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.
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.
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:
- You shouldn’t think you’re anything special
- You shouldn’t think you’re as much as us
- You shouldn’t think you’re smarter than us
- You shouldn’t think you’re better than us
- You shouldn’t think you know more than us
- You shouldn’t think you are more than us
- You shouldn’t think you’re any good
- You shouldn’t laugh at us
- You shouldn’t think anybody likes you
- 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.
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.