In a completely commercialized society in which salability and optimal profit constitute the core values, and in which every person experiences [themselves] as ‘capital’ that [they have] to invest on the market with the aim of optimal profit (success), [their] inner value counts as little as that of a dental cream or a patent medicine. Whether [one] is kind, intelligent, productive, courageous matters little if these qualities have not been of use to make [one] successful. On the other hand, if [one] is only mediocre as a person, writer, artist, or whatever, and is a narcissistic, aggressive, drunken, obscene headline maker, [one] will– given some talent– easily become of of the ‘leading artists or writers’ of the day. Of course, not only [that person] is involved: The art of dealers, literary agents, P.R. [People], publishers all are interested financially in [their] success. [One] is “made” by them, and once [one] is a nationally advertised writer, painter, singer, once [one] is a “celebrity,” [one] is a great [person]– just as the soap powder is the best whose name you cannot help remembering if you are a TV viewer. Of course, fake and fraud are nothing new; they have always existed. But there was perhaps no time in which the fact of being in the public eye was of such exclusive impact.” — Erich Fromm, The Art of Being
A few weeks ago, I published an article at Scientific American called “The Role of Luck in Life Success Is Far Greater Than We Realized“. The article reported on a mathematical simulation that showed that even though talent matters, most of those at the very top of the success ladder are actually rather mediocre, due in large part to the often hidden role of luck in multiplying and amplifying one’s successes.
In the simulation, success was modeled as amount of capital, or your quantitative worth relative to others in society. But something that has been nagging at me is not only the under appreciated role of luck in our society, but the under appreciated role of being itself in society. I know that sentence sounds mushy. But I really, truly believe it, just as fervently as folks like Erich Fromm believed it a prior generation ago.
I wholeheartedly agree with Fromm that there is “a hypnotic attraction” to power and fame. The needs for power and status are deeply ingrained in our evolutionary DNA, and don’t marketers know it! To promise wealth, success, power, fortune, greatness, achievement, or any other external criteria of success and dominance in society is sure to be hypnotically attractive to the masses. The problem is not that these drives exist; I do believe it’s best to work with our human nature, rather than against it.
Rather, it’s the sole focus on the “having”, rather than the “being”, which is the problem. The more we focus on the importance of attaining external markers of success, the more we limit ourselves to cultivating and developing just those characteristics that will help us reach that goal, and the less we recognize the importance of developing deeper characteristics that are irrelevant to attaining that goal.
It’s no coincidence that magazines such as Success and Forbes repeat the same “secrets of success” over and over and over and over and over and over again. And it’s no coincidence that many of these secrets are precisely the ones that will get you outer value in life, such as money and power. But here’s the thing: outer value is a far cry from inner value, and quite frankly, I see very little valuing of inner value in today’s society.
And boy does this matter! After all, it’s inner value that people truly want. It’s what people are really seeking, even if they don’t know it, because they’ve been told over and over again that it’s outer value that really matters. What really leaves people satisfied are things like the development and utilization of their character strengths, pursuing their own consciously determined purpose, personal growth, mastery, creativity, development of their full capacities, authenticity, integrity, love, connection, benefitting society– things like that.
Yes, absolutely– things like power and money and achievement and any other quantitative metric of external success will make you feel good for the moment, satisfying that deep-seated drive for status and dominance. But specifically due to its evolutionary design, it intentionally will leave you wanting more and more and more of that status. Marketers just love this quirk of human nature, and exploit it to the nth degree. After all, the more you crave the attainment of external markers of success, the more hungry you will be to learn the secrets of success. The only problem with that is that it blinds us to the value of inner growth and transformation, to genuine development, to self-actualization of the individual, to the importance of things such as creativity and love, and the valuing of the uniqueness of the individual.
There’s a very good reason why virtually everyone who seeks power and fame eventually feels immensely unsatisfied once they achieve it. It’s because at an existential level, they discover just how indispensable they are under such a system, just how instrumental their value really is. People don’t want to feel instrumental, they want to feel valued for who they are uniquely and authentically.
It’s time to stop feeding the illusion– the false sense that we will achieve satisfaction if only we achieve success. Instead, let’s encourage each individual to cultivate the growth potentialities that reside deep within them. The potentialities that never expire, or become instrumental. It’s time to stop blinding ourselves to what really matters, and start striving for the things that do.