A Lost Culture
Ours is a society in transition.
Even though this isn’t “news” anymore, it’s still on many people’s minds. And it’s no wonder- technology is changing the way we go about our lives faster than ever before. It’s an amazing time to be alive, but also uncertain.
That’s why this post is a bit different than the others here at Warriors of the Written. Normally, WotW is focused on self-development because your self is the only thing you have control over. But there are larger forces that shape our future and I think it’s important to be aware of our social climate- even if we can’t understand it fully.
“A Lost Culture” is my perspective on one of the major challenges facing western society today- a crisis of purpose. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
Let’s begin with:
A bicentennial of change.
Just over two hundred years ago, the Industrial Revolution changed everything about our day-to-day human existence. Western standards of living began to show remarkable and sustained growth. The nature of our work began to change, shifting from agriculture to industry. It was a gradual progression from steam to electric, followed quickly by cars, planes, and, ultimately, computers.
Each of these innovations brought an increase in our standard of living. Advancements in medicine also played a huge factor, and by the 1950s most of westernized culture reached a basic standard of living that satisfied two of the most time and energy-consuming tasks any animal faces- finding food and shelter.
Over the course of a few short generations, survival needs became a given for millions of people. Up until this point, the need to provide for our families and ourselves was our main motivation. Suddenly, we no longer needed the resources of a village to raise a family- it was possible for one person to support a family.
It’s probably still too early to tell, but I think this changed everything. In the space of a few decades, we lost our purpose. We were no longer just trying to survive, which was all we’d ever really learned to do. We encountered free time that wasn’t connected to the seasons and, maybe, we went the wrong direction.
The accumulation of wealth and “things” dominated much of the 20th century. “He who dies with the most toys, wins” was actually a thing for a decade, but by now most people know better. Yet something tells me we still haven’t figured out what to do with ourselves because the world seems a little crazy right now…
A theory presented over 40 years ago by a psychologist named Abraham Maslow offers a clue as to why. You might have learned about Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” as a pyramid with 5 parts- food and water at the bottom, safety next, then love and respect above that and self-actualization at the top.
Over the years, many people have disagreed with this theory. But despite the naysayers, most psychologists now agree our behavior is not just influenced by external needs, there are also internal needs and motivations. Which makes sense- when most of us are truly starving or thirsty, nothing else matters.
But honestly, when was the last time you felt like that? If it’s been awhile, chances are you’ve moved up the pyramid past our basic physical and security needs. According to Maslow, that’s when our motivations progress from external to internal. Instead of worrying about what we need from the world to sustain our lives, we begin to seek fulfillment and change through personal growth. We have an inner drive to achieve “self-actualization”, which is the fulfillment our inner potential.
Now, I’m sure most of us would like to be the best version of ourselves but if it was easy, we’d all be actualized already. So how do we get there?
Intuitively, we’re already on the path. Everywhere you turn, people are talking about “purpose” and finding fulfillment.
“Research shows that purpose is highly conducive to well-being: its presence is associated with heightened levels of overall well-being, global happiness, and life satisfaction, robust physical health, and a reduced risk of psychopathologies. Studies also show that lacking a sense of purpose in life is linked to psychological ill- being. Thus, one might assume that the surge in the number of people driven to live purposefully would result in a host of beneficial outcomes for both individuals and society at large.” – Larissa Yvonne Rainey in The Search for Purpose in Life
But how, exactly, are purpose and self-actualization connected? Well, here’s one definition of purpose from the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “the feeling of being determined to do or achieve something”.
So maybe purpose is the motivation we need to reach self-actualization.
“It’s not surprising that research has shown that having purpose allows you to be persistent in your goals and resilient when you experience setbacks. It’s because you feel inspired by something bigger than yourself.” – Tamar Sloan in Grit for Writers: Why Passion and Perseverance are the Keys to Your Success
So where do we find purpose? Remember, purpose used to be provided for us in the form of external needs. Now it’s up to each of us, individually, to find or create a purpose strong enough to get us to the next level. Considering we spend the bulk of our waking hours at work, it makes sense that our younger generations are seeking purpose by making it a condition of their employment.
“Fulfillment at work, fulfillment at home… Millennials want it all and they want it fast. Unlike many Moderns, Millennials want to be home for dinner, and want to feel like their 9-5 job has a real purpose. They are constantly seeking purpose in what they do for a living and at the same time want to know how their job is helping them get to the top.” – Forbes.com
If you don’t give millennials a deeper meaning in their work, don’t expect them to stick around. Which is a good thing because it’s forcing big companies to care about more than just money- they also need a heart if they want to keep the best workers.
