Want happiness or expert-level success or both? The research shows that going it alone is not likely to get you there.
The American psyche is profoundly informed by mythologies of individual heroism — which unfortunately do not map to reality.
There is a great conflict between the mythical hero of Hollywood that rises against all odds and the real road to success. Our individual heroes simply don’t get to be heroic or expert without the guidance and support of caring teachers. The Harvard Business Review featured an article, The Making of an Expert, which reported that in almost every case the practicing of the expert was supervised by a personal teacher/mentor. Expert level success required personal guidance from a caring and qualified teacher.
Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, is a research-based and systematic dismantling of the notion that heroes rise simply on their own ingenuity. “People don’t rise from nothing… The people that stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allowed them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.”
And this conflict of myth and reality has a darker side still.
Above all, we are taught to be our own person. Our consumer culture, fueled by marketing, creates choices and hunger for evermore choice and personal control. The myth of the free market is that the individual is the center of the universe. According to Martin Seligman, renowned research psychologist at the Positive Psychology Center in Pennsylvania, “The society we live in exalts the self.” He links this “waxing of the self and the waning of the commons (higher purpose)” with the dramatic rise in depression over the last 60 years.
If we are suffering from our own self-absorbedness what is the antidote? Meaningful attachments to other individuals and to purposes larger than self seem like plausible answers. The research on happiness and life expectancy find that, above all, friends and family relationships matter (and “cholesterol doesn’t,” from the famous Harvard Study of Adult Development longitudinal study, begun in 1937).
Work, and in particular progress in work, also positively affect our experience of “a good life.” When it comes to progress in work, both the HBR study and the Malcolm Gladwell book state absolutely that there is no substitute for hard work. Without long hours — you simply won’t get there, but for true expertise, long hours won’t be enough. A caring teacher is essential to have in the equation.
My colleague Beth Parkhill, Founder of Mentor Planet, says that a mentor is a smart friend. It now strikes me how sharp that definition is, answering both the relationship and learning aspects of “a good life.”
If you are like me and have “gone it alone” more than was best, perhaps there is still time to think twice.