The Perils of Heroic Individualism

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It has been a year since The Practice of Groundedness was first released, and well over two years since I finished writing the book. Much has happened since. COVID-19 went from being a novel virus to a full-blown pandemic, dramatically altering our way of life. Democratic backslide has proliferated in the western world, perhaps most notably in my home country, America, where, following the 2020 election, the government was mere inches away from being toppled. For the first time since the 1940s, full-scale war has broken out on the European Continent. Inflation in America is the highest on record in over four decades. A few months back, in the middle of summer, the entire globe experienced record-high temperatures, leaving plenty of human and economic suffering in its wake.

The above events are complex and multifactorial. Yet, I can’t help but think that what in the book I called Heroic Individualism is playing at least a small part, and that working toward groundedness offers a path to meaningful progress.

What follows is a look at the book one-year later, with a focus on societal problems and ideas for addressing them.

First, a quick refresher. Heroic individualism, the main problem I identified in the book, is an ongoing game of one-upmanship against both self and others, where measurable achievement is the main arbiter of success; self-worth and productivity often get prioritized over people; and short-term thinking reins. Regardless of how far you make it, with heroic individualism the goalpost is always ten yards down the field. Try as you might, you never quite arrive. Heroic individualism says that you will never have enough, be enough, or do enough. It is an endless gauntlet of more, more, more. While heroic individualism may lead to decent short-term performance, long-term, it is a recipe for disaster. This is because fulfillment, health, and excellence depend on things that are inherently inefficient and unproductive, at least based on heroic individualism’s acute timescales and financial metrics.

From 2017 to 2021, I interviewed hundreds of people and reviewed thousands of scientific papers. In defining heroic individualism, I came up with the following signs and symptoms:

  • Low-level anxiety and a sensation of always being rushed or in a hurry—if not physically, then mentally.
  • A sense that your life is swirling frenetic energy, as if you’re being pushed and pulled from one thing to the next.
  • A recurring intuition that something isn’t quite right, but unsure what that something is, let alone what to do about it.
  • Not always wanting to be on, but struggling to turn it off, and not feeling good when you do.
  • Feeling too busy, but also restless when you have open time and space.
  • Easily distractible and unable to focus; struggling to sit in silence without reaching for your phone.
  • Wanting to find some inner calm and peace but not knowing how.
  • Lonely or empty inside.
  • Successful by conventional standards, yet feeling like you’re never enough.

In chapter one of Groundedness, I wrote about a concept in ancient eastern psychology known as the hungry ghost. The hungry ghost has an endless stomach. He keeps on eating, stuffing himself sick, but he never feels full. He lives a bloated and miserable life. Back then, it was considered a severe disorder. Yet the modern world that so many of us inhabit today depends on the creation of hungry ghosts.

While in the book I focused mainly on how heroic individualism affects individuals and organizations, I now see many examples of how it is affecting society as a whole. Our culture is increasingly becoming one big hungry ghost, the consequences of which are damning.

People are perhaps less grounded than ever, increasingly alienated from each other and from themselves. We are plagued by rampant busyness and hustle, so obsessed with acute productivity that we neglect to nurture intimate relationships. We are constantly being pinged, buzzed, and pulled this way and that by our digital devices—disrupting periods of full engagement in work and leisure.

Connection over the internet, while valuable, is not the same as belonging to your local community. More and more of our downtime is filled not by thinking, mind-wandering, or reading but by chasing dopamine, scrolling feeds filled with click-bait headlines; junk marketing; and the performative perfect lives of people whose actual lives tend not to be so perfect.

Most of what we consume we have no idea where it came from or how it was made. And, for many people, we are equally disconnected from what we produce or any tangible benefit of it. The work of anthropologist David Graeber found that over 40 percent of all jobs in the developed economy are what he termed “bullshit,” meaning they provide no value to anyone, including the person doing them.

Loneliness and Toxic Movements

One result of heroic individualism on a mass scale is collective loneliness, a variety that is both broad and deep. Hannah Arendt called it “uprootedness” and “superfluousness,” a lack of connection to one’s neighbors, to one’s work, and to one’s own ability to think. Arendt’s loneliness occurs when someone is constantly a degree or two removed from the experience of their inner and outer lives; when someone is so frequently told what to think (and spends so much of their time distracted) that they lose the ability to think for themselves.

Arendt posits that this type of loneliness leads to tribalism, and worse, totalitarianism. She writes that these movements allow people to “escape from disintegration and disorientation,” and that “the isolation of atomized individuals provides the mass basis for totalitarian rule.”

Alienation, loneliness, and uprootedness are fundamental problems of our times. The interests of many of the largest forces shaping society today—politicians, social media companies, rote consumerism, and perhaps even some large religious organizations (certainly not all, as in the book I highlight many benefits of spirituality and religion; but some, yes)—are to make us feel lonely. If we feel lonely, if we are not connected with what is deep within us and actually here in front of us, then we’ll try to fill our emptiness with stuff and flee to alternative worlds and tribes.

We know from decades upon decades of research that the kind of loneliness which Arendt describes makes people anxious, depressed, and burnt out. The three pillars of well-being are autonomy, mastery, and belonging; modern psychology speak for the ability to think your own thoughts, do your own actions, and live in connection with others. It is undeniable that our world right now is increasingly void of all three, at least in their authentic manifestations.

A significant consequence of this void, I suspect, is people filling the gap with superficial sources of meaning in their lives, most notably connecting one’s identity to a tribe that pits itself against others. Perhaps the starkest example is polarization in the United States and Trumpism, which is most certainly not about any coherent policy platform but rather about people feeling connected to something—anything—in their lives. Sadly, it is a false connection, one that is not good for anyone but the leaders of such movements, almost always grifters and charlatans, who prey upon the fears of their followers.

