How Americans Became HelplessShare
America has a Culture of Learned Helplessness
WHO WAS THIS MAN? He grew up in poverty in what modern psychologists call a dysfunctional family. He was tall, gangly and foolish looking. His clothes were always too tight and small. Following are some of his life experiences:
• AGE 22, FAILED IN BUSINESS.
• AGE 23, RAN FOR STATE LEGISLATURE AND WAS DEFEATED.
• AGE 24, FAILED AGAIN IN BUSINESS.
• AGE 25, ELECTED TO LEGISLATURE.
• AGE 26, REJECTED BY THE WOMAN HE LOVED.
• AGE 27, HAD A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN.
• AGE 29, DEFEATED FOR SPEAKER.
• AGE 32, DEFEATED FOR ELECTOR.
• AGE 33, MARRIED A WOMAN WHO WAS FOUND TO BE MENTALLY UNSTABLE.
• AGE 34, DEFEATED FOR CONGRESS.
• AGE 37, ELECTED TO CONGRESS.
• AGE 39, DEFEATED FOR CONGRESS.
• AGE 46, DEFEATED FOR SENATE.
• AGE 47, DEFEATED FOR VICE PRESIDENT.
• AGE 49, DEFEATED FOR SENATE.
ANSWER: The man was Abraham Lincoln and at age 52 he became President of the United States. Lincoln did not choose his experiences of failure and defeat, but he did choose how to respond. He realized that he was not reacting to an event but to how he interpreted the event. His life is testimony to the uniquely human potential to turn defeats into triumphs and to turn ones predicament into a human achievement. For those events that were not up to him it was his own attitude that determined their influence on him. When he was no longer able to change a situation, he changed himself. Lincoln’s attitude was characterized as the “American Spirit.”
Lincoln was not born with a positive “can do” attitude. On the contrary, his life is testimony that a positive attitude toward ones experiences takes considerable effort. The path of least resistance is always not to try and give up. Lincoln learned to expect difficulties, and, so was not traumatized and defeated when faced with problems but viewed them as part of the natural course of events. Lincoln learned the harder one works to sustain a positive interpretation, the more one appreciates life.
Sidney Weinberg is another example of the American spirit. He was born in 1891, one of eleven children of Pincus Weinberg, a struggling Polish-born liquor wholesaler and bootlegger in Brooklyn. Sidney was short, a “Kewpie doll,” as the New Yorker writer E. J. Kahn, Jr., described him, “in constant danger of being swallowed whole by executive-size chairs.” He pronounced his name “Wine-boig.” He left school at fifteen. He had scars on his back from knife fights in his preteen days, when he sold evening newspapers at the Hamilton Avenue terminus of the Manhattan-Brooklyn ferry.
At sixteen, he made a visit to Wall Street, keeping an eye out for a “nice-looking, tall building,” as he later recalled. He picked 43 Exchange Place, where he started at the top floor and worked his way down, asking at every office, “Want a boy?” By the end of the day, he had reached the third-floor offices of a small brokerage house. There were no openings. He returned to the brokerage house the next morning. He lied that he was told to come back, and bluffed himself into a job assisting the janitor, for three dollars a week. The small brokerage house was Goldman Sachs.
From that point, Charles Ellis tells us in his book, “The Partnership: The Making of Goldman Sachs,” Weinberg’s rise was inexorable. Early on, he was asked to carry a flagpole on the trolley uptown to the Sachs family’s town house. The door was opened by Paul Sachs, the grandson of the firm’s founder, and Sachs took a shine to him. Weinberg was soon promoted to the mailroom, which he promptly reorganized. Sachs sent him to Browne’s Business College, in Brooklyn, to learn penmanship. By 1925, the firm had bought him a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. By 1927, he had made partner. By 1930, he was a senior partner, and for the next thirty-nine years-until his death, in 1969-Weinberg was Goldman Sachs, turning it from a floundering, mid-tier partnership into the premier investment bank in the world.
The rags-to-riches story-that staple of American biography-has over the years been given two very different interpretations. The nineteenth-century version stressed the value of compensating for disadvantage. If you wanted to end up on top, the thinking went, it was better to start at the bottom, because it was there that you learned the discipline and motivation essential for success. “New York merchants preferred to hire boys who lived in poverty, on the theory that they worked harder, and were more resolute, obedient, honest, grateful, loyal, and cheerful than middle class boys,” Irvin G. Wyllie wrote in his 1954 study “The Self-Made Man in America.” Andrew Carnegie, whose personal history was the defining self-made-man narrative of the nineteenth century, insisted that there was an advantage to being “cradled, nursed and reared in the stimulating school of poverty." Carnegie believed that poverty forces you to confront adversity and you soon learn how to embrace and overcome it. It is by overcoming adversity that your character becomes strong and your life becomes meaningful.
The character of Lincoln and Weinberg were not exceptions. Once upon a time in America character, integrity, hard work, and independence were the norm. Americans took pride in overcoming adversity and learning from it. They were strong individuals and supremely confident. Americans believed that all one was entitled to was a natural birth. Everything else was up to the person. This was “The American Dream.” Thomas Jefferson summarized it this way: “Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; however, nothing on earth can help the man with wrong mental attitude.”
Today, the American Dream has been shattered. After World War II, intellectuals proselytized “inevitability theories” about how everyone’s life was shaped by genetic or environmental factors that were beyond their control. There began a promiscuity of the teaching of helplessness and the “can do” American spirit was replaced by the “we are all helpless victims” spirit. If your destiny is already predetermined by internal and external factors that you cannot change, why work hard and try to persevere and succeed? Our helplessness is learned.
A classic example of learned helplessness is from the motion picture “Freedom Writers,” which is a movie about a young teacher who tries to inspire students who have learned to be helpless. The students allowed their ethnicity, their economic status, and their social environment to determine the fate of their success. Often, members of the same social environment think in similar patterns, drawing the same inferences and or conclusion.
Many politicians, community organizers, community leaders and spokespeople for minorities preach the concept of helplessness and continually reinforce it in their campaigns, speeches, and social actions. Your adversity was caused by other groups, government, other political parties, banks, corporations, other religions, the other sex, the wealthy, or something in history that happened hundreds of years ago. The message is one of entitlement. If you are not able to provide, it is not your fault. You are entitled to financial, housing, food, education, and employment assistance from society. Society is responsible for your well being, not you.
The emphasis is not on the individual learning how to overcome adversity; the emphasis is on how to use adversity to gain socioeconomic entitlements from government. The more adversity one can claim they face, the more benefits that person will receive. For example, the more children a single unemployed mother has the more financial rewards she receives. The larger a welfare family becomes, the more benefits the family receives. Government has made it more attractive to for people to default for government assistance when faced with adversity rather than overcoming it as our ancestors did.
We now elect politicians based on the entitlements and bounties they generously offer with tax dollars. The helpless have become dependent upon the politicians for entitlements, and the politicians have become dependent upon the helpless for votes. Illegal immigrants are now gaining socioeconomic benefits and civil rights for their potential votes. In fact, many politicians were the teachers and promoters of helplessness as community organizers, counselors, and lawyers before they were elected. Other politicians come from the public sector where they promoted the same agenda.
When you listen to the campaign promises of politicians, you will hear them tell you about the benefits and rewards voters will receive from them if they are elected. In addition, they will tell you about the entitlements their challengers will take away from citizens if they are not. Political campaigns are now all about who can give the helpless the most. We no longer ask “What can we do for our government?”as JFK suggested when the American dream was strong and we reached for the stars. Now we stand in the mud and ask “What can our government do for us.”
Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius; ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. http://creativethinking.net/