Yet how many employers can truly meet this demand? Many jobs require workers to perform repetitive tasks and, in a competitive global economy, small-business owners don’t have the resources to provide much beyond a paycheck. Some companies try to address this by promoting strong workplace culture, but that can only go so far. The bulk of western middle-class workers are growing more and more dissatisfied with their jobs.
“Our traditional organisations are designed to provide for the first three of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs… Since these are now widely available to members of industrial society our organisations do not provide significantly unique opportunities to command the loyalty and commitment of our people.” – Bill O’Brien, President and CEO of Hanover Insurance
There are many factors at play here, but I think one is that the nature of our jobs has been changing ever since the industrial revolution. We rarely, if ever, get to see the “fruits” of a day’s labor.
A few hundred years ago, most people were either craftsmen, farmers, or ranchers. When their work was done, they had something to show for it. A harvest, a horseshoe, maybe a wagon. Even if they were going to sell it right away, for a moment they got to see the result of their work. They got to experience the gratitude of a grateful customer for whom that wagon could be a life-changer. There is purpose in that.
Nowadays, many of us sit behind a desk or on some version of an assembly-line. Our jobs are a never-ending story of same old, same old and the work never ends. The “fruits” of our labors are just numbers on Wall Street, and the profits go into the pockets of someone we’ll probably never meet. It’s hard to find purpose in that.
I think the problem with this system is that we’re relying on someone else to give us purpose. To achieve happiness that we have control over we must dive deeper, to a place where purpose and self-actualization become more intertwined. This is when you encounter “passionate purpose”, or your “life’s purpose”, which tells us that the path to happiness lies at the intersection of purpose and self-actualization. You might have heard this idea as “Do what you love. Love what you do.” Basically, find purpose in your work and you’re on the path to self-actualization!
Now, this doesn’t mean that the only way we’ll find happiness is through work. I know tons of people who are completely fulfilled by being a parent or coach, or who live for their weekly basketball league. Your purpose is personal, and only you can determine what unique qualities you should develop. But if you truly want to move forward faster than your ancestors, you’ll probably need to combine what you do for a living and why you do it.
Luckily, we have a tool our forefathers didn’t have because…
Thanks to the internet, everything has changed- again.
There is a new “work” model, emerging in the form of a “gig-economy” and entrepreneurship in ever-growing numbers. These are working models of people monetizing their skills and passions and finding purpose on their own terms. Online or via person-to-person apps like Uber, the internet has allowed people to connect in new ways. It has empowered us to create- not just art, but businesses too.
This is a different path than most of us are taught to follow. Sure, the spirit of entrepreneurship has shown up in plenty of rags-to-riches stories. But these have been the exception or half of the world’s wealth wouldn’t be owned by 1% of the population. For the first time in history, we have the opportunity to keep some of that wealth for ourselves.
This isn’t a rant on the state of the economy or the world’s political systems. I’m only suggesting a perception of events that could allow us to be better prepared for the coming times. The nature of how we earn an income is changing and, if we’re ready, we can craft a future that allows us to reach our highest levels. Our “peak experiences”. Self-actualization.
We need to learn, and be comfortable, with the idea of changing with the times. Choosing to move forward in your own niche, with your own passions, will not only bring you more fulfillment in the now, it gives you the best chance at a future you won’t regret.
“If we may be so bold, the first step forward is to recognize what it means to be human. We’ve known the answer to that for decades, if not millennia. To be human means to satisfy, from food and safety all the way up to truth and transcendence, all our biologically rooted needs. Once we realize that, then the second step forward is to transform ourselves, our families, our institutions, and the planet so that we can meet the human needs of everyone, not just the privileged few, wherever you may be. If we want to “graduate” out of the current, spiraling, self-destructive chaos that seems to be sweeping your lives, this planet, that’s what you need to do.” – Mike Sosteric @ Sociology.Org
Oh- one more thing. The pursuit of self-actualization also increases our encounters with the “flow” experience and, if you’ve read much of this blog, you know it’s all about flow! We’ll talk about some ways to get started down this path in the next lifestyle post. Until then,
A Brief History of Western Culture – Khan Academy
The Rise of the Uncollared Worker and the Future of the Middle Class – Greylock Partners
Half of world’s wealth now in hands of 1% of population – The Guardian
How to be human? Abraham Maslow and his hierarchies of need – Sociology.org