Why Doing Good is Bad

Misconceptions have many forms. Maybe you believe that if you just eat lowfat or fatfree food, you won’t put on weight. Or maybe you can never trust people who offer to help you. Or maybe you believe that you have to make it harder for yourself than necessary, to prove your worth.





Whatever they are, we probably all have a few of those going on. The thing about misconceptions is, you’re rarely aware of them. But if you ever stop to listen to that voice, and figure out what’s going on, they just don’t seem to make sense. Maybe that’s all it took, and it’ll dissappear right then. But chances are it’ll continue to be sitting there, influencing the way you live your life, day by day.





For as long as I can remember, I’ve been suffering from two deeply held misconceptions. The first one is this:



Misconception #1: You should feel guilty about your success.


The second actually contradicts the first:



Misconception #2: It’s even worse to be successful if you’re working hard at it.


You’ll see why later. Let’s take a look at each one in turn.



You Should Feel Guilty about Success



The way this makes itself felt is that whenever I find myself in a situation where I feel better off than someone else, I instantly start feeling bad about it. The situation can be anything from encountering a panhandler on the street, to having a plumber come fix my clogged bathtub drain. I feel like I owe this person something, though it would probably just offend the plumber if I handed him a buck or two out of pity. (Tipping is another matter entirely.)





I know that this sounds completely absurd in the ears of an American, so let me try to explain why it can actually be pretty hard to dismiss. First, let’s make a distinction. You can be successful because you were born into it, or you can achieve success based on your own merits.



Inherited Success



If you’re well off because you were born into it, you should feel sorry for people who didn’t have that chance. I was born from relatively rich parents in a wealthy country with free education and health services. In other words, I had better opportunities for growing than most people in this world. So each time I meet with someone who didn’t have that kind of chance, I feel bad for them.





I learned a while ago that nothing good ever came out of guilt, of feeling like you owe someone else something. If you owe someone something, settle it, clear it up. But an ongoing feeling of inferiority from guilt or debt just destroys both you and the relationship with the other person. It doesn’t make my plumber any happier that I feel sorry for him. At best it would make him feel even sorrier for himself. Yet despite this intellectual insight, I’m having a hard time ridding myself of the feeling of guilt.





The one positive thing that this does offer is an emphasis on equal opportunity. We should all work to make sure that education and health care is available to all, regardless of social status, so that you can rest assured that if you’re doing better than the other guy, it’s because you deserve it. It’s hard to argue that this is a bad thing. Though there’s no reason that anybody should have to feel bad in the process.



Self-earned Success



The thing is, though, you can be born into the best of circumstances and still manage to screw it up. So it’s clearly never just because of what you’re born into. I know that I’m working hard to achieve what I am. So why do I still feel guilty about it?





It’s because of a deeply rooted Danish, or perhaps Scandinavian, thing. It’s a corollary to The Law of Jante, or Janteloven. In case you haven’t heard it before, here it is:



  1. You shouldn’t think you’re anything special
  2. You shouldn’t think you’re as much as us
  3. You shouldn’t think you’re smarter than us
  4. You shouldn’t think you’re better than us
  5. You shouldn’t think you know more than us
  6. You shouldn’t think you are more than us
  7. You shouldn’t think you’re any good
  8. You shouldn’t laugh at us
  9. You shouldn’t think anybody likes you
  10. You shouldn’t think you can teach us anything


When you grow up in Denmark, the Jantelov is felt really strong. It’s not something anybody actively supports, and most people claim that they don’t subscribe to it, yet it constantly lurks beneath the surface, governing our judgments.





The Jantelov lives so inherently in me that I’m constantly aware of how I’m comparing to others. I’m so afraid of being in violation of the law that I have to monitor my relationship to the mythical us all the time. This creates this internal form of inverse competition, where you’re measuring yourself against other people all the time, and you have to come out with the lowest score.



The Zero-Sum Game



The fundamental misconception at play here is the belief that success is a zero-sum game. If you’re being successful that means that someone else has to loose. Would you like to look a person in the eye, and say that the reason he’s a loser is that you’re successful?





