Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Social Dynamics of Success and Failure

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

Society has played an integral role in determining the value of what it is like to succeed. While some people might value success as an end in itself, it is usually society's recognition of our triumph that makes the endeavor worthwhile. Imagine yourself successfully climbing and surviving Mt. Everest: I'm sure it's a great feeling and a big ego boost to your self confidence. Now imagine yourself never telling anyone about it (either implicitly or explicitly). The sense of worth is still there but for some people, there seems to be a missing element. It is pride without the bragging, respect without the acknowledgment.

If you're like me, you might feel guilty about this fact. We've been raised after all to value humility. But if we look at it from another perspective, we discover that it's a natural condition, the need to tell others about our accomplishments. It's not just about pride and sin but rather that we're social beings and we need something to give us an advantage when it comes to socializing with other people. One careful look at society reveals that this is what makes or breaks our relationships and how this is encouraged in our culture. Take a look at your family: didn't we as kids try to impress our parents? We might tell them "I did this" or "look at what he did wrong", especially the latter when it comes to our other siblings. Take a look at your school, at how we reward the smart or talented kids by giving them awards and praising them. Take a look at your office, especially if you're an employee. Sometimes more than the money, people are dissatisfied with the company when their efforts aren't acknowledged and some people do use their salary as a gauge of how much they are valued.

If you want to see how social dynamics affect success, just look at NaNoWriMo. It's not the first time people have attempted to write a novel. In fact, there's nothing stopping people from writing during the other eleven months in a year. But why have people jumped on this bandwagon? Mostly I think because of the community that surrounds it. Some people might perceive NaNoWriMo as putting nothing on the line--after all, it's not like money is involved whether you succeed or not--but that's not quite true. Your reputation is on the line, your commitment to finish the novel along with other people in your community is at stake. Not that there's a penalty for failing to write that novel because NaNoWriMo wasn't designed to be that kind of organization but there is peer pressure of some sort. And honestly that's quite peculiar because writing has usually been a solitary act (once you've finished writing it is another matter) although writing is indeed a social endeavor. The social element of NaNoWriMo is what sets it apart from the other months of the year and might be that extra incentive people need to write as well as give them a venue to air their success without sounding arrogant.

Another way to look at it is from the perspective of its opposite: failure. I don't think failure is bad--failure enables us to learn. But that's not how society views failure: you're a loser, a pariah of a sort, even if making mistakes is the most natural thing in the world. Honestly, as children, how else did we grow up to become who we are? We tripped, we fell down, we made the wrong choices yet we somehow survived it all. That's not to say we should look forward to screwing up but rather we shouldn't be disheartened by not succeeding. It only starts to become unbearable when our failure is publicized. One example I have is my passion for games. As a kid, I loved trying out new games, especially video games. I enjoyed playing Super Mario Brothers, even if I never finished it by my own efforts alone. In fact, I probably died a million times. But that didn't stop me from continuing to play the game. Perhaps one reason for this is that I was playing the game privately or at least if I had an audience, they knew they wouldn't fare any better and kept silent about it. Now compare that to the arcade game Dance Dance Revolution. It certainly piqued my interest especially with its "unconventional" controls (which has now become quite conventional) but I didn't try playing it in public because well--people would see me fail. And Dance Dance Revolution is the kind of game that draws a crowd and some people use it as a venue to show their skills that it becomes embarrassing for newbies to try out (fortunately it was ported over to home consoles). Another example I have goes back to school. Why are some students afraid to volunteer or to raise their hands and answer the teacher's question? It's because they'll stand out and there are social consequences for getting it wrong or worse, for getting it right. I don't know about you but during my high school, the students laughed at you if you got the answer wrong, and then became jealous of you if you always answered correctly. I think that's why some people dislike the smart kids in school--because they embarrass the less smarter ones. School is the perfect example of an environment where other people's opinions matter. Grades might matter to teachers and parents but to students, what's important to them is what their fellow classmates think of them. It isn't failure that they fear but rather embarrassment.

Having said all that, how does this all relate to real life? Well, it helps us become more conscious of our motivators. The reason you might be dissatisfied with your work environment might not necessarily be the pay but the lack of acknowledgment. Or perhaps you don't like a certain sport not because you're not good at it but rather because you think other people will chide you for your mistakes. Some people try to meet it halfway: they attempt something but once they accomplish it, are afraid to show the results. Aspiring writers are one example of this: they finished writing a manuscript but are hesitant to show it to anyone else (and perhaps burn it at a later date). And while I've mentioned that such attitudes are perfectly normal, sometimes we have to go beyond them. Galileo might have acquiesced to the demands of the church but that's not what the likes of Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King did: they all went against the current paradigm of their society even amidst ridicule and social ostracism.

1 comment:

Dominique said...

Hi, Charles: you may want to check out "Social Life of Information" by John Seely Brown. It looks in-depth into the social dimensions of many types of activities, including learning.