Is There a New Form of Value Taking Shape in America?

When a culture of high expectations finds itself between mythologies, it really is between a rock and a hard place. Given America's vast resources, habitable landscape, and culture of plenty, we never needed to pause to reflect. We just keep on going like the Energizer bunny.
07/17/2013 04:33 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2013

It can be said that the aesthetic of America is "more." It runs throughout popular culture -- Too Much Is Not Enough. The bigger the better. The next is newer.

Even Emeril Lagasee's initial TV popularity was partly based on "more." If a recipe calls for eight cloves of garlic, throw in 80. And we loved him for it.

But with new words added to our lexicon like "sub-prime," "derivatives" and "ponzi," the earth has shifted and a lot of what we have now is what FDR called "heedless self-interest," more distrust, less money. The American mythology of an assured better future has been blown out of the water.

When a culture of high expectations finds itself between mythologies, it really is between a rock and a hard place. Given America's vast resources, habitable landscape, and culture of plenty, we never needed to pause to reflect. We just keep on going like the Energizer bunny.

But now, through terrorism, recession and war, the pillars of American optimism are wavering. We, the people, are on the defensive and we are scratching our heads wondering how did this happen.

So, where do we go from here?

The financial meltdown of 2008 was a crisis, a disaster. High unemployment, high home foreclosure rates, and a generalized low mood defined the day. Things seem to have gotten a bit better since then, but there still is constant talk about a very unstable world economic outlook. Unpredictability rules the roost.

If there is a silver lining in all this, Madoff & Co. perhaps provided us with a wake-up call to step forward into a new world where the calculus of power and success is not measured simply in units of "more."

There is now afoot a changing form of value

It used to be that appearances and having things were the base coin of value. Now people are beginning to realize appearances can be misleading and maybe they don't need all those things.

A fledgling dynamic is taking shape. People are sobering up to the fact that there must be more than just surface. In my interviews and discussion groups around the country, more people are saying things like, "I now need to focus on understanding myself by better understanding the world and my own reaction to it." People are coming to see as essential, having a "self-story" that reflects the innermost thing that they really are.

As I travel around the country speaking to everyday folks about their current state of mind and mood I am hearing a story of awakening to the realization that we're going through a period of readjustment. What many people allude to is what one person voiced succinctly, "We've gone from trust to a whole lot of hooey. What we counted on is just not there anymore."

People are talking in a new way about how they interpret and decide. Two examples:

"I have to feel my way along; intuit and then take action. I want to get a cross-section of inputs and live in a wider horizon so I can put together bits and pieces that feel genuine, and that add up to something. I don't want to be buffaloed anymore."

"We need to be open to a wide range of possibilities. We need to hear a wider range of voices. We need to see with a different set of eyes. The tried and true, the conventional wisdoms, don't get you there -- to success -- any longer."

People are coming to see as essential, having the sensual capacity to feel and register what they feel, as well as having a curiosity and an openness to things other than the familiar and habitual.

Becoming Artisans of Self

These feelings are true not only for how people now see the world, but also for what they want from it.

People are now more meaning-seeking: Many people are currently saying things like, "I must be more selective in what I buy and what I buy into. I want things now that will show me my heart."

There is now also a heightened quest for authenticity: Hear an example from one woman: "I've wanted to buy a great fountain pen for as long as I can remember, but I never have until now. Despite the economy -- or maybe because of it -- I thought I should buy one now. I did and I'm so happy. This pen feels so sensual, so luxurious in my hand. I think better writing with it. It helps me get down to my deepest thoughts and feelings. I find 'me' with this pen in my hand."

That's the real experience of luxury. That's what people value more nowadays -- an experience that takes them beyond their status quo, expands them, and puts them in touch with what and whom they truly are. These kinds of experiences provide a venue for people to recognize or elaborate something latent in them that has not yet been made fully manifest.

Value now is coming to be more about experience, not about a product -- an experience that makes you feel more authentic, that makes you feel you are an artisan of self in crafting and expressing one's unique self-story. Value is now being defined as an investment in self. It's beyond "having" an external thing, a product. It is about finding venues that help you understand your own "being," your own personal narrative. That's meaningful consumption. That's good value.

Americans have begun a shift from "Give Me More" to "Being More of Me." Never before, given its vast resources, has America gone through the identity process to know who it is. Up until recently, America could avoid knowing itself -- and knowing "The Other" -- just by getting things done by throwing resources at any problem and being the big gun in town. The question is: Does America now have the wherewithal to face up to the complexities and paradoxes of being a people and a nation that can no longer assume that everyone else is a mirror image of it, and that surface appearance is not necessarily the primary measuring stick of power and success?

Maybe Obama was right: Yes We Can.

Bob Deutsch, Ph.D., is a cognitive anthropologist, author of the forthcoming book The 5 Essentials: Using Your Inborn Resources To Create a Fulfilling Life (Hudson Street Press), and founder of Brain Sells. His insights into human behavior have made him a valuable asset to the State Department and the Defense Department. His commercial clients have included MasterCard, American Express, Pfizer, Apple, HSBC Bank, National Geographic and The Johns Hopkins Medical Center.

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