This is the way that success is looked upon through the optics of the Jantelov. If you’re more than us that means that we’re less than you. And there’s only so much “being” to go around, so you’ve basically taken ours!





Or to put it another way: If you’re running a little faster, working a little harder, that means that the rest of us have to run a little faster, too, lest the Jantelov be violated, which, of course, we can’t tolerate. So, effectively, you’re unfairly forcing the rest of us to run a little faster, too, leaving all us more exhausted with no additional gains.





The bottom line is that competition is always seen as something bad, since competition means there are going to be losers, and those losers are probably going to be the mythical us in the Jantelov.





This view has so many obvious flaws that they’re not even worth pointing out. But let me just name a few. First, one person’s success can actually mean building a business that can feed many other people. Second, if you think of yourself as being part of a team, competing against other teams, then one person running faster on your team is actually a benefit to you. Third, just because you lose the first round, that doesn’t mean you can’t get back into the game for the second round.



You Should Feel Even More Guilty If You’re Trying to Become Successful



Niels Lan Doky is, by any objective measures, a very successful Danish jazz pianist. Yet in the eye of the general public, he’s perceived as having worked too hard and too goal-directed to become what he is. If you’re going to be successful, at least it has to seem effortless.





If you look at it the Jantelov way, this misconception makes sense. If you’re successful, but you can’t help it, then okay, so be it: You couldn’t help it. We accept that there are certain larger-than-life figures that are just so exceptional that there’s nothing to do about it. We adore those.





But for all the rest of us, if you’re actively working to become successful, that means you’re deliberately trying to become better than us, and that, as we’ve seen, comes at our expense. This is also the reason that, while the rest of the world generally appreciates Jakob Nielsen, most Danes can’t stand him.





This obviously flies in the face of the better half of my first misconception: If you’re successful because you were born into it, you should feel bad, and if you’re successful because you worked hard for it, you should feel just as bad. Bottom line is, success is really bad, unless you absolutely, positively had no choice. And the only good form of successful people are the ones that were successful against all odds.



Conclusion



These were a few of my misconceptions. I’m aware of a handful of others I have, and there are probably tens of others that I haven’t realized yet. That, I suppose, is just how it is. By exposing them, at least it’s possible to know when they’re doing their deed, and try to counter them.

