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The New Crusaders: Doing Good at Any Cost — Part II

THE NEW CRUSADERS: DOING GOOD AT ANY COST — PART II

This article explores the second group of belief systems of the New Crusaders:

Successful People Don’t Do Anything Different Than “Average” Folks – They’re Just Lucky (Or Ruthless)
Self-Interest Is At The Root Of Social Problems
A Society Is Best Judged By How It Takes Care Of The Poor And “Disadvantaged.”

Success, in our culture, is surrounded by and immersed in mythology. The most prevalent myth stipulates that certain people win the “Success Lottery.” They’re just in the right place at the right time; they know influential people who pave their way, regardless of their lack of talent; or they inherit money and power and have, themselves, nothing to do with the outcome.

Almost all of these myths are predicated on a profound ignorance of what we reward and what we actually pay for, in American culture. What we don’t pay large amounts of money for is hard work, virtuous work, or noble, self-sacrificing work. And of the greatest significance, we don’t pay a lot for work that comes with guarantees and security. In fact, the more guarantees your work has, the less you’ll make and the more likely you’ll slide into mediocrity. This is why there’s not a lot of money in teaching and public sector work. Why would a society based around growth, innovation and creativity reward people for doing the same things, in an environment that promises them lifetime security and protection from accountability. It has always amazed me that amongst all the critiques of our educational system, I’ve never heard the critics take on the bizarre contradiction that we send our children to school (at all levels) to be taught by people who have tenure and are supposed to prepare their students to thrive in a global economy characterized by unpredictability, unrelenting change, and ubiquitous insecurity.

So what do we actually pay people for? We pay them for risk. And I don’t mean for putting themselves in physical jeopardy. The greatest risk we take is to be honest, open, and direct, in all our relationships. To tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. This puts all our relationships, personally and professionally, in a precarious position. It can enhance our relationships, or end them. High risk people live with this choice daily. They have an unstoppable passion for what they believe, and they’re willing to accept the consequences of their behavior. If you want to be successful, monetarily, and otherwise, you’ll need to be a risk-taker. If you decide that risk-taking is not for you, have the courage to accept your decision and stop blaming others for your lot in life.

“Self-Interest,” “Selfishness,” and other synonyms are probably the most misunderstood and misused terms in our language. This misuse mostly occurs when people see or experience behavior that either puzzles them or gets them angry. I’m not sure exactly what created such a pejorative context for “selfish,” but I would guess that it has a lot to do with guilt over wanting our needs to be met, and being made to feel shame over that desire.

This is exacerbated by the confusion, in our culture, of “selfishness,” and “narcissism.” I cannot remember in my life a time when the term “narcissist” was so widely and ignorantly thrown around. Here’s the difference. “Selfish” describes the behavior that allows people to act in their own behalf, and most importantly, to get what they need (emotionally and materially) by meeting the needs of others. “Selfish” assumes reciprocity. It says, very simply – “the only way that I’m going to get what I want, is to make sure that you get what you want.” “Narcissism” is one-way need meeting. It has no interest in other people getting what they need.

All of this is driven by normal human development. Infants and toddlers are, by necessity, narcissistic. Anyone who’s raised one realizes very quickly that young children define the term “self-centered;” and that there are no two-year-old altruists. And this is exactly the way it should be. The human infant is the only species that cannot survive if totally abandoned. That’s why they’re totally relentless in their demands, and why they could care less about what you need. Most children outgrow their narcissism, and evolve into self-interested adults. Many do not. And they make up the ranks of the greedy, the chronically unhappy, and the viciously criminal. Unfortunately, we seem to have an epidemic of the latter, in our time.

No population is as romanticized and patronized as the “poor.” As a result, we provide enormous resources to help them become unpoor. (Whether or not these resources actually change anything for the better, is open for debate.) And many of us take great pride in taking care of the “disadvantaged,” and consider it a facet of our culture that makes us morally superior. But amongst all this self-congratulations, two key questions remain unanswered:

“Who creates the resources to care for the poor?”
“What role do the poor play in their own impoverishment?”

A combination of political correctness, affluent guilt, and undealtwith emotional pain, have conspired to try and prevent our culture from looking at the participation of the “disadvantaged” in their own plight. Every thing we do; every choice we make; and every relationship we enter into; is a 50 -50 deal. In the adult community there are no 100% victims. But it is very painful for many of us (if not most of us) to witness people making conscious choices to abuse themselves, to be abused by others, and to decide to settle for little or nothing in their lives. So it is much less painful to give people just enough to survive with, than to challenge them to take on their demons. In fact, the most successful programs in interfering in the cycle of poverty, are those that require reciprocity, accountability, and responsibility. The micro-loan program, begun in Bangladesh, has an amazing record of not only repayment of the loans, but of successful start-ups of mini-businesses.

Poor people create very little that actually helps others. The creation of resources that empowers poor people to make better choices, has always been (and continues to be) the province of highly successful individuals. I often wonder where those who demand the money to fund their programs, think that this money comes from. Whether it emanates from the government or private foundations, the source is always the same – wealth created by people in the private sector. And it continues to baffle and deeply concern me, that the vehement attacks on the “rich” only serve to further embed poverty in our social fabric, and institutionalize a permanent underclass. We only need to examine the geo-political landscape of the last four decades to see that cultures that demonize individual success, make everyone poor.

Morrie Shechtman

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