Towards new constructs of success?

by Dina on March 11, 2009 · 9 comments

in Life

Rob Paterson asks “What is the Great Disruption” in response to Thomas Friedman’s editorial.

Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall – when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

Tom Friedman’s editorial this weekend may be an historic on. He suggest that the financial crash of 2008 is more than a correction in the market – that it may be the end of the consumer – corporate – market society.

That nature is catching up with our mad idea that we could have infinite growth and that we could find “happiness” in stuff. Most importantly that we could have a business model based on only one thing – shareholder value where all the main costs are externalized to society.

If he is right, then all our business models based on scarcity, centralization and scale are wrong. For they serve only the elite and not the larger pool of people and the planet. This is not a moral issue. Nature does not care about moral issues. But she does punish those that break her laws. If we allow them to persist, they will take us all down.

Although things could get worse, they will get better. They HAVE to. I have faith in human resilience and in our ability to tack and re-tack within the chaotic conditions we are in. In some ways I see all this as a correction in what was an artificial inflated economy fueled by greed. Greed not just among the ‘producers’ but equally among the ‘consumers’ constantly desiring bigger better more.   The networked economy might have shifted some of the power and balance away from the ‘producers’, but it has not made us much happier given the mess we are in today.

Perhaps we need to redefine how we measure success and happiness. It’s a good starting point. We have been taught and have learned to  make a direct correlation between financial success and happiness.  And between financial success and growth. We don’t like to admit this upfront, and we often use “I will have greater options” as the explanation for desiring more money.  I do it too.

This is faulty. My hope is that one of the fall-outs of this terrible crisis is that we learn not to measure success by networth of an individual. We need to stop giving away our own power by deifying those we perceive as successful, because they have x million dollars. Nature has a much more multi-dimensional model of growth, unlike our one-dimensional artificially constructed model of bigger better more.

All this might sound a bit rhetorical, then maybe I am naive. Still, my hope is that after the immediate damage-control, wealth gets more equitably distributed as a result of wresting away the power that we have for so many years imbued in our present construct of financial success, and that we can embrace different ways of growing.

Are we brave enough to learn afresh and make a new pledge?


{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 manuscrypts March 11, 2009 at 12:27 pm

..its the damn treadmill race we’re running… the illusion of moving while staying in the same place.. the excuse is that its good exercise, but so is walking… (and that’s the cue for saying ‘pedestrian unfriendly roads, pollution….)
we can get off the treadmill and walk when we want to, its in our control, but do we want to? maybe not, because we’re concerned that others are still on the treadmill, and we’re losing out on what we think is a race, and because the treadmill has become our only point of reference to the kind of existing we’ve commonly accepted as living?
a catch 22, because the only potential game changers – us, are quite okay with the current status quo of the game.. 😐

PS. Before someone says ‘speak for yourself’, i have used ‘we’ liberally. apologies 🙂

2 Meena Walters March 11, 2009 at 5:22 pm

This again brings me to debate the outlook of life -optimism/pessimism. A change in attitude with practice and effort is necessary???

3 Shefaly March 11, 2009 at 9:26 pm

Manuscrypts: The problem with the rat race that even when you have won it, you are still a rat 😉 If instead of racing with other rats we set our races with ourselves we would not be in this hole.

Dina: Success means money but luckily for very few – the one who focus on it to the exclusion of all else and those who want that sort of money. A vast majority is happy doing meaningful work and paying bills and saving a bit for old age. Think about it – do millionaires/ aspiring multimillionaires really exceed the numbers of those who work in aid agencies, as volunteers, as care workers, as social workers, as teachers, as nurses, as bus drivers, as hospice workers? It really depends on whether we choose to see hope in a world where the latter categories exceed the former ones in number or we choose to despair about the greed of the few.

4 Dina March 11, 2009 at 10:30 pm

Manuscrypts – I’m part of that ‘we’ for sure although i don’t like the thought much!

Meena – in a broad sense yes, but I do feel its deeper than that.

Shefaly – my point wasn’t about the numbers – it’s about how we as a society or a world define and worship success today. And make demi-gods out of those that achieve financial success. The aid workers and social workers and teachers and bus drivers aren’t ‘perceived’ as successful by our societies, nor are they considered demi-gods by many many sections of society. They may well be happier individuals. That’s exactly my point actually. In countries like the US and here in India too, the last 10-15 years (prior to the recession) has seen the growth of the millionaire class and the aspirers to this one measure of success. I’m guilty too of being an aspirer, often explaining it away as not being greedy but with the goal of having many options. This is manifest in our socialization process for our kids today too – how hard they are made to work and play and – that dreaded word we keep hearing today – compete. These are the values they are growing up with, and as Manu illustrates so well with the treadmill analogy, the fear of losing out is so great. That’s what I meant when I used the term greedy.

