Thursday, May 10, 2012

Earned Success vs. Learned Helplessness

A number of years ago I left my career with the federal government to work in the private sector. Many of my government employed colleagues thought I was nuts.

Having achieved the exalted level of GS-12, I was about two years shy of receiving the maximum annual leave allowance of 5.2 weeks. (Federal employees also get 13 days of sick leave each year.) I could qualify to retire at age 56 and was virtually guaranteed stable employment until then. If my MS flared up and my health took a dive before retirement age, I could still get a fairly generous medical retirement. How could I give all of this up?

To be quite honest, I too wondered for a long time about what drove me to take this step. For the first year, I traveled past my old workplace twice every work day. My round trip commute was 40 miles instead of 15. My new office was a tiny dingy cubicle instead of the splendid spacious office I had previously enjoyed. And what would I do if my MS acted up? Sometimes I pined for the old days, but not enough to go back.

I still occasionally drive by the building where I used to work. But instead of yearning for my old job, I can't even imagine working there.

The agency where I worked had many job positions and people worked hard to get those jobs. But many people also received preferential treatment, ostensibly to right some wrong that had been committed against somebody else sometime in the past. I understood this, but it never felt quite right. It bred a victim mentality, which was so pervasive that I too was caught up in it for a while.

My main motivation for leaving federal employment was to enable my wife to stay home with our young children. Although I was working as a computer systems developer, I had been trained and had worked for years as an accountant. Even after cutting out child care and employment expenses, I could not calculate how we could meet all of our obligations on my salary alone. It would be necessary for me to find a job with somewhat larger take-home pay. But that would mean giving up generous benefits.

Still, I doubt I would have undertaken this move had I not felt a growing compulsion to get away from my government job.

Arthur Brooks nails what I was experiencing in this WSJ op-ed, where he discusses the value and importance of "earned success." He describes earned success as "defining your future as you see fit and achieving that success on the basis of merit and hard work."

It doesn't matter how you define success or that your definition differs from others. In fact, this variety provides much of the power behind this concept. Too often we think we know how to define success for everyone and then we create policies that try to herd people into our narrow definitions.

Contrasting his and his wife's experiences in the United States with their experiences living in Spain, Brooks writes, "Earned success is at the root of American exceptionalism." In other words, Brooks asserts that earned success is what made and makes America great. Moreover, he explains that it is one of the keys to satisfaction and happiness in life.

There is another side to this coin. "The opposite of earned success" writes Brooks, is "learned helplessness." Brooks explains that when "rewards and punishments are not tied to merit ... [p]eople simply give up and stop trying to succeed." He cites research showing that people's well-being is not increased by receiving unearned benefits. Instead this actually leads to helplessness and passiveness—the victim mentality I mentioned earlier.

The more people see themselves as victims, the stronger the sense of entitlement they develop. They turn their efforts away from working to achieve via merit, focusing instead on attempting to protect and expand the unearned benefits to which they have come to feel entitled. All of this striving, however, only leads to dependency, less satisfaction and less happiness. This mimics the addiction cycle.

Perhaps this is why some religions proscribe gambling and decry what was once called the evils of the dole. It has long been taught that getting benefits we do not earn tends to, as some religious leaders have put it, canker our souls. We end up looking for happiness where it cannot be found.

Since leaving my federal job, I have been through several job changes. Some of these have been welcome. Some have not. I have been blessed to be able to provide for my family, although, this is a continual struggle. I have far less vacation and sick leave than I would have were I still federally employed. I will likely retire many years later than would have been the case were I still a government employee. And I am at much greater risk of serious financial trouble if my health goes south.

So, there are plenty of thorns in this bed of roses. But I do believe I am happier and more satisfied with life. Sure, that's a subjective judgment, but it's the best one I—or anyone else, for that matter—can offer. (Scientists have a devil of a time accurately measuring happiness because it is so subjective.)

I don't mean to imply that all government employees are among the ranks of the learned helpless. We need government staffers and it would be good if a lot of them were people that are interested in being morally good. But the government culture seems to provide an excellent breeding ground for learned helplessness. I know that it was right for me to break out of that environment when I did.

But I worry for my kids. It used to be intrinsically understood that earning success was the path to individual dignity. It was in our nation's DNA. Now the culture of providing everything for everyone regardless of merit seems to be overtaking society. We are increasingly induced to walk down this path to learned helplessness.

Taking from those that have something we want is made to seem morally right to the point that people are willing to vote themselves benefits from others' pockets. When this is done on an individual level we call it mooching or even stealing. This stigma strangely disappears when we do the same thing as a mob en masse.

The offering of benefits is always couched in the most virtuous sounding phrases. It seems so beguiling, yet it hides the unfortunate specter of learned helplessness. I pray that my children may escape this evil and may gain dignity through honest diligent effort.

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