I’m a Tom Friedman groupie. So when I saw his new book, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World it Invented and How We Can Come Back, I grabbed it in the airport bookstore yesterday. I had a short flight, so I’ve only read 65 pages – but my brain’s already churning and connecting dots about economic sustainability.
There’s a growing, gnawing feeling that America’s on the decline. A recent poll by Rasmussen Reports found that 37% of people believed the county’s best days are ahead, but 47% believed that America’s not headed in the right direction. There are comments like this one, from a New York Times reader, “We are nearly complete in our evolution from Lewis and Clark to Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam. We used to embrace challenge, endure privation, throttle our fear and strike out into the (unknown) wilderness…” And there’s this from Winston Churchill, “America will always do the right thing, but only after exhausting all other options.”
Much of this feeling seems to derive from China’s rapid and powerful ascent onto the global stage. We see in them what we used to have. A can-do spirit. A sense of collective achievement. A hunger for excellence. The diagnosis, says GE’s CEO Jeffrey Immelt, is that “What we lack in the US today is the confidence that is generated by solving one big, hard problem – together.” It’s been a long time since we put a man on the moon, friends.
And what’s stopping us? As Tom puts it, “The cynic says, ‘Look at the gap between our ideals and our reality. Any talk of American greatness is a lie.’ The partisan says, ‘Ignore the gap. We’re still exceptional.’ But America is not defined by its gaps. Our greatness as a country – what truly defines us – is and always has been our never-ending efforts to close those gaps.” But to do this, we’ll have to pull together once again, and move away from the fierce individualism that’s gripped this country over the last several decades.
So how do we get there? Social psychologist Dr. Clare Graves once said that in order for human consciousness to move from one stage to the next, it must first find itself facing an existential crisis, or a point where the things that once worked no longer solve problems. So are we there yet? If we are, as some would certainly argue, Graves’ theory of human development shows that the next stage after Individualistic thinking is Humanistic thinking, which values relationships, community, equality and human rights. It’s a leap from thinking about me to thinking about we. In other words, this is hard evolutionary work.
Or, as a former president of MIT said, “This time around, it requires a public awakening, establishment of political will, resetting of priorities, sacrifice for the future, and an alliance of governments, business and citizens.” Like I said, hard work.
The Royal Society for the Arts has some provocative thoughts on how to get there. One of their approaches is to get people thinking about their thinking. They call it a “reflexive approach” where people become aware of how they process information and the general principles of what guides their behaviors. For instance, we all know that eating unhealthy food is bad for us. But with the reflexive approach, we would instead learn that yes, fried chicken is bad for us, and here are several reasons it’s hard for us to resist it, and here are some tools we can use to avoid the temptation. We would learn much more beyond the simple problem statement – we would instead learn what we could do about it and why and how it’s done. This approach engages the Active brain, and requires people to think for themselves. It provides a great sense of autonomy while equipping them with the tools to create change. This technique could help us move from a self-centered outlook to a community-centered one, if we could just learn the tools to leverage.
The good news is that we know more about this than ever. The good news is that this is the Information Age and we can start spreading the word quickly. The good news is that we’re Americans – and we’ll figure it out. Together.