5 Andreas March 12, 2009 at 2:26 am

Hi Dina,

Thank you for these two last posts, which I find go very well together in raising questions, which I’ve been thinking a lot about lately:

How can we take the small steps towards improving our dismal-looking future while remaining imaginative as to where our small steps may bring us?

It’s very easy to make fluffy statements of good intent in these matters, but what works is creating alternatives that show new directions. Free software and creative commons have done well to show alternatives to traditional copyright. Another might well be to show that there are viable alternatives to traditional corporations solely focused on short-term shareholder value.

Old communal initiatives like co-housing, kibbutzim, and the cooperative movement might be revitalised by the ease of organisation that the Internet allows. Initiatives like zipcars are just one small step in that direction.

These initiatives are based on sharing, and we’ll have come if we reach a point where people feel comfortable not owning, but sharing, not only immaterial values like movies and music, but also traditional resources like cars, food, and housing.

6 Meena Walters March 12, 2009 at 10:10 pm


Yes it is deeper than my previous query.

Reception. Retention. Expression. I mean our sense organs might receive a particular stimulus, may be biological or physical.. but we humans have become so socially evolved species and culturally grown up entities.. it is hard to classify ourselves in animal kingdom.. but sadly it is a reality…environmental changes or factors effect our sense organs and aptly we respond at different levels..some respond to worldly materials and other are fascinated by a complex mind.. and both put a lot of effort to nurture the level.

7 Shefaly March 14, 2009 at 7:59 pm

Hi Dina

My point of referring to numbers was this:

Presumably a large % of people in these jobs are in these jobs because they chose to, and not because they could not land big-money jobs.

Since the sheer numbers in these jobs are huge, even a small sliver of them being driven by higher motives than money will mean a large number of people.

Which means that there is a considerable section of society who still does not see money as the ultimate marker of success.

Which also means that we may be self-referencing and projecting on to society what _we_ see as a marker of success and what drives _our_ choices.

Possible, isn’t it? After all most of the times, most of us – not you necessarily since your work is richer in its diversity – hang out with people like us. So our views can validated and sooner than later, in a logical fallacy enabled by myopia we begin to believe that our view explains the entirety.

BTW I do not see anything wrong with competing. Competing leads to at least trying to get better at whatever one is doing. To blame it for the state of society is to make too large an attribution, I think.

Thanks. Sorry to hog so much space.

8 Dina March 20, 2009 at 1:51 pm

Andreas – thanks for the perspectives on creating alternative ownership’ models. The copyright fight and open source are good examples of small steps building the larger vision and this feeding back into more and more small steps.

Shefaly, thanks for making me think!! In the Indian context, I’d be tempted to challenge you on the numbers really. Many of those who work in aid agencies, as volunteers, as care workers, as social workers, as teachers, as nurses, as bus drivers, as hospice workers here at least, are not doing so out of choice or for higher motives than money, or even sheer subsistence. Moreover, every study I do indicates to me that today’s youth aspires to be the next ‘millionaires’. Look at the number of regular middle class kids participating in all the reality shows and aspiring to quick fame and quick money. Look at expressions of symbols, icons, rituals of the youth here today – so much points to how much money and success are being valued. Look at how much of pop culture revolved around the rags-to-riches story. How many do you know really think of that take action on social issues or, environmental concerns(just examples)? Not many. When asked, they say they simply do not have the time!!

On competing – as with most things that aren’t so black and white, of course competition has its advantages – we’ve all heard of healthy competition :). The point I was making in my earlier comment is that the fear of losing out (which is being nailed into the heads of little kids here in India today) is a manifestation of competition driven by the need to be successful, which is once again defined in many ways, by what their parents desires and aspirations are for them. There is much evidence of this – young students in schools and colleges committing suicide when they do badly, kids dashing from course to course with no time for reflection or play (my young nieces – 9 and 11 feel its a way of life for them today!).

9 yenayer April 20, 2009 at 2:32 pm

Is this the same Friedman that it is about ?

“During a CNBC interview with Tim Russert in late July, the acclaimed savant made a notable confession: “We got this free market, and I admit, I was speaking out in Minnesota — my hometown, in fact — and guy stood up in the audience, said, ‘Mr. Friedman, is there any free trade agreement you’d oppose?’ I said, ‘No, absolutely not.’ I said, ‘You know what, sir? I wrote a column supporting the CAFTA, the Caribbean Free Trade initiative. I didn’t even know what was in it. I just knew two words: free trade.'”

This man should not be taken seriously. Every two years he changes his mind to the opposite. In two years he will come and lectures us on another “new” concept that he is fighting now.

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