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The 2012 Campaign Reveals Two Contrasting Views of Personal Success

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The 2012 presidential campaign exposes a clash between an older, narrowly focused -- and declining -- view of success, and one that's both broader and steadily rising. It has both social and political implications worth our attention.

The view that Mitt Romney conveys is the older one. It's essentially that success means achieving power, money and career position for oneself and family. Period. It's a traditional, self-focused vision of a successful life. It's also embodied in Paul Ryan's positions about the "makers" vs. the "takers."

The other view, conveyed by President Obama, is closer to what I call "whole life" success. That's a growing shift towards view a successful life as one that includes personal achievement, but extends beyond it to supporting and helping others elevate their own lives. It's based on awareness that we're all interdependent and interconnected in to-day's world. And, that your own life course -- including your financial and career success -- is highly interwoven with everyone else's.

The latter perspective is not new, of course. But it's been steadily rising in our culture; increasingly visible in the values and actions of younger generations, in particular. Let's look at some statements that contrast the older, traditional view of success with the broader, whole life view. Then, let's look at where the latter is taking root, and why President Obama retains one foot in the older view when he describes the path to success, today.

First, Romney emphasizes that Americans should be "...lifted up by our desire to succeed, not dragged down by a resentment of success." And that, "In America, we celebrate success. We don't apologize for success." And if you can't afford school, just "start a business" or "borrow money from your parents."

Such statements suggest a vision of success that basically parallels his own career: Start a business (with enough capital) and make as much money as possible for the benefit of yourself and your immediate circle of connections. That's a narrower view, even, than most people's -- advancing within a company or profession towards higher career positions, with increasing financial rewards. Actually, Romney's more narrow view looks consistent with his pursuit of the presidency. He appears to view it as the capstone of his career, the final step. That's likely why he conveys no real core of ideas or vision about what he wants to actually do as president.

In contrast, Michele Obama's speech to the Democratic convention included a line that captured much of the broader view of whole person success: "Success isn't about how much money you make, it's about the difference you make in people's lives." Of course, the two goals aren't mutually exclusive, but her statement emphasizes that your own financial and career success is linked with also serving the social good, because we're all intertwined.

Bill Clinton expressed a similar theme in his own convention speech, saying that, "we believe that 'we're all in this together' is a far better philosophy than 'you're on your own.'" Not surprisingly, the convention concluded with Bruce Springsteen's song, "We Take Care Of Our Own" playing in the background.

Whole life success is oriented beyond just extracting value for yourself, from what-ever you're engaged with in life -- a relationship, your work -- to contributing value to something larger than just your own self-interest. It's part of a broader, rising orientation among men and women towards wanting more integrated lives, ones that provide greater meaning and purpose through having impact on something that matters. This shift is visible in several related themes and trends. For example, movements towards sharing and preserving resources for the public good; openness to diverse people; rejection of hierarchical rank based on status, per se. It's an orientation towards supporting well being and growth for the shared human community, rather than for exclusionary self-interest alone.

Whole life success is in tune with increasing activism by individuals and groups aimed towards service to others in need, to the common good. It ranges from efforts to promote sustainable resources to actions by such celebrities as Bono, 50 Cent or Lady Gaga, who use their fame to galvanize support and help for people in need. Or Zac Brown, who's combined his successful recording career with a whole array of charitable ventures.

New research supports this shift towards whole person success. For example, studies indicate an innate desire for fair play; and that people are prone to reach out to others, to provide help, when they focus their consciousness on giving and helping. In contrast, other research finds that highly affluent people who stay focused on themselves tend to retreat into the comfort of their material possessions when confronted with social upheaval or the plight of others.

Some Backstory

Following recovery from the Great Depression and the rising prosperity after World War II, the view of success became largely defined by financial and self-interested criteria -- getting, consuming and possessing for oneself and one's family. As Ronald Reagan once said about the American dream, everyone wants "...an America in which people can get rich." That view was part of the vision of manhood - devotion to duty, responsibility to provide for one's family and rise, economically, though often at the price of constrained lives.

That picture began to clash with the rise of social movements in the '60s, including the positive ideals of freedom, acceptance of differences, values of peace, community and creative expression. This residue has permeated our culture. It's contributed to the value orientation of service to the social good that's part of a whole, fully successful life.

More recently, the older view has been eroded by economic shifts that have created increasing inequality between the rich and the broad middle classes, as a new census report confirms. The old 20th century ideology that equates success with personal power, more money and career advancement, and assumes a stable environment, feels increasingly unreal and inadequate for current society. New research underscores the dangers for health and well being for those who narrowly define and try to pursue a self-oriented money-position-power view of success, today.

Now we see a clash between those who want to cling to the old model of an older world -- personal goals and political policies that value holding on to power that's shared mostly by the powerful (with some concern given here and there to the poor, the needy and minorities) -- and those orientated towards more egalitarian sharing of resources and opportunity for the well-being of all people.

President Obama is more aligned with the broader view of whole life success, and conveys understanding of the new world environment. But like many of his generation -- somewhere between Gen X and the baby boomers -- his view about the pathway to success reflects a world that no longer exists. He reveals that he has one foot is in the older view when he repeats the old refrain about restoring a world in which if one works hard and plays by the rules, one can succeed. But that world no longer exists. It's a dead end street. It reflects nostalgia for an idealized 1950s era of growing prosperity and stability, as E.J. Dionne has written in the Washington Post.

Obama's coalition is, in cultural terms, the coalition of the future -- younger and both ethnically and racially diverse. Yet Obama's core pledge is to a new social compact that provides many of the guarantees of the old one.

The 21st century world of constant disruption and turmoil requires continuous reinvention of oneself, in order to prosper and succeed. Thomas Friedman recently pointed out in the New York Times that

The truth is, if you want a decent job that will lead to a decent life today you have to work harder, regularly reinvent yourself, obtain at least some form of postsecondary education, (and) make sure that you're engaged in lifelong learning...

Our highly interconnected, unpredictable world of the 21st Century has spurred an evolution towards a more inclusive view of a successful life and how to build it. But some arrive at such a perspective through their life experience; from their values and sense of connection with others over a lifetime. Consider the words of Alyce Dixon, one of the first African American women to serve in the Army, who recently turned 105. Reflecting on life, she said,

You got this one life to live...be kind to people. Remember that there's always someone who could use you, who could use your help. Try to share some of the things you have that they don't have. Try to help someone along the way.

That's whole life success.

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may contact him at dlabier@CenterProgressive.org. To learn more about him, click here.

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