barely imaginable suffering of millions of unfortunate souls born on the wrong side of history? Am I supposed to adopt my culture’s self-righteous and self-aggrandising image of itself, when even a cursory look at the facts shows that there is as much wrong as there is right about our values and practices, as much stolen and appropriated as actually genuinely produced by our ancestors themselves?
I don’t think so.
I think it should be perfectly reasonable for individual to look at their culture and history, critically examine that mixture of good and bad, and make their personal judgment of what they want to adhere to and what they want to distance themselves from. That should not just be permitted, it should be actively encouraged, so that the culture can actively learn and improve itself by the conscious choices made guided by the conscience of its members.
But that is not how it works, is it?
In reality, the moment a member of a culture (be it team, company, region, country, class, ethnicity, or even hemisphere) openly questions the past deeds and implied merits of their culture they will inevitably encounter fierce opposition from their fellow members. Just by not blindly accepting all that their culture contains, it seems, they are placing themselves if not outside then most certainly at the fringe of it. And from that fringe it is a small step to being outcast and ostracised completely. Apparently we – as a species – so much need a collective identity we can feel part of that even the simple act of questioning some of the constructs of that identity is felt like an attack on our very lives. To protect our collective identity the person raising doubts must be made an outsider, so they can be dehumanised, made into the “other”, the lesser being that does not deserve to be part of the cultural identity that makes us feel strong, safe, and special.
I think I understand the instinctive reaction that drives this fiercely defensive behaviour. And I don’t want to unnecessarily antagonise people or cause them to feel less safe and special. I also want to genuinely admire the good things my cultural heritage has to offer: to acknowledge the heroism of the past, the sacrifices that were made by our ancestors, the victories, and the sheer determination to survive and thrive. I want to learn from and lean on the wise and holy men and women that lifted their culture above the merely material and immediate and brought us science, philosophy, spirituality, and morality.
But it seems that one cannot receive the blessings of one’s past without having to accept its curses as well. If I am to believe the cultural arguments I observe around us, you don’t get to pick and choose. You’re either with us or against us. Any attempt to be discerning, to ask questions, to point out the darker sides of being us automatically voids your membership of us. By trying to be selective I have forfeited the right to claim a place inside that circle.
I am human, too. I, too, want to feel proud of all the forces that shaped me and brought me to where I am now. I, too, want to show gratitude and respect for the countless generations that lived, struggled, and died so that I might have my moment under the Sun. But I cannot do it unconditionally and I cannot simply ignore the darkness that is there as well. And so I struggle with my cultural heritage: wanting to be part of it, learn from it and benefit from it, but by its own rules apparently doomed to be apart from it the moment I dare to question things.
And if there’s one thing I know it is that I will never stop asking questions.
Whenever the topic comes up of the need to help the less fortunate and disadvantaged, invariably someone will bring up the ‘free rider’ problem: that there will be people taking advantage of such assistance and get undeserved benefits from it, at the cost of those providing it. I don’t deny that such people exist and that they throw an unfortunate blemish on the genuine desire to help people that really need assistance. But is that a reason to stop such assistance? Even more important is to stop for a moment and wonder if people taking advantage of help offered by people that are better off are the only ‘free riders’ in the equation, or the ones we should worry about most.
I believe most people want to be good and do good. And most people want to help people in need. There is plenty of evidence that helping others is more than a cultural imperative – a learned behaviour – but a much deeper, instinctive behaviour, genetically programmed into us because it has proven beneficial to our survival as a species. Yet when we look around we see plenty of people in need, plenty of people not getting help, and plenty of well-to-do people not really sharing their wealth freely with others. Why?
One reason often given is that freely helping people is a sure-fire way to end up being taken advantage of. Whether the help is given by an individual or a collective (such as the state), so runs the argument, people will abuse anything that is too easily given to them, and profit unfairly from it, at the expense of the donors. This is often referred to as the ‘free rider problem’, and brought up as the reason we cannot simply go and help people in less fortunate circumstances than ourselves.
