What’s in it for us, if I care most about what’s in it for me?

In a previous post, I highlighted the question: What kind of player are you? How focused are any of us on bringing out the best in our selves and others? What are we focused on in how we are using our creativity (ability to bring things into being) and power (ability to act)?

Some thirty years ago (I’m soon to be forty-four), my experience of the the US public education system was that it was dominated by cliques, hierarchies, popularity contests and a lot of superficial judgements. When we consciously created together it would be in small groups. The students who came together to build the homecoming float. The students who cheered the football team from the stands. The students who consciously performed together in their respective, usually disconnected-from-one-another groups: cheerleaders, band players, drama-theater players. While students often participated in these group activities motivated by passion, e.g., for acting or music, they also were active to look good on paper for college recruiters, prospective employers or givers of internships and the like.

Perhaps this is an outdated experience. Perhaps things are different now. That would be great, it would bode well for the future. Meantime, in the present, we have a lot of people who were schooled in this type of environment.

As adults, what kind of relationships do we have with consciously creating in service to the collective? We might belong to a band, a reading group, a group at our place of worship. We might support our children’s school in some way. We might volunteer at a soup kitchen. We aren’t a country solely full of endless self-centered activity.  That said, I get the impression that for the most part, our activities are usually centered on benefiting the individual or on benefiting a small group, e.g. one’s immediate family.

If we aren’t looking out for number one, we are trying to keep up with the Joneses. We strive for more expensive cars, gadgets and bigger houses. This is much more dominant a way of being in the US than it is in the UK (I’ve lived twenty years in both places, and consider both home). Thankfully, we increasingly – on both sides of the Atlantic – have social movements that seek to counter rampant individualism and consumerism.

Looking out for number one and trying to keep up with the Joneses tends to steer us towards relationships that are transactional – this for that. When I was working in the social policy industry on matters to do with equality in the workplace, we were repeatedly told by business leaders to address the question: “What’s in it for me?” WIFM. Me, being the business leader on wanting to increase the stock price of his or her company. I reckon a lot of our relationships in industrialized societies are like this – people asking the question “What’s in it for me?” We are led by this question in and out of office buildings.

In the USA, the dominant cultural norms encourage us to use our creativity and power to protect our own interests, even if it is at the expense of others. We aren’t explicitly instructed to trample on others. Rather, what happens is that we are guided by a story that tells us if other people aren’t succeeding (which is usually measured by wealth and status), it is their own damn fault. That means, it has nothing to do with me. The sub-text of this, it seems, is that I must do what I need to do to serve the interests of my self and my nearest and dearest. How my actions might impact on others isn’t something to which I should give attention.

Everyone has their own bootstraps by which to pick themselves up – if someone else seems to struggle with their bootstraps and with rising up, well, that couldn’t possibly have anything to do with my own efforts to stand tall.

Where does such a belief lead people?

I’m wondering: What are the dominant beliefs and assumptions by which we are indoctrinated in the USA and the UK in terms of the relationship between the individual and the collective? Even simply the relationship between me and you?


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1 Response to What’s in it for us, if I care most about what’s in it for me?

  1. My mom always told me not to trust people and to look out for myself, not others. She’d warn me about others trying to take advantage of me and would be very skeptical if I ever would tell her about helping someone out without payment. I remember, while I was in elementary school, her telling me not to share my lunch with others and to hit a fellow student if they are teasing me or if they hit me first. Basically the message is that it’s a dog-eat-dog world and that if you try to be a good person and help others out, you’ll get eaten up. So you gotta trust no one and shrewdly play the game necessary to move up in life, even if you know the game is corrupt.

    Somehow my conscience always managed to overcome my mom’s cynical advice, for better or for worse.

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