Like many of you, the growing Occupy Wall Street movement has gotten my attention. How can so many people be so dedicated to a cause that is – in my mind at least – still undefined? This much I’ve figured out – these so-called “99 percenters” seem to feel they’re being deprived of the American dream by the wealthiest members of our society. They, like most of us define that dream as the entitlement to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” It’s hard to disagree with the dream, but what exactly does that mean, and how do we achieve it? It does seem sometimes like that last part of the dream has been redefined as the “Pursuit of Wealth.” Perhaps the events of the last five years have pretty clearly fingered Wall Street as a villain in our economic drama, but that’s hardly going to get us out of this mess. Who are the heroes that will save the day? Heroes make us feel safe, warm and fuzzy – happy. If we can figure out who the heroes are then maybe, just maybe, we can be happy.
Happiness Comes from Progress
For several years my friend Scott worked his way up in local management at Starbucks. Scott both loves and understands coffee, but more importantly he is an excellent leader – someone who knows how to motivate and organize to get things done. He shared with me that one of the most enjoyable things about working for Starbucks was all the interesting people he met. I have to admit, as I wait for my latte, there is something magical about watching the people at Starbucks. They sit with headphones typing quietly on a laptop, furiously taking notes on paper or an iPad, or having an animated discussion with their companions. The energy is contagious – yes, you could argue it’s just that extra shot of espresso we all ordered – but it’s more than that too. They seem “like, totally high, man.” High that is, on creativity, productivity and the rush of solving complex challenges.
I enjoy the rush of problem solving myself. My business partner Tom and I have agreed to spend roughly half of our company’s collective resources providing pro-bono marketing help to charitable organizations – no easy feat I assure you. We often brainstorm these projects at – you guessed it – Starbucks. A couple years ago, Scott introduced me to Jenny, who was working as a barista. She was finishing her Masters in Marketing at the University of South Florida, and was looking for a job in her field of study. Tom and I hired Jenny to help us assist a local not-for-profit with their marketing outreach.
Over the last year, Jenny has worked diligently with LifeCare of Brandon to get a large percentage of their staff involved in generating content for their blog, newsletter, and social communities. Candidly, the pay sucks, but her work is rewarding in many other ways. To hear the organization’s staff tell it, Jenny has been instrumental in allowing them to tell their work’s story in the community and build support. She in turn has learned many lessons from them, and the hundreds of clients that LifeCare serves every month have benefited as well.
Still working on her graduate studies, Jenny seems happy. LifeCare tells us all the time how much they love Jenny, and happy they are. Tom and I are happy. We’re all happy. Not one of us has gotten rich – but we’re enjoying progress.
Yeah, But What is Progress?
Why is it that working for a few clams a month can be so rewarding? Psychologists tell us that we are happiest when we feel the most productive at “self-actualization,” defined primarily in terms of realizing our potential. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is illustrated in the pyramid at right. You can see that the four types of needs starting at the bottom serve as a foundation for those above it, with self-actualization appearing at the pinnacle as the fifth.
I like to break out the bottom two levels, physiological needs and safety needs, as the definition of what it means to survive. If it’s true that one must first survive before one can thrive, then providing for the needs in these two levels is the underpinning upon which we provide for the other three.
The top three levels encompass those things that, while not needed to survive, we each desperately crave. I think of these three levels as in many ways defining happiness. Self-actualization represents then the peak of happiness, where we most enjoy the feeling of progress. Progress though, can’t really be defined as an event – it’s more of an ongoing process. A clearer picture of progress can be found in the pyramid. As much as the different types of needs are hierarchical, they are also beautifully interdependent. It is while serving our self-actualization needs that our society benefits from innovation and a deeper understanding of our morality. These innovations directly impact the foundation of the pyramid by serving our physiological needs more efficiently – defining efficiency simply as requiring fewer hours out of each day. A deeper understanding of what is moral serves the second level, our safety needs. These two needs at the bottom in turn serve those above, and so on.
The end result is that when we make progress, we are able to dedicate increasingly more of our time and energy to the top of the pyramid, whatever that may mean – solving problems, helping others, trying new things or simply contemplating God. It is from this progress that we now benefit from the Declaration of Independence, running water, immunizations, books, the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1964, movies, pizza and the internet.
So where does wealth fit in? I would argue that it directly serves only our physiological and safety needs. Providing for these needs is vital however, because they allow us to then provide for the rest. I, for one, really do want to live in a society where each of us is entitled to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” From a psychology perspective, Life and Liberty seem to fit very nicely within our physiological and safety needs. As a society, providing for Life and Liberty requires that all of us share in the wealth – but how much wealth? There is no amount of funky math that will cram us all into the top one percent. A reasonable answer seems to be that such a society should endeavor to make it as efficient as possible for its members to fulfill their Physiological and Safety needs. By ensuring that every member has what they need to survive, we keep the cycle of progress going. While it may be possible to be happy with more wealth than one needs, when some have too little, the cycle of progress begins to break down – for all of us. If we are frustrated by those in our society who can’t seem to make progress, it takes only a tiny fraction of our collective wealth to ensure their physiological and safety needs are met – the foundation for their progress at every other level. In this regard, those generating wealth are serving a heroic function in our economy. In the end though, rich and poor alike have benefited and continue to benefit from the collective support of a stable society.