Free riders are everywhere and unavoidable, it is claimed, and would profit from the hard-earned wealth of other people, without having done anything to deserve this, and without giving anything back. It is because of those free riders that we cannot expect hard-working people to share their wealth with just anyone: that would not be fair. Instead we need to be really careful with any help we may want to give, and make sure that the recipients are made to feel that they are in no way entitled to that help, should feel guilty for needing it, and are actively discouraged from seeking it.
The sad thing is that such reasoning doesn’t distinguish between people that just need some help; that have fallen onto hard times through no fault of their own; that simply drew the short straw in the big lottery of Fate; versus the – in my observations minority – who rather take advantage of other people’s naive good nature than make even half an effort to fend for themselves. So help is withheld on the basis of a generalization that does grave injustice to a large number of people.
But there is another assumption underneath the free rider problem and the way it is used to stop or hinder assistance to those in need. And that is that it is always the weak that profit from the strong, the poor from the wealthy, the sick from the healthy. After all, the weak are in need of what the powerful have in abundance, so they are the only ones that can take advantage of that fundamental inequality.
That is a dangerous assumption, and deeply flawed. Dangerous because it ascribes to the needy not just weakness but envy as well. They are not just needy, they are also greedy – greedy for things they did not earn. Deeply flawed, because in reality the direction of advantage runs as easily from the needy to the wealthy, as the other way round. It is probably easier for the rich to take from the poor than the reverse; easier for the healthy to profit from the sickness of others; and easier for the powerful to suppress and disempower the powerless.
There are at least as many, if not more – because it is easier – free riders amongst the people that are well-off than amongst those that are in need. People that have taken advantage of other people’s misfortune; slaveholders getting rich from the suffering of people that lacked the power to defend their freedom; industrialists coercing masses of workers to spend dismal, long hours in dangerous and dark factories, because those people had no other means of income; pharmaceutical corporations raking in massive profits from people desperate for medication; banks taking advantage of people caught out by natural disasters or economic downturns; … the list goes on. And don’t think I am just talking about some small group of evil-minded people we could single out and blame for their greed and avarice. If we take an honest look at ourselves, our Western society, our own wealth and relative power, how much of what we at present consider our birthright and product of our ancestors’ hard work and diligence was in reality stolen, under threat of violence or worse, from people that had no way to defend themselves?
So, here are my three reasons to reject the free riders problem as a reason to limit or stop help to those in need:
Psychologically, once you can master your fear of scarcity and lack of control, giving is more likely to make you happy than receiving or hoarding. By clinging to your wealth you are denying yourself a chance to feel that happiness;
Amongst those seeking your help there are more genuinely needy people than free riders. Most people don’t actually like asking for help, and will hesitate to do so, unless they feel they have no other choice. By pre-judging anyone asking for your help as a free rider you are probably doing them a grave injustice, not just not helping them, but contributing to their psychological suffering of feeling helpless and unwanted;
If you are amongst the wealthy people in your society, you are probably a free rider yourself, taking unfair advantage of many people all over the world, that are exploited and suppressed to provide you with the many luxuries you surround yourself with. You may not do so on purpose, and oppose these practices in principle, but since our society is built on these practices and you are part of these systems, you are profiting from it, and thereby complicit. So the least you can do is to share more of those profits with those in need, and help, if not to abolish this unfair advantage completely (which may be beyond any individual’s power anyway) at least to somewhat alleviate the pain and suffering caused by them.
Whether deserved or not, success is not an objectively measurable state. It is a construct of the human mind, experienced only by comparing a person’s actual circumstances against a mental model of what success looks like. One way to achieve success is by attempting to match or succeed that model. Another way would be to change the model to match the reality of one’s life.
I received a number of comments on my previous blog about luck. Some supported my main thesis that success is more luck than merit; others pointed out that opportunity alone is not enough: without preparation, skills, and hard work opportunities are easily missed or wasted. And there was also the notion that a person creates their own luck: that luck is somehow influenced by the individual’s actions, not simply the random workings of a mechanical, uncaring Universe.
