Saturday, December 6, 2008



Several weeks ago, I wrote about patience: I observed that there is a conflict between “theoretical patience” and “practical patience.” We have all heard at some point in our lives that it is “good to be patient,” but all too often we give up on patience in order to succeed in a world that does not tolerate delay. After all, if we insist on patience, we may miss an opportunity. In this society, pushiness wins; patient people may be decent, but they starve. This society wants go-getters, not saints. Saints do not create jobs or invent useful devices. If something goes wrong, “strong people” complain. “Weak people” sit patiently by and trust that things will resume their course.

Today I venture that we can trace other negative trends to ingrained cultural impatience. At the outset, I do not fault most people for their impatience. I do not condone it, but I understand why it is prevalent. In American society, resources are scarce. There are not enough jobs and money to go around. This triggers vigorous competition. In order to win the race, people need to move quickly. Even short delays can jeopardize the outcome. Constant competition also sharpens emotional tension. People react more harshly to stimuli when they feel they may “lose the game” if they make a mistake. I very consciously use the word “game” here, because I think that the “program for success in America” resembles one. There are winners and losers, rules, rewards, tricks, traps, shrewd maneuvers, victories, defeats and all the emotional tremors that flow from a frantic confrontation. In the heat of a race, there is simply no time to be patient: You must focus all your energy on the finish line, no matter what distractions appear. And if you don’t win, you are to blame.

What is so significant about all this? For one, “the program for success in America” is a single-player game that necessarily involves other people. A person cannot make money without receiving payment from another. To that end, other people become “instruments” on the path to success. Rather than acknowledging people as individuals with hearts, dreams and emotions, the “success-seeker” looks upon them merely as objects to be leveraged to his advantage or—if they offer no advantage—impediments to be ignored. In fact, spending time with another person is a “waste of race time” if nothing comes of it. And because resources are limited, even a slight delay could cost victory. To the success-seeker’s mind, losing is a fate worse than death.

Against this background, it is easy to see why patience has no place in the “program for success in America.” If slight delays can cost the race, and if patience demands tolerance for delays, then the two concepts mutually exclude each other. Patience can transform a success-seeker into a loser. Nothing hurts a competitive person more than a loss, and to avoid losing, a competitive person will eliminate anything that may cause a loss. In that light, they gladly toss patience out the window. After all, why should they act in a manner that could jeopardize the goals to which they have dedicated their lives? That would be illogical and masochistic. While others may praise them for patience, those “other people” will not win the race for them. Their judgments, then, count for nothing.

To be clear, I use the epithet “success-seeker” in a very broad sense. I refer not only to those well-off, fanatically ambitious young people who want to be company executives, politicians, law partners and superstars. Rather, I use it also to refer to anyone who lives life according to a rigorously goal-oriented program intended to achieve personal financial advantage. Common to both groups is the desire to master time. In order to reach goals and win, success-seekers must accomplish set objectives within set timeframes. Time pressure, in turn, causes emotional pressure. And when a success-seeker feels the heat, he lets people around him know it. He will whine, complain, blame, excoriate, stamp his feet and point his finger. After all, if he does not achieve his objective in time, he risks losing the race altogether. In short, success-seekers alternate between delight and despair. Some days they will reach their objectives; on other days, they will not. The results will dictate their emotional state. When so much hangs in the balance each day, there is simply no time to be patient.

But a success-seeker does not limit his impatience to his career. In order to win in career matters, a success-seeker must adopt a particular mental approach to all life problems, whether professional or not. The success-seeker lives in a world of deadlines, achievements and failures. Delay is fatal. Time is everything. This outlook dominates his mind; he does not "turn it off" when he leaves the office. In the few hours each day when he attends to his personal affairs, he focuses again on time. He has only a few hours to find food, eat, try to relax and sleep. He must prepare his body for another leg of the race in the morning. Again, he has a goal to accomplish under time pressure. Again, he cannot afford to be patient. If some unexpected contingency interrupts his calculated evening, his emotions flare, just as they flare when some unexpected contingency jeopardizes his success at work. To illustrate, simply go to any supermarket between the hours of 5 PM and 7 PM. There you are sure to witness some nasty confrontations between frantic success-seekers returning from work and those who cause delays waiting to check out. If some poor soul takes a little longer than normal to move his groceries down the conveyor belt, the success-seeker will not hesitate to castigate him for his inefficiency. After all, even a 5-minute delay cuts deeply into the success-seeker’s limited personal time.

Impatience is essential to the “program for success in American life.” To that extent, it is extremely self-centered. A success-seeker has limited time to achieve his own goals; woe to anyone who impedes that pursuit. Success-seekers just do not have time to consider what other people might think. They rush from one goal to the next, snarling at anyone who slows their progress. That is also the reason why no one listens in American society. To truly listen to someone, you must stop what you are doing, focus on another person’s words and genuinely attempt to grasp what they say. That requires patience. It also requires some degree of compassion for the other person. As we have seen, however, the success-seeker looks upon other people as potential impediments to victory, not as individuals to be respected. For that reason, it should hardly surprise us that no one listens. You can try to explain your problems to a bill collector. You can say you have no money and your house burned down. You can say your mother died and you have no way to pay the bill. You can even say you have zero dollars in your bank account. To that, the bill collector will say: “How would you like to make payment? By cash, check or Master Charge?”

Impatience has everything to do with many Americans’ inability to listen. True, some people are paid to listen, such as doctors, psychiatrists, therapists and even lawyers. But even then, listening becomes a professional exercise rather than an exercise in humanity. “Professional listeners” listen for key phrases and magic words that involve their professional expertise; they are not listening because they really want to. They are listening because it is their job to listen. Yet if you truly care about a person, you will stop and truly attempt to understand their problems whether or not you are paid for it. You want to know what they are enduring because you care. But how often does this really happen? Family members and close friends listen; everyone else does not. How often have acquaintances told you their names? How often have they mentioned that their cousin’s brother-in-law is sick and needs help? How often have they mentioned that their mother lives in Akron and that they are planning on flying to Tuscon for Christmas? You don’t remember, do you? Why? Because you weren’t listening; you didn’t really care. You had more important things to worry about at the time.

What does this all show? It shows that humanity has little place in the “program for success in American life.” After all, to achieve self-centered goals, it is difficult to be patient. Without patience, it is difficult to truly listen to other people. Without listening to other people, it is impossible to truly understand their problems. Success-seekers rush through life, blaming others for impeding their victory. They do not listen. When they win, they relish the selfish joy that comes from individual success. When they lose, they curse the world and look for pity. But no one will listen to them, either: Who has time for that?

If people just slowed down a little bit and stopped thinking about winning the race, we might inhabit a better world. But that is reverie.

No comments: