November 13, 2010

A Spiritual Approach To Material Success

Anyway, I’m reading this book about achieving personal wellbeing and there is a section about a study that was done where people were given two choices:

1) Earn $50,000, while your peers earn $25,000 or

2) Earn $100,000, while your peers earn $200,000

Well, the study found that about half the respondents choose #1—even though they would earn significantly less (i.e. literally half) and be able to afford less in real purchasing power.

In other words, many people choose to be poorer in real terms, in order to be relatively well off compared to their peers.

This is in stark contrast to the notion of collaboration. In leadership classes, books, etc., haven’t we been trained by now to believe that by working together, we can increase “the pie” for everyone? Well, increasing the pie seems appealing to many, only if their slice remains the largest piece!

The question is—why? Is it that people are unabashedly competitive, overwhelming selfish, or endlessly jealous of others? Or is this a survival-based choice, where we are “hardwired” to fight not only to stay alive, but also to achieve status?

Frequently at work—particularly around budget time—we hear people say things like this is “a zero-sum game”—meaning that what goes to one, comes from another. In other words, there is a winner and a loser in every transaction. For example, if I give you the resources, someone else has to give up some resources, so we can achieve our overall budget numbers.

Similarly at performance time, there is typically a “performance pool” with a certain allocation of money available for bonuses. The more that goes to one/some, the less that is available for others.

So despite all the “platitudes” about sharing, in real life a message about competition vs. sharing seems repeated again and again in life, with the doling out of the best education, job opportunities, healthcare, housing, and so on. There are limited/scarce resources and so not everyone is going to get what they want. The message sent to all: you have to compete to get your due—and the more someone else gets, the less that’s available for you.

But is striving for superior status really always desirable?

From a business perspective, there is a compelling case to be made that competition drives performance, and that we need to reward the best performers. At the same time, collaboration and information-sharing can improve our competitive edge. In other words, working with your peers effectively can improve everybody’s chances for success.

However, to many, there is an inherent notion of inequity in promoting competition, because we are all people—all children of G-d—all worthy. Why should some get more than others?

Unfortunately, there is a misperception of what competition is really all about and what it means to succeed.

Many believe or are taught that those that “win the race” are the more deserving—i.e. they are better people, chosen, or selected by fate or DNA; and those that get less are either a lower class or caste, punished or cursed, or that they must simply work less or just don’t try. Many unfair and ridiculous judgments are thus cast on why some have more and less. (Even the people who “lose the race” often feel this way.)

So it is no wonder, when people are asked to choose real or relative wealth, in a way, it is no wonder that so many may choose relative over real wealth—because winning means that they are deserving and therefore better.

If only we could let go of our judgmental attitudes, our superiority complexes, and the notions of entitlements because “we are who we are,” then maybe we could see past the illusion of superiority and move toward a society where we all seek a larger pie for everyone to share and benefit from.

In that world, everyone will chose option #2—to not only do their best, but also to maximize the best for everyone else.

In the end, competition is not with others but with ourselves. And success is helping others succeed, and maybe even being happy for them if they do better than we do.


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