Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Tragedy of Achievement

Civilization is powered by insecurity. The key to the system's control is its manipulation not only of scarce resources, but of the very notion of scarcity itself. Our access to food, clean air and water, other people including family members, safety, physical spaces, and a dignified life in general is mediated in civilization by a system that leverages resource scarcity in order to generate a highly effective form of control based on people's desire for things that can now only be practically obtained by satisfying the system's demands, as unpalatable as they are. This is essentially the project of domestication: a brokering of once-free access to once-plentiful resources in order to master the behavior of once-wild dimensions for the sake of harnessing their power.

In addition to the physical restrictions we suffer borne out of our collective veneration of the scarce and rare, we also endure extensive psychological deprivations that begin in childhood schooling and that can persist until death. From childhood, we are taught that it is important to be the best, to stand out, to be a success. As a means to evaluate and assess children's performance and behavior, report cards and test scores supplant a child and her parents' ability to form opinions about the child's education and development independently--that is, based on their own feelings of personal contentment, interest, goals, and so on--by instead judging the child's performance according to a value system that is alien to a child's way of thinking against other children who likewise would normally take no interest in the performance of their "peers", who initially are really just strangers of the same age that just happen to be in the same room together. These classmates might become potential playmates, though, as mentioned previously, young children tend to be instinctively wary and shy of unfamiliar faces; therefore, a classroom full of new children can often stir up feelings of deep insecurity and discomfort that nevertheless, through mandatory attendance at the school, can be surmounted by enough children to make the practice somewhat feasible, though things are certainly going downhill quickly. However, the notion that the other children in a classroom, school, and eventually the country or world are to be competed against and ideally outperformed is completely foreign, has no antecedent in our ancestral forager roots toward which our biology still strongly cleaves, and must be instilled in our youth rather forcefully in order to produce the sort of competitive, self-interested personality that is our society's preferred fuel source. Children quickly realize that their own opinions about themselves based on the things they naturally value, like having fun, exploring the world, and being around family, are relatively worthless, and that even things like play or learning must be done in a certain way in order to gain the approval of adults and thus be valuable. Unable to comprehend the meaning, the logic underlying this arbitrary system of evaluating their actions and thoughts, children grow up deeply insecure about their standing in society, having to rely on external praise or criticism in order to form an identity and sense of self. Children lose the ability to see themselves as inherently good or valuable because they are explicitly taught, and treated accordingly, that goodness and value are actually pegged to their capacity to perform tasks according to a standard that can often be counter-intuitive or downright arbitrary. For example, a child's coloring outside the lines of a picture will only be tolerated up to a certain early age in school, after which point she is expected to color neatly and appropriately under penalty of a bad grade or some such demerit. Even though the child might have thoroughly enjoyed coloring the way she did, with wild colors streaking all across the page, she learns that her enjoyment means very little to the world, and that she must adapt her behavior and even her preferences to a standard that never truly existed in her own heart if she wants adults, often including her parents, to value her. What should be plentiful self-confidence based on an inborn capacity to simply enjoy coloring becomes a source of confusion, anxiety, shame, and frustration--incentives for the child to betray her own preferences for the sake of seeking approval, which now can only come from others, never herself.

Civilization celebrates and worships its rarest individuals as celebrities and heroes, exploiting the yen for external approval we acquire in childhood by reserving attention and accolade for only a fraction of the population, effectively turning self-esteem into a scarce and desired psychological resource for which we all vie, compromise, and sacrifice in a deeply misguided attempt to correct that early childhood deficiency. Even though it might have absolutely no impact on our actual daily lives, we accord great respect to the winners of Nobel and Pulitzer prizes, presidential medals of freedom, Purple Hearts, Oscars, Grammies, Tonies, Olympic medals, Tours de France, various sports cups and derbies, valedictorian ranking, down to spelling bees, science fairs, county fairs, even adult video awards and blind taste tests for vodka--virtually all aspects of civilized life is routinely turned into a competition, which means that every single dimension of life demands assessment and comparison against others before one knows where she stands with respect to the rest of the world and, to a disturbingly large degree, her own sense of worth.

The great irony and tragedy in all this is that this insecurity does not usually dissipate even after superlatives have been achieved. Often, the expectations placed on the individual who has achieved a high distinction are overwhelming, the resultant anxiety crippling, and the constant fear of falling from grace in the public eye can be intensely destructive. Chef Bernard Loiseau achieved his life goal of three Michelin stars with his restaurant, La Côte d'Or, only to fatally shoot himself in the head with a hunting rifle twelve years later when he learned that the Michelin Guide was preparing to take away one of his stars. Other top chefs choose to surrender their stars or even close their restaurants rather than endure the nerve-wracking pressure that being the best of the best entails. Nor is this kind of pressure unique to the world of haute cuisine, but can be found in the realms of corporate business ("In a cutthroat industry staffed by many of the world's sharpest minds, recruited from hypercompetitive business schools, it seems no surprise that the shame of failure is hard to take when an individual’s whole identity is built around success"), professional and non-professional sports ("Striving to please a parent, fearing a coach's wrath, chasing a college scholarship can make athletes uniquely vulnerable"), and, of course, higher education ("I just don't understand what's happening to these high-achieving kids...How did we get to this spot? The whole thing, for me, will never make any sense"), to name only a few specific categories, though civilization in any configuration, expressed in whatever variation it has been able to assume throughout history, takes it as standard operating procedure to torment all those it raises up in praise as cruelly as those who languish below its standards in ignominy. Taught to find meaning in life by striving for success, the domesticated individual comes to find that the impetus for a large majority of her life decisions arises from a nagging sense of insecurity, secret, desperate, and nihilistic to the core...

...Meanwhile, in Bolivia, among the remaining uncontacted Yuqui, one of the few remaining uncontacted tribes of hunter-gatherers on the planet, young children play, imitating the adults, while the older boys start catching small game and fish and the girls begin to learn the fine skill of gathering the food, fibers, dyes, and medicines around them. Skills are passed on to each generation virtually unchanged. These skills are inherently scaled for human beings, and everyone can learn how to do them, and do them well, even without direct teaching. The goals that the Yuqui pursue are finite, attainable, and satisfying to both attempt and achieve. They are goals that are inherently valuable independent of any external assessment--they result in full bellies, engaged intellects, healthy bodies, and harmonious lives. The families are sustained by the combined efforts of all the people, and by coordinating efforts, they increase the success of their hunts and foraging. When a boy catches a fish, or when a girl digs a root, he or she is not concerned with ranking the fish or root against the rest of the boys' or girls' efforts, because he or she does not gain or lose any status as a result of doing so. So long as the fish is good to eat, so long as the root treats the illness, it is good, and the young boy and the young girl gain confidence and in their hearts they have peace with themselves and the universe...

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