‘Work hard and you will achieve. The only barrier to success is your own imagination. You can be whatever you want to be, you just have to want it badly enough.’
These kinds of feel-good clichés have become mantras for the modern era.
From The Secret and Angela’s Ashes to the Biggest Loser, popular culture celebrates the idea that with hard work and determination there is nothing we can’t overcome. Today it seems we are all masters of our own destinies. Give us lemons and we’ll give you lemonade (and make a killing from the lemonade stand in the process!).
While this positivity might be creating a generation of go-getters, it has dangerous consequences. For, if the dream life is deserved, so too is the nightmare. Structural inequality is not only ignored but legitimised through this 21st century narrative.
This focus on individual responsibility is not new. Indeed, it is the foundation of capitalism and classical liberalism. In the free market, some individuals will flourish, while others will flounder. Individual enterprise is encouraged and rewarded by the state.
In the United States, these notions of economic freedom came to be represented by the narrative of the “self-made man”. Without the class system of the United Kingdom, Americans saw their new nation as the ultimate meritocracy. No matter who you were, or where you came from, you could achieve and the state would reward you for your hard work. It remains a powerful cultural symbol implicitly linked to the American Dream.
Mass consumerism and the advent of the fitness and lifestyle industries have breathed new life into these narratives. The individual today is not only rewarded for their hard work; they can be transformed almost by sheer will power.
After all, how can we be persuaded to pay for that personal trainer if we’ll never get that killer six pack? We are assured that we can have that beach body we’ve always wanted, we can have that dream home, we can find the perfect partner … all that’s needed is the right attitude (and deep pockets!). Spending on what would have once been considered indulgences is now essential in the continuous quest for self-improvement. You can be a better person, you just have to imagine it and pay for it.
Many lament the rampant narcissism and individualism of the modern era, but surely this is not surprising when we are told that the individual is so powerful it can transcend anything. It seems a preoccupation with the self is not only essential if we are to get ahead, but also necessary if we are to be all that we can be.
It is difficult to build a sense of responsibility and care for others when the wealthy are assured that they are the rightful beneficiaries of their hard work, while those who are struggling are painted as the authors of their own misfortune.
Lazy leaners. They didn’t want it badly enough. They didn’t put in the hard yards.
This myth of meritocracy ignores structural inequality, masking the ugly truth of capitalism in feel-good, new-age packaging.
The sad reality, of course, is that some people work tirelessly hard in jobs that are underpaid and undervalued, and never get ahead. Of course, all people are of equal worth, but it does not follow that all people have equal opportunity to succeed. Unfortunately, factors like where you were born, who your parents are, and where you went to school do still influence your future prospects. The role of the state should be to redress these imbalances, rather than reward the lucky few who have either triumphed against the odds or been born into privilege.
The responsibility to care for those less fortunate is an essential part of the social contract, yet virtually absent from public discourse. It seems in our obsession with self-help we have forgotten about helping others.
The sad irony here, of course, is that individuals who place such a high premium on self-interest and self-reward will always be unhappy. The quest for self-improvement is never ending.
In Greek mythology, Narcissus was so consumed by his own image, it destroyed him. Unless we as individuals stop looking at our own reflections, genuine happiness and fulfilment will continue to allude us.
This article was first published on ABC’s The Drum on 27 June 2014.