10 comments

Jorge Couchet Aug 12, 2001 02:00am
Generalization of the Law of Jante in the world. "Nobody is prophet in the own land", this is a popular expression in my country (Uruguay). This proverb apply a people that have an idea/concept and doesn't have success in the own land, then goes a foreign country and reaches the success applying this idea/concept. What happens?. Perhaps the other country have more resources (more population, more wealth, more advanced technologically, etc.) and the idea is applicable. But, in the most of the cases is applying the Law of Jante, "If you are of Ours (the mythical Us), then you aren´t entitled to have a better idea that us". What is the root in the Law of Jante?: In my opinion, is acting one of the most basic human feelings: the Envy (I feel bad if you is successful) , and not the conservatism of the people, because Will I change my habits, my life if me neighbor is successful?. No. Then, what is happening when I criticize my neighbor when he is reaching the success? I think that I feel envy. Which is the remedy for the envy?: Oh well, this is an entire philosophical question, but from my point of view: 1) We should learn the negative force that is the envy for the world, the open source movement is an powerful example that what can happen if we don´t have envy (If I am not afraid that my neighbor has more success than me, then I can share my effort freely so all can take advantage of it). 2) To teach to our children to combat the envy from small, because it appear when I don´t think that my neighbor is my brother or my partner (this depends on the religious sense that each one has or not). We are a component of a system, if a component have a problem, then the system have a problem, then all the components have problems (in more or smaller measure). We should learn if I help you, then I help me. The Law of Jante attempts to mach the people under a standard, don´t care if the people is a lower level that the standard, but cares if the people overcomes the standard. A good measure of how strong is the Law of Jante in a country is: How many poor people is there? The more big the percentage, then more strong is the law. My country, as most of South America have a big problem with this law. And I think that this is one of the main reasons that explains the backwardness that these countries suffer. Jorge.
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Peter Marklund Aug 12, 2001 02:00am
this article is dead-on! <p> It cracked me up to read this article as it most accurately and humorously describes a phenomenon I have had much personal experience with! The law of Jante is certainly lurking just as much in my home country Sweden and still probably has a grip on me. </p> <p> I think one reason the Law of Jante can survive is that humbleness is considered such a virtue and has a lot of appeal to it. When I was younger my cousin and his friends (me included) used to practice some kind of extreme humbleness. You would never admit to being good at anything whereas the other friends would be praised for having outstanding skills and talent. This system meant everyone would get a lot of praise. I guess it was our way of circumventing the Law of Jante :-) </p> <p> When I did my first internship abroad at a research institute in Berlin it became clear to me that my habit of consistently understating my own ability could turn into a great disadvatage. When my supervisor there asked me if I had the necessary mathematical knowledge to solve the task at hand it was not exactly helpful that I didn't admit that I did :-) </p> <p> Another demon that I am struggling with is perfectionism which also has its roots in my adolescence I think. Since me and my cousin and his friends always praised echother so much for our talents there was some kind of pressure upon us so to do things exceedingly well if we did them at all. However, as I have realized later perfectionism can be quite some hindrance to a successful professional and social life. I would be thrilled to read any reflections Lars might have on this subject! </p> <p> Thanks for a great article Lars! Your dot-com certainly violates the Law of Jante. Let's all screw Jante! </p>
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hanne kaastrup burns Aug 12, 2001 02:00am
The Law of Jante I emigrated to The United States when i was 20 years old and have been living in California and New England for 40 years. I have visited Denmark many times and my youngest son was born in Denmark. Having reached the age of retirement and a possibility for perhaps having "a small second home" or "small art compound" (Jante) in Denmark I embarked on an exstended trip to have a new look around the country. It didn't take me too long to realize that it would be a huge mistake to even think about that - as a deep depression and sickness set in about 2 weeks into the program and upon returning home to the U.S. i realized once again that "the Law of Jante" of course plays a huge part in that and is the reason that I left Denmark in the first place. I have spend my whole life wanting to be something and to stand out on my own merits, this has partly happenend because I consciuously or unconciously have always tried not to join in or fit the mold and having lived in the United States this fits in very well with their "rugged individualism" which is as a rule greatly admired here. Here I have been able to reinvent myself on several occasions and draw on imagination and a great survival skill that in Denmark is not being fostered due to society in general taking care of all the "small stuff" this however, comes with a price of great resentment within society and a "milimeter democracy" of pettyness should you not get your share of "the goods" I feel I have escaped these feelings of envy and instead been grateful for the abilities and gifts that was to be my fate, I have always shared time and skills not of of guilt but I like to think out of compassion and it didn't occur to me that it should make me feel "superior" for being kind until I read the article. I have brougt up my two sons with this principle and that charity and humility are desirable and if you are gifted in any way - share out of kindness not superiority! Also as a parent of two grown sons with unique talents such as my youngest son beeing a clasical ballet dancer, trained at school of American Ballet at Lincoln Center in New