I have lost track of the financial crisis; it just keeps going. “We” have rescused the bank and automakers. But, at least, it seems we have it the bottom of the market. I have been thinking about what went wrong, though. It’s a very complex situation and not being an economist, I’m not sure I understand all the fine points. But I do know one thing, greed and ambition had a lot to do with it.Erik Erikson was a student of Freud and, after studying with Freud for a while, he came up with his own developmental theory. One of his eight steps in development is generativity, which Erikson defined as living a useful life, giving back and helping future generations. It grows out of immense gratitude and makes the world a better place. It requires ambition and the drive to succeed, but is tempered with humanity and humility. Think Bill Gates. He could just as easily keep all the money he makes, but what would he do with it? You can only buy so many things and as we talked about last week, money doesn’t buy happiness. Did you know that Bill Gates gives more money to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa than any other country or organization? That is generativity.
Now think of what would be the opposite of generativity. Perhaps power, envy, lust and even revenge would be good words to use. Have you ever met people for whom success is worth it no matter the price? Who are so ambitious they don’t care who they hurt to get where they want to go? They may have the ambition to succeed, but at what terrible cost? Think Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin.
Don’t misunderstand me, ambition can be a good thing. It’s what gets us through college and into a good job. It’s what creates great musicians and singers. And it’s ambition that drives us to succeed, whether it’s getting the job you want or standing on top of Mount Everest. People with ambition are responsible, eager, often creative and hardworking. They are people like you and me. Ambition works and it’s generally a good thing.
But I would say that ambition has run amok of late. I read in the news that while Lehman Brothers was begging for a bailout, they were paying fired execs millions of dollars in severance. The ambition that these men and women had when they started turned into greed and lust until they saw nothing wrong with accepting millions of dollars even though the financial institutions they lead were failing. They became blinded by their own ambition and success. They lost all perspective on what was important. And unfortunately, many people are getting hurt. Am I angry or disdainful of these people? No, I feel sorry for them. Do I believe they should be held accountable. Absolutely! Can you imagine what would happen if one executive gave back the severance package and dared others to do the same? That would be an example of generativity.
Generativity is making your life worthwhile and leaving something for others. It’s doing what’s important to you and helpful to society. So write the next great novel, open the best restaurant in town, raise your kids the best way you know how. Because not only will you be better for it, but so will the world.