Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Success Trap

The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living is one of my favorite "self-help" books. (Reviewed here on November 6, 2008.) After reading it I signed up for the newsletter issued by Russ Harris. The latest one contains some interesting comments on the "success trap."

The “Success” Trap 
What does the word “success” mean to you? When you hear “She is very successful” or “He’s made a success of himself” what does that conjure up for you? Our society generally defines success in terms of achieving goals: fame, wealth, status, respect; a big house, a luxury car, a prestigious job, a huge salary. When people achieve these things, our society tends to label them as “successful”. But if we buy into this popular notion of success, we set ourselves up for a lot of unnecessary suffering. 
How so? Well, this view of success inevitably pulls us into the goal-focused life - always striving to achieve the next goal: more money, larger house, better neighborhood, smarter clothes, slimmer body, bigger muscles, whiter teeth etc. And the illusion is, “When I achieve this, then I will finally be successful”. And of course, the corollary of that is “When I am successful, I will be happy.” The problem is: a) we may never achieve those goals, or they may be a long way off – which leads to chronic frustration and disappointment; and b) even if we do achieve them, they will not give us lasting happiness; usually they give us a brief moment of pleasure, satisfaction, joy – and then, we are focusing on the next goal. 
Furthermore, if you buy into this notion of success, it will put you under tremendous pressure - because you have to keep on achieving and achieving to maintain it. As long as you keep achieving those goals, then you are successful - ‘a winner’, ‘a high-achiever’. But if you stop achieving, then you are no longer successful; you are a ‘has-been’, or ‘a failure’ or ‘a loser’. It is this popular notion of success that leads to the widespread issue of “fragile self-esteem”. Fragile self-esteem is very common in high-performing professionals. These high-achievers often develop a strong positive self-image based on their performance. So as long as they perform well, they have high self-esteem. But as soon as their performance drops, their self-esteem comes tumbling down: from ‘winner’ to ‘loser’, from ‘high-achiever’ to ‘failure’. 

In The Happiness Trap, I suggested an alternative definition of success: success means living by your values. If we redefine success in this way, it makes life so much easier – because in any moment, we can act on our values – even though our goals may be a long way off. Suppose you want to change career and become a cardiac surgeon – well, you are looking at a minimum of ten years of your life before you can achieve this goal. That’s a long time. But suppose the core value underlying that goal is to help others. Well, you can act on that value over and over and over, all day, every day for the rest of your life – even if you never become a cardiac surgeon. 

By the conventional notion of success, Martin Luther King was not successful: he did not achieve his goal of equal rights for people of all skin colors. And yet – we remember, admire and respect him. Why? Because he stood for something: he lived by his values! And when living by our values becomes the definition of success, it means we can be instantly successful right now. All we need to do is act on our values. From this perspective, the mother who gives up her career to act on her values around nurturing and supporting her children is far more successful than the CEO who earns millions but completely neglects his values around being there for his kids. 

Albert Einstein put it this way: ‘Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.’ 

And Helen Keller put it like this: ‘I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.’ 

So next time your mind is beating you up for not being successful enough, try saying ‘Thanks mind!’ And then ask yourself ‘What’s a tiny little thing I can do right now, that’s consistent with my values?’ Then go ahead, and do it. And therein lies the secret of ‘instant success’. 

Friday, March 6, 2009

Clash of Liberals, Conservatives and Libertarians: A Different View

I’m mentioned Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis as one of my favorite books. He has written a thought provoking artile titled Obama’s moral majority. Haidt, a self-avowed political liberal, does something you rarely see on either side of the fence: admit the other side has some merit. In his article Haidt offers Obama advice on bridging the divide between Left and Right. He makes the following point:

First idea: use all five moral senses. A scientific consensus is emerging that human moral psychology was shaped by multiple evolutionary forces and that our minds therefore detect many—sometimes conflicting—properties of social situations. The two best studied moral senses pertain to harm (including our capacities for sympathy and nurturing) and fairness (including anger at injustice). You can travel the world but you won't find a human culture that doesn't notice and care about harm and fairness.

