The Drive for Success

Written on March 31, 2009. Written by .

I’ve noticed an interesting psychological phenomenon with regard to people’s perceptions of their material desires. There seems to be a disconnect between the desire and the root motivation. People often feel that their desire is based on comfort or aesthetics, when really the primary motivation is social prestige. This is not too surprising from a psychological standpoint because of course there is the same sort of disconnect with sex–we don’t want sex just because we are thinking about making children. But it is somewhat surprising when you consider how civilized (i.e. unnatural) something like shopping seems. This is yet another example of how we humans are not rational actors, but survival machines for our genes.

Now I would like to discuss my viewpoint on materialism and the consequent “drive for success” because I have a slight distaste for these things, but not due to simple elitism like it may seem. In fact, I think having a drive for success has the potential to be a very positive thing. Unfortunately, there seems to be a tendency whereby the drive for success, in the context of our society, crowds out some very precious interests from the space of one’s concerns.

Certain values might be considered “more meaningful” than others, but really a better phrase is “more rich and deep” because they benefit more people and have a greater total impact. For example, writing a bestseller novel that appeals to mass audiences might make you more money, but writing a textbook on a field of medicine that helps educate a generation of researchers and indirectly leads to a cure for cancer will probably have a greater impact on the world. So is making a bigger impact on the world preferrable in some way? I would say: not necessarily, but it is related to something which is preferrable. The fundamental thing that is preferrable is fun. Fun is created when people team up and work together on a project they are passionate about, when people have interesting topics to discuss, and when people don’t take life so seriously that they can’t relax and just waste some time with a friend.

I feel that the drive for success in a highly competitive environment leads people down a path where much of the fun in their lives is subordinated to their work. This wouldn’t be such a problem except for the fact that since we are social animals, making one person’s life more boring makes everyone else’s life a little more boring. This effect is nothing to scoff at, the consequences are significant when enough people are affected. In my mind I can see a busy highway during rush hour filled with automobiles that each contain a single person. Many of these people are coming from jobs where they spend eight hours in front a computer by themselves, and are heading to a household where they will only be exposed to a small number of family members for the evening. This system has an extremely low level of social integration. I don’t think we humans were designed for this kind of system.

If people were usually close friends with their coworkers, then things would work out much better, but the culture of corporations isn’t the most conducive for friendship building. It would also help if people did more activities outside of work, but that would probably require shorter work hours or less draining work. In the end, any improvements over the current system would require some radical shifts in the way things are done.

To make matters worse, the drive for success is self-perpetuating. It’s not just about “keeping up with the Jones’ “, it’s about making a living in the first place. Whether you have the drive for success or not, you still have to find a way to make yourself valuable to others or else you will be denied access to the resources that keep you alive (ignoring welfare and charities). And if everyone else has their values centered on success to the exclusion of ideals and deeper purposes, then you may be forced to neglect your own values, causing them to wane until you are left only with the drive for success yourself.

Maybe most people were never meant to be idealistic and will never care about more than financial success and social prestige, so the line between these groups may never shift. But there is still the issue of personality. I believe that by balancing the drive for success with more natural human behaviors we can all maintain a rich personality and lifestyle, thus helping others achieve the same.

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