Yesterday I was giving a talk at Newlands Girls School, plus a minibus-ful of boys from nearly Desborough College, so we had over 100 students in the room, aged 16 to 18.
At the risk of incurring the wrath of the teachers in the room, I cautioned the students against getting addicted to exam success, and the resulting pats on the back from parents and teachers. Of course, I added hastily, passing exams is good. But be careful about choosing your path through life by jumping through other people’s hoops. Make sure that they are the hoops that you actually want to jump through, and not just the ones that earn approval. Feel free to create your own hoops.
As someone who was myself addicted to other people’s hoops until my early thirties, I’ve thought about this a lot. We have a deep psychological need for approval and inclusion, which can lead to conformity, and conformity can be dangerous.
To back up my position on this, I’m going to call on Will Storr, who I mentioned last week – the author of Selfie: How The West Became Self-Obsessed (reviewed here).
In his wide-ranging book, he posits that our brains are constantly assessing:
Who do I need to be in order to get along and get ahead in this environment?
So our “self” is inextricable from our culture, as each culture has its own unique ecosystem of incentives, norms, and taboos. As early as the age of 14 months, we are looking around to see who seems to be thriving in our in-group, and we copy them. This behaviour is automatic and subconscious, so our culture permeates us in ways we’re not even aware of.
One of the fastest ways that culture can change is when powerful people change the incentives. When a new kind of behaviour is being rewarded, we see a different kind of person thriving, and our brain tells us that this is what we now need to do to get along and get ahead, and so we change our internal programming to conform to the new reality.
While this tendency is understandable, it may not be for the greater good.
Here is an example, again from Selfie. Ayn Rand was a writer, a Russian emigrée who became very influential in the US. Her best-selling novel, Atlas Shrugged, described a society in which no one paid tax, everybody competed with everyone else and the markets were unhindered by regulation. Personal freedom was cherished above all, and if the people were to be free, so, too, must be their markets.
One of her disciples was the young Alan Greenspan. “What she did,” he said, “was to make me see that capitalism is not only efficient and practical, but also moral.” In 1987, Greenspan was appointed the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, probably the single most powerful figure affecting the global economy, and remained in this role for nearly 30 years. And his ideas spread around the world.
Business and banking were deregulated, utilities like telecoms, water, electricity and gas were denationalised and sold off. In the UK, council houses were sold into private ownership, arts funding was cut, social security for the jobless was restricted to “gift them the motivation” to get on their bike and get a job. Meanwhile, taxes at higher levels of income were cut, to reward the entrepreneurs and industrialists for their money-making skills and enable them to raise the stakes in this new and popular game of neoliberal economics.
As Storr writes: “The dream would be of a single competitive world market with no barriers to trade or controls on financial flows. The World Bank and the IMF would assist in this mission by offering desperately needed loans to developing nations on the condition they introduced neoliberal reforms… Increasingly, the state was not there to look after you any more, protecting your income, respecting your union, catching your fall. To get along and get ahead, in this competitive age, you had to be fit, ambitious, ruthless, relentless.”
And now we know how that ended. In 1999, Clinton repealed the laws that had been brought in to control the banks following the Wall Street Crash of 1929. This wave of deregulation brought into being the highly unstable derivatives market that was made up, in the words of Warren Buffett, of “financial weapons of mass destruction”. At the same time, the low interest rates (another of Greenspan’s preoccupations) enabled millions of cash-strapped people to take on irresponsible levels of mortgage debt, which led to the catastrophe of 2008.
As a result of the crash, in the US alone, more than 9 million homes were lost and almost 9 million jobs disappeared. In the UK, 3.7 million people lost their jobs – one in seven of all employees. Researchers concluded that, in the UK, between 2008 and 2010, there were around a thousand extra suicides, nearly 90 per cent of them male, because of the crash and the period of austerity that followed.
And even apart from the human suffering, our natural world is also suffering. Our current economic system is all about maximising profits, which incentivises a company to – wherever possible – get its inputs by exploiting natural capital, and dispose of its outputs by dumping them into our air, sea, or soil. If the environmental cost of exploitation and pollution is not reflected in the economic cost, the company has no incentive to do otherwise.
Incentives are powerful. The behaviour that gets rewarded, gets reinforced and replicated. And it is precisely because incentives are powerful that we need to treat them with due caution and suspicion. Just because the culture in which we live rewards us for being a certain way and doing certain things doesn’t mean that this behaviour is right – either for us and/or for our society.
There is an important distinction between individualism and being an individual.
To me, individualism means believing in the supremacy of the self, entitlement, and selfishness. Paradoxically, the point of reference is external: the individualist wants to impress, to be seen to be getting ahead, to be the object of envy, to have more toys than the other kids in the sandpit. So they play by the rules of the current economic model in order to maximise their financial returns.
Being an individual, by contrast, means that the point of reference is internal. People look to their own hearts and consciences to figure out what ignites their passion and makes their soul sing. When people are happy – and nothing makes us happier than working on projects that are meaningful to us – research shows we are smarter, more altruistic, more generous and compassionate. Individuals are less susceptible to the current societal norms, risking censure and maybe even scorn if they don’t conform. It takes courage to tread this path, but we need more people – of all ages – to avoid the allure of approval.
We need more people to think for themselves and create their own hoops.
I had a wonderful time on SuperShe Island in Finland last weekend. Watch out for the article in Norwegian Air’s inflight magazine in May.
I’m planning to be at the Energy Disruptors conference this May, in Calgary, Canada. Let me know if you’re planning to be there!
Next week, a bit of a break. I’ll be taking a week’s holiday with my dear old Mum, heading to the Isle of Arran in Scotland. Hoping we don’t run into too much snow – it has been a crazy winter here in the UK.
And still lots happening with The Sisters, the global women’s network I am setting up and intending to launch in September this year. It’s quite different from anything I’ve done before – but hey, how hard can it be?!