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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

How to Live: Inventing on Principle, Part II

image via Creative Commons
Worldly success is incidental for the successful. That was how I ended my last post. How noble. How sublime. How true.

Yet everyone who says this has worldly success. I mean, maybe lots of other people say it, too, and they have no worldly success. We don't hear them. Or if we do, we don't really believe them when they claim there are more important things to life than worldly success.

But these successful people who deflect the question of worldly success have my ear because of their, uh, worldly success. It's great to know they have these underlying principles. But to implement them, they need a little cash. Cash-olla. Cash flow. Le money.

Which reminds me of a recent article in the New Yorker about a positive rash of books on success being published in China. Most of these books are about--everyone, all together now--climbing the corporate ladder, getting rich, getting powerful, getting WORLDLY SUCCESS. These things have been pumped out to the people for a few years now, instilling the values of getting ahead and the principle of every person for his- or herself. The standard model of success.

I'm not linking to this article because I can't remember my password to my online New Yorker account and I'm too lazy to figure it out. So trust me when I tell you this.

The author (Leslie T. Chang, if you want to look it up on YOUR online accounts, my dozens of readers) points out that the Chinese rash of pulling-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps books parallel a similar surge in American books of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries here in the USA. Horatio Alger books, for example, all about making it in the working world. The standard model of success.

Yes, well, there was a lot of poverty around then, and a lot of people needed to accumulate a basic level of comfort. So it made sense. And it makes sense in China, too.

But once the standard of living rose to a pretty decent level for most people in the US, the tone and tenor of these books changed. The self-helpers started urging the self-helpees to remember that there is more to life than work and making money.  People started to realize that the principles of getting ahead extolled in these up-by-your-bootstraps stories don't foster the best in people. It's hard to switch gears from scramble-up-the-ladder-gear to make-the-world-better-for-everyone else gear until you have some basic amenities, though. Yet the gear always does change.

And according to this article in the New Yorker, there's a faint note of the same refrain sounding now in China.

I'd say that people like Bret Victor and his ilk are playing that tune loud and clear. But it hard to have principles other than earning money unless you have some.

I'm not saying they're wrong. I'm saying they're right. I'm saying there's more to success than money. But first you need some money to believe it.


  1. I hear ya sister. I was successful & got sick of the grind. I learned to oil paint, spending my savings & loosing touch w the job market. Now the economy is in the toilet, there r no jobs. The banks have money, but won't lend it. Really, what's a girl to do?

    1. Thanks for the comment--your website looks promising! A good combo of business and aesthetics, right? Here's to a better economy and more freelance writing assignments for me!

  2. I might also add that the rhetoric of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is one that was(is?) historically purported by the American majority culture (read: white). It is specifically American, but I might argue that it's a white American idea/ideal. The African American community has shown a different view on success--that is, if we're talking about financial stability, basic human needs--which is based in the community: individuals and families uniting around community centers and houses of worship and using community organization as a resource for helping individuals to have "success" by sharing it with families. I don't know it well, but I feel like the book Divided by Faith explores this idea well, albeit in a specifically faith-based context.
    If this bootstrap-success rhetoric is so catchy in China right now, it's probably about their economy, which is blowing up, but at the moral, political and often inhumane consequences to some Chinese citizens. I think you're making an important point. We do need to start defining success by mental, emotional and moral standards, but it's hard to tell someone to be a better person if they're hungry and cold.

    1. Jess, thanks for your comment. Interesting point about the bootstrap thing being white American, whereas family/community and success are linked in African American community. I'll have to take a look at Divided by Faith.

      I imagine the bootstrapping being a white American thing relates to waves of immigration from Western Europe in the 19th Century--often done by a single male family member sent ahead to get a foot in the door. Poverty and exploitation often the upshot, save for those rare individuals who managed to "make it."