Political conservatives in the US, Britain and many other nations value three additional sets of moral concerns. Like liberals, they care about harm and fairness, but they care more than liberals about loyalty to the in-group (which political party cares most about flags and borders?), authority (which side demands respect for parents and teachers?) and spiritual purity (which side most wants to restrict homosexuality and drug use?). It's as though conservatives can hear five octaves of music, but liberals respond to just two, within which they have become particularly discerning. (My research colleagues and I have not just plucked these "senses" from the air; they emerged from a review of both evolutionary and anthropological theory, and were tested in internet surveys, face-to-face interviews and even in the decoding of religious sermons.)

This hypothesis doesn't mean that liberals are wrong or defective, but it does mean that they often have more trouble understanding conservatives than vice versa. Liberals tend to relate most moral issues to potential harms and injustices. They therefore can't understand why anyone—including the majority of Americans—would oppose gay marriage, for example, because legalising gay marriage would hurt nobody and end an injustice. Arguments about the sanctity of marriage or the authority of tradition sound like empty words sent out to cover irrational homophobia. But the culture war is not primarily a disagreement about what's harmful or fair; it is better described as a battle between two visions of the ideal society, one that is designed to appeal to two moral senses, the other designed to appeal to five.

Personally, I believe Haidt (and others) project too much hope in Obama’s ability to transcend party political lines. Based on what I’ve seen he has abandoned his message of hope and has resorted to more traditional party line politics.

I also believe there is another plausible theroy to expplain the differences in how conservatives, liberals and libertarians look at the world ethically. In reading Ken Wilber I became aware of Spiral Dynamics, a model for classifying worldviews based on stages of mental and spiritual evolution. Just as humans as a species have evolved over time, individual humans evolve through stages as they mature. Spiral Dynamics stems from the research conducted by Clare W. Graves, a professor of psychology who originally developed a model based on his research. Don Beck and Chris Cowan expanded on Graves’ work and added colors as a shorthand way to identify the different stages of evolution, which is explained in their book, Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership and Change.

The Spiral Dynamics model has 8 colors divided into two “tiers” but I’d like to focus on three colors that are contiguous with each other: blue, orange and green. Blue (also called “Traditional” by Stephen McIntosh) feels there is a Higher Power (typically God) that punishes evil and rewards the good. Blue values stability and order which is accomplished by obeying higher authorities and their rules. Traditional Republicans and conservatives are Blue.

Orange (or “Modern”) emphasize the individual and feel succesful living consists of competing to achieve results. They believe the free market best rewards individuals for their efforts. Libertarians and Objectivists typify Orange. They often form an uneasy alliance with Blue Republicans who also support the free market, sometimes reluctantly because of its inherent appeal to self-interest. Traditionalists support the market because it disciplines businessmen and individuals to pursue not just their own personal interests but “the public interest”. While Blue cherish tradition Orange values individual achievement and freedom. (Ayn Rand is an archetypical Orange which probably partially explains her antipathy for traditional conservatives.)

Green (“Postmodern”) believe humans find love and purpose through affiliation and sharing. Green is more egalitarian, relativistic and collectivist. They also oppose the hierarchies, believing that there are no “higher” or “lower” levels. As a result Green look down on Blue and Orange as inferior. All three levels look at each other as if they’re from another world. In a sense they are: different worldviews each with its own value system. Wilber has written about the “Mean Green Meme” because it reduces morality to one dimension. Or as Haidt writes, they strip out two of the 5 moral dimensions and discard the rest. A healthy Green integrates the best aspects of Blue and Orange.

For more description of the various colors see

I know this system might sound a bit New Agey but as I have read and apply this model I believe it has some merit. I think it does help expplain why we see liberals, conservatives and libertarians constrantly talking past each other without making headway. As Ken Wilber would say, Green is not superior to Blue or Orange. A healthy Green honors and incorporates the healthy aspects of Blue (the objective need for rules such as law and order, traditions, etc.) and Orange (individualism, reason, self-interest). There is much more than I can cover here. I encourage anyone interested to the links provided above as well as the work of Ken Wilber. (See also Wilber’s original piece on his quadrants model, which I hope to discuss here in a future entry.)