york and my oldest son beeing a Video-Installation artist with a Master of Fine Arts degree and a resume of world exposure. This of course does not happen automatically unless a sense of confidence and encouragement is installed in you from an early age. and that is of course not within the realm of "The Law of Jante" as there is no way to not beeing an individualist and beeing a world class artist. I found that people in general are nice but not too interested of course in what "you" are all about and if someone politely asks how your life has been it is only out of politeness and if you try to explain it does sound like you perhaps in their eyes are bragging. This is of course a great conflict within Denmark and Danes in general that certainly celebrate their great furniture designers such as Arne Jacobsen and world renowned Royal Porcelain ect.... So.. back to "the Law of Jante", I feel it is a negative cloud to live under and one that can actually make you sick (firsthand experience) I also feel that the Danish society has a hard "global lesson" to learn in terms of integration of emigrants and a needs to learn how to celebrate diversity and not descriminate racially and against age (a long way to go here...)just look in the newpaper adds for "young and quick" help preferably between the ages of 25-49! -and don't be fat.. It was an eye-opening experience for me and for my youngest son who experienced Denmark in much the same way as I did. So I am leaving "Jante" behind and brought back to the United States" the sweet memories of Hamlet and the beauty of Kronborg Castle, Viking Legends and Nisser and of course the taste of the great beer and food in general. I am of course always a Dane in excile, Hanne K. Burns Northampton Massachusetts U.S.A.
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stephanie jackson Aug 12, 2001 02:00am
Thank you, Hanne! I am a teacher--born, raised and educated in USA. I have also taken Prøve for lærere med udenlandsk lærereksamen her i Danmark. I immigrated to Denmark at the age of twenty-one in 1970. I battle Janteloven everyday. A simple award or certificate of achievement for students can become an object of discussion--what if someone feels offended... I have tried to explain that the need for validation and recognition is universal. You expressed it in a nutshell. That gives me courage in the face of an administration whose response to my certificates to the children was: This is not a Danish tradition! Gratefully Stephanie Jackson
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Alejandro Telleria Aug 12, 2001 02:00am
I have been reading about Denmark since I met this remarkable Danish young lady. Everyday I've covered one or two facts about the country, its comfortable and wealthy position within the EU, how the Danes express themselves through food, drink... music... literature... books... Aksel Sandemose... and the godforsaken Janteloven! Oh my God, I can't believe it! Who invented that sad, Lego, science-fiction feeling in the country, Isaac Asimov or George Orwell? Wasn't ever-dubious, procrastinating Hamlet from there, too? I have been reading about Denmark for six hours now on THIS subject. I am horrified. Now I can understand why Christina says "I don't have words" so often: she's been taught to nullify herself, to think her abilities are worth nothing so she can find solace in the indulgence of despising other people's, to avoid competition so as to avoid losing it. I hope this can change sometime. At least, I will help denouncing it. Alejandro Telleria, Barcelona, Spain
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alejandro telleria Aug 12, 2001 02:00am
The best you can do for it , in my opinion, is to dance a lot of Salsa music, especially Hector Lavoe and try to not to think to much about it. Please guys and girls, enjoy life, be a little bit ignorant, try to not to be an intellectualist. My happiest friends of me are the less "culturous" boys. JAVIER ROMERO Yanacocha Reserve - Cajamarca - Perú.
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Alejandro Telleria Aug 12, 2001 02:00am
Someone else has certainly entered my own name to reply my previous post I guess. God bless the ignorant: the caliber of that response relieves me from any further explanation. "Everything we shut our eyes to, everything we run away from, everything we deny, denigrate or despise, serves to defeat us in the end." -Henry Miller Posted by Alejandro Telleria, Barcelona, Spain
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http://profacero.wordpress.com Aug 12, 2001 02:00am
Great article - still great 5 years later! Og det er sjovt, at skrive til DK!
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Garmon Estes Aug 12, 2001 02:00am
The Jantelovian zero-sum game is a spirit killer. If you always feel that your success is dependent on someone else's failure, your spirit will never be truly free. Can you ever know yourself if you're always comparing yourself to everyone else? I believe that caring about other people is important. I also believe that the individual choice to care is more important than the pressure to believe in caring. The Jantelov is a shadowy beast because those who follow it best are those most likely not to see it. Remember! If you think you've outsmarted the Jantelov, you have become smarter than us. oops!
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Cate Cahill Aug 12, 2001 02:00am
Wow that Jantelov is really severe! How could you pay attention to that and retain any sort of self esteem?! It does remind me of what we call the "Tall Poppy Syndrome" in Australia. It's a process of cheerfully deriding the successful, especially the locally self made successes. It can be cheerful banter, or barbed nasty remarks, but it all is aimed at someone who is getting a bit "too big for their boots". Someone evolving out of their class as it were. While class structures are not a major societal issue in Australia, our colonial history is one of a penal colony, and I guess the Tall Poppy Syndrome was born out of the consciousness those who were trying to make a new life a long way from home - where all were level in social stature and all the good stuff and the good people were somewhere else. As we evolve, that sort of thinking becomes a little less serious, and more like the reality check fun poking Australians are known for.
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