“Individualism exists through disconnection, and the cost of disconnection is disconnection,” writes the therapist Terrence Real, in his book Us. “Virtually everyone in the West feels superior to someone and inferior to someone else,” he goes on. “Virtually everyone in the West sees the group they belong to as superior to some other group and inferior to another. None of this sees the air of daylight, while in reality, the pain of disconnection sweeps the western world for all to see. We have never been a lonelier people.”

Economic Instability, Geopolitical Unrest, and Climate Danger

The economist Kenneth Bouding once said that there are two kinds of ethics: the economic and the heroic. The economic ethic says there are benefits and costs to everything and they should be weighed against each other. The heroic ethic says push ahead as fast as you can, costs be damned. In the words of another economist, Herman Daly, the heroic ethic is all about “hang the cost! Full speed ahead! Death or victory right now! Forward into Growth. If we create too many problems in the present, the future will learn how to deal with it.”

In the past few decades we have devoutly followed the heroic ethic. Though in The Practice of Groundedness I wrote at length about the individual detriments of being addicted to growth and consumption—such as anxiety, burnout, and insecurity—I didn’t mention the societal ones, which, at present, are impossible to ignore.

The same oil that fuels our heroic ethic also fuels nation-states with values antithetical to ours, such as Russia and Saudi Arabia. This has put us in a real bind: either we support regimes that abuse basic human rights and freedoms (and in the case of Russia, start all-out wars) or we suffer massive inflation at the pump, which spills over into so many other facets of our heroic lives.

Our reliance on cheap and dirty energy is also fueling climate change, making many parts of the globe barely habitable for human life. In mid-July of this year, more than 100 million Americans experienced temperatures of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Around the same time, the United Kingdom hit record temperatures of 105 degrees Fahrenheit, causing some airports to shut down due to melting runways.

To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with economic growth. Many, myself included, would argue it is a good thing—especially given so much of the world’s population still lives in abject poverty. However, it seems safe to say that our current approach, what Bouding called the “heroic ethic,” isn’t working. Like the hungry ghost of ancient Eastern parables, if you keep stuffing yourself with no concern over what you are consuming or whether or not it satiates you, eventually you’ll end up bloated, miserable, and sick—which seems to be the direction in which the global economy and earth on which it is situated are heading.

If you revisit the symptom list for heroic individualism above, you’ll find that just about all of them apply to America and other Western societies at large. We live in never-enough cultures that implicitly and explicitly push people to search for love and meaning in all the wrong places. The result is loneliness, disconnection, and rote consumption, which give rise to toxic sociopolitical movements and wreak havoc on the planet.

Groundedness Can Help

When I wrote the manuscript for Groundedness over two years ago, I was unfamiliar with the work of Arendt. I hadn’t heard about the “heroic” economic ethic. COVID was only just beginning. Democratic backslide in the west was still in its infancy. Inflation was not nearing nine percent. There was not war in Europe. I am afraid the book is more relevant now than it was then, not only individually and but perhaps even more, societally.

What, then, would a more grounded society look like?

  • One that accepted the reality of environmental (and other) constraints and thoughtfully evaluated tradeoffs, making deliberate decisions and adapting, ideally by incentivizing new technologies that make growth more sustainable.
  • One that supported presence and productive activity by encouraging and making participation in craft, sport, and the arts financially feasible for all. Also, one that genuinely prioritized and supported the health and safety of people working in the age-old crafts upon which we all depend, such as medicine, teaching, and construction.
  • One that played the long game, evaluating so-called “success” and “failure” on time horizons that reach beyond a single quarter, using metrics that extend beyond the financial, and understanding that what looks “efficient” and “optimal” today may be destructive in the future.
  • One that realized its vulnerabilities and addressed them instead of kicking the can down the road—again and again and again—and in turn dealing with acute crisis after acute crisis after acute crisis. For many places, this would require an authentic reckoning with a history of enslavement, racism, and discrimination.
  • One that encouraged and supported deep community and belonging instead of everyone going at it alone—sometimes out of necessity to make ends meet, other times because the ethos is so strongly pointed toward keeping up with the Joneses.

I wish I could wave a magic wand and make this so. But as I said in opening, there are no easy solutions to what ails us. It’s hard enough to make change as an individual, it is even harder to do it at scale.

And yet, we’ve got to start somewhere. “The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outwards from there,” writes Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. “Other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind. I just want to talk about how to fix a motorcycle. I think that what I have to say has more lasting value.”

People often think about this common dichotomy that pits bottom-up individual actions against top-down societal change. I think it’s largely false. All the big and thorny problems we face demand both. Practicing groundedness starts as an inside game, cultivating the skills and habits of acceptance, seeing clearly, playing the long game, concentration, taking productive action, cultivating respect, building community, and working on genuine vulnerability and strength. And then it spreads out from there—to your family, to your colleagues, to your neighbors, and ideally, beyond. We need good and grounded leaders now more than ever. In our families. In our schools. In our hospitals. In our boardrooms. In our state capitols.

I am under no delusion that a more grounded ethos will spread quickly, and I am by no means certain it will happen at all. But all we can do is keep showing up and trying. If nothing else, taking wise action gives us hope and energizes us to keep going.

— Brad

(If you haven’t already read the book, get your copy of The Practice of Groundedness today. To celebrate it’s one-year birthday, it is currently marked down 37 percent.)

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