Wealth alone can’t keep the cycle of progress going, however. Our safety needs require much that money can’t buy. Maybe more of our heroes should be the ones who help us provide for those other needs. If our only heroes are the rich, it isn’t difficult to understand why we aren’t happy – and the cycle of progress is misfiring. When I watch the news and read magazines, the soldiers putting their lives on the line in Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t celebrated like movie stars are. Firefighters and police officers aren’t celebrated like top athletes are. There is no show on television featuring the “Real Schoolteachers of Orange County.” Blaming the media is futile – they’re just serving us a steaming pile of exactly what we ordered. It’s unfair to only blame the rich, because they’re just living up to the heroic standard we’ve set for them. Once again, the solution won’t be found in the villain.
How do we fix this, and start making progress again? We have to find the heroes who keep us safe, healthy, moral and help us nurture our families.
Unmasking the Other Heroes
It is natural for a society to reward those that it admires, but the fact of the matter is we choose who our heroes will be. We idolize the great innovators like Steve Jobs, rewarding them with both wealth and honor, but he too was the beneficiary of another type of hero. More and more of America’s wealthiest individuals are publicly advocating policies that would at their own expense, ensure the survival of others - heroic, yes – but smart too. At the other end of the spectrum, there are the people who mow our lawns, pick our vegetables, cook our meals and clip our toenails – and are happy just to make a living while helping out. There are really bright students who work for next to nothing while they learn so they can help all of us make progress. There are those heroes we desperately want to emulate, and then there are those who we halfheartedly admire because they sacrifice so much more than we care to. Think of those heroes who die keeping us safe – those in uniform, or perhaps this father that cared more for his young son than about his own life. Think of those who settle for the salary of a teacher so they can keep the cycle of progress going. There are heroes who make a lot, a lot of important things like wealth and innovations, but there are also heroes who give a lot.
Many of us can identify with the parent who works 80 hours a week to make sure their kid gets dropped at school in a nice car, wears the coolest shoes and goes to the best school. I get a gold star on each of those assignments – because I work hard to make a lot. But parents sometimes work even harder to live on a modest wage so they can give a lot and prepare their children for a different kind of success – a life where they give a lot too. That’s what my mom and dad chose to do. It’s difficult for me to fathom how they should be considered less of a hero than me, when I’ve hardly begun to live up to what they worked so hard to teach me. They are the kind of heroes I want to be, and that we need more of.
Remember Scott? He worked long hours for Starbucks to ensure that the company and his career continued to prosper. He did worry though about progress – that he wasn’t caring for his family’s most important needs, and wasn’t helping those around him when they needed it, wasn’t living up to the best God made him capable of. A little over a year ago, he quit that job to spend more time with his family and focus on ministering to the people in our church and the surrounding community. His family happily gets by now on less money – they have enough to maintain the cycle of progress. Scott is now able to study and write, to teach at our church, spend time with his wife, teach his kids, and to drop everything and go help someone when they need it most.
All that sounds like progress to me, but from time to time when Scott is forced to rely on others for financial help, the begrudging assistance frequently comes with the refrain, “ok, but I’m sorry you haven’t found a good job yet.” Too often, we regret the heroes who give a lot, just because they require us to give a little. This is why some in our society even consider “progress” a dirty word. As a beneficiary of Scott’s progressive new freedom, I hope he never does find another job. The question then is, what would I give up to make sure this kind of hero can keep doing the job he does now?
I can and will support my heroes with my checkbook, and do what I can to directly help those I meet who are struggling to survive. But we need to do better as a society also. Let’s celebrate the giving kind of heroes more. Let’s ensure that kind of heroism receives at least the meager reward of survival. Let’s remember too that it’s impossible to innovate, teach, strategize, build, invent and serve – to be a hero – unless we can first survive. Maybe that’s the cause most of the protesters are fighting for – even if they can’t all articulate it well. Maybe they just want to be productive and help drive progress, but they’re stuck in a rut where it feels like just surviving takes everything they have. Have you ever felt like that? I have. Isn’t their cause what the American dream is all about? I think so.
If you find it hard to get behind someone fighting for the American dream while holding a sign, consider this. The 99 percent aren’t just occupying Wall Street – they’re occupying classrooms, squad cars, Humvees, laboratories, salons, cubicles and Starbucks all over this country and beyond. Get behind that. Rather than just heroes that make a lot, let’s choose people who give a lot as our heroes, and let’s support the policies that enable them to give a lot. If that happens, I predict the people protesting on Wall Street will disappear – maybe to Starbucks. And if they get on your nerves in the meanwhile, don’t forget that Thomas Jefferson liked to write stuff that pissed off some of the one percent too.