I don’t disagree with the notion that opportunities alone are no guarantee for success. An opportunity is a potential, nothing more, until you put in the hard work and dedication to bring it to fruition. In other words: there is merit in having made the most of an opportunity that presented itself – that part of success can be said to be deserved. But do you really make your own luck? Does Lady Fortune really favour the bold and prepared? Or is that the narrative we tell ourselves to uphold the feeling we must have some power over our fate?
Of course it feels good to be told you deserve your success. It’s a nice compliment to get and I know the people that say it really mean it. But there is a flip side to this compliment, an unspoken implication, I think we need to be aware of and very careful with, because it seems to be a source of suffering for many. I am referring to the notion that if success is deserved, then so must be the lack of it. Which means that millions of people that fail to achieve success (by whatever measure – but I will get back to that later) have only themselves to blame.
That doesn’t feel right to me, and I don’t actually believe this to be the case. It also easily leads to a sense of entitlement in the successful people that can stand in the way of their empathy and compassion with those less fortunate. It is this ‘entitlement effect’, I think, that can turn an inspirational concept like the American Dream into a dismal nightmare for those missing out through no fault of their own.
So my first point to make here is to urge all successful people to stop themselves from time to time and reflect on the incredible good fortune that brought them to where they are now; to tone down their sense of entitlement and self-satisfaction; and realize there is not all that much that separates them from those that failed. “There, but for the grace of God, go I” I think is the more appropriate way to look at it.
But what about all those people that are not successful? That feel they have failed. That get stuck with the lousy hand that Fate has dealt them? Telling themselves that the success they see in others is not deserved is not likely to make them feel much better about themselves. The opposite, in fact, is more likely: on top of being disappointed with themselves, they may easily slip into bitterness and resentment towards the successful people around them.
For all those people that feel they are not successful, consider this: by which definition of success do you fall short? Success is not an absolute state, with clear and unchanging criteria; what constitutes success depends on what you define it to be, and is different for different people.
Success is subjective and easily influenced by the people around us. We have a tendency to compare our situation with that of others and then wish to ‘get’ what they ‘have’.
And that is where we unwittingly cause ourselves much unnecessary suffering.
To begin with: what other people have may not be the best model to define our own success by. We may be aiming for something that is simply not suitable for us, because of our circumstances or abilities. We may be aiming for something that – should we get it – doesn’t make us happy or feel fulfilled. We may easily misinterpret other people’s success, and model something that doesn’t actually exist. When we then commit our time, energy and passion to accomplish what we mistakenly define as success, we are almost certain to be sorely disappointed.
The other downside of looking at other people for our definition of success is that we tend to use as role models people that appear to be better off than we are. We raise the bar on what we call success, then measure ourselves by that bar, only to discover we are falling short. And then feel unhappy about our perceived shortcomings.
I have personally found that a regular critical examination of my own definitions of success has been a great help in leading a more balanced, more fulfilling, and somewhat ironically, more successful life. Once I realized that success is something I specify myself, I could begin modifying my definitions to my own standards, not those of other people. I also found that instead of only looking up to people, it really paid to take stock of people less fortunate than me, and realize that many people would consider most of the things I take for granted as the pinnacle of success.
To name a few things: I am (reasonably) healthy, have food on the table, a house to live in, and friends and loved ones around me. And I live in a country that is not at war, is prosperous, democratic and free. Each of these is something many people would envy me for. Each of this things is bound to be someone’s definition of success.
So, whenever you feel you are not successful (enough), first of all do not fall into the trap of believing you don’t deserve success. Success is fickle and erratic, sometimes it comes, sometime it doesn’t. And then look at how you define your success, what model you use to compare and align yourself to. If that model is causing you pain and disappointment, why not adjust it a bit? Make it match more closely with the plusses of your current situation. There are always things to be grateful for. And the more you can make those the standard for your success, the more successful you will feel.