Making a Shift From American Individualism to Global Collectivism

Soren Kierkegaard said that “all change is preceded by crisis.” Crisis shatters the structures of our lives as we know them.

But we can respond with panic and fear. Or we can respond with wisdom and courage. Last night, my roommate Matthew Cooke and I were speaking to his dad on the phone. He said, “For the first time in a very long time, we’re having to think about the collective as opposed to the individual.”

For decades, we’ve prioritized American individualism.

  • We award valedictorian status to the person with the highest grades. With high school seniors just a few months away from graduation, and schools closed, what’s the significance of being a valedictorian?
  • The job of the entrepreneur is financial maximization. Investors want to see graphs going up and to the right. The better the graph looks, the greater the spoils for all that are involved. This thinking fueled the economic prosperity of organizations and individuals in Silicon Valley for over a decade.
  • Individualism fueled the rise of social media and led to the birth of the influencer. And right now, what most “influencers’ are doing is posting motivational quotes on Instagram, or status updates on Facebook with nothing but words. A well known social media expert posted a picture of her feet on a table with Netflix on the TV and the caption “a quarantine isn’t so bad.”

Perhaps it’s time for influencers to stop the chase for fans and followers, uploading their enviable lives to the internet and make a shift from individualism to collectivism. Together, they have a power that could lead to profound change.

“When our only concept of value is financial, there’s cognitive dissonance between how people want to live and how our metrics want us to live. This is a dangerous misalignment” writes Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler in his book This Could be Our Future.”

Nature is an interdependent complex system. Plants need water from the clouds and light from the sun. Humans need oxygen from plants and vitamin D from the sun. In this system, individualism would likely lead to extinction.

When the NBA canceled its season, most people were stunned. The loss of advertising revenue, ticket sales, and a dent in a team’s bottom line is a first-order consequence. But the second-order consequence is far more devastating.

Most NBA players live very comfortable lives. Canceling the season doesn’t impact their ability to survive. But for the hot dog vendors, sanitation staff parking attendants, and other hourly workers this puts them in a precarious position. They may not even have the funds to stockpile groceries and could easily starve to death.

Fortunately, the NBA players have stepped up and led by example. They are donating $100,000 to ensure that this doesn’t happen. Teams have matched. And others should learn from this example. They have come to see that their success doesn’t exist in isolation. For them to do what they do, thousands of people out of the spotlight with a salary that pales in comparison have to show up to work.

Why We Should be Taking This Seriously

Because my sister is a doctor, I’m getting a front-row seat to the gravity of this situation. She’s beyond frustrated by how many people are dismissing this is as no big deal and saying people are overreacting.

When people compare numbers to previous epidemics, it’s apples and oranges. There’s a difference between the total number and the rate at which something spreads.

I’ve had a cough for a week and my cousin just came back from India. My sister said “you are not to see each other under any circumstances. It’s a cocktail for disaster in the making.” When I told her a fraternity threw a Saint Patrick’s day party, she said: “that’s a complete lack of empathy.” Individualism and overlooking interdependency here could be the difference between life and death.

First and second-order consequences like this exist in every complex system from schools to Fortune 500 companies. The ripple effects of our actions go far beyond anything we ever come face to face with. Just give some thought to how many people were involved in order for you to be reading this.

As the person who wrote it, I’m just a middleman in a long supply chain. Yet, as the person who gets to record a podcast, write books, I’ll get more from this than a factory worker in some developing country who made my laptop.

umair haque made an interesting observation about the comparison between the Italian and American Responses to this crisis.

Italy canceled mortgage payments until the pandemic subsides. In America, the headlines were about stock markets. In numerous countries, public gatherings were banned. In America, there was simply…no guidance given. Many, many countries did things like extend sick leave and give people time off and buttress businesses. America bailed out the stock markets.

Maybe the lesson here is that there is a diminishing return to prioritizing self-interest.

When those who lead from the top fail, making a shift from American Individualism to Global collectivism is the opportunity to take matters into our own hands.

We can follow the example that our leadership has set or we, as a society can set an example to follow. It’s up to us whether this moment will be our undoing or we use this crisis as a catalyst for change.

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