How Americans Became Helpless – By Michael Michalko

Jul 25, 2012

America has a Culture of Learned Helplessness

WHO WAS THIS MAN? He grew up in poverty in what modern psychologists call a dysfunctional family. He was tall, gangly and foolish looking. His clothes were always too tight and small. Following are some of his life experiences:


ANSWER: The man was Abraham Lincoln and at age 52 he became President of the United States. Lincoln did not choose his experiences of failure and defeat, but he did choose how to respond. He realized that he was not reacting to an event but to how he interpreted the event. His life is testimony to the uniquely human potential to turn defeats into triumphs and to turn ones predicament into a human achievement. For those events that were not up to him it was his own attitude that determined their influence on him. When he was no longer able to change a situation, he changed himself. Lincoln’s attitude was characterized as the “American Spirit.”

Lincoln was not born with a positive “can do” attitude. On the contrary, his life is testimony that a positive attitude toward ones experiences takes considerable effort. The path of least resistance is always not to try and give up. Lincoln learned to expect difficulties, and, so was not traumatized and defeated when faced with problems but viewed them as part of the natural course of events. Lincoln learned the harder one works to sustain a positive interpretation, the more one appreciates life.

Sidney Weinberg is another example of the American spirit. He was born in 1891, one of eleven children of Pincus Weinberg, a struggling Polish-born liquor wholesaler and bootlegger in Brooklyn. Sidney was short, a “Kewpie doll,” as the New Yorker writer E. J. Kahn, Jr., described him, “in constant danger of being swallowed whole by executive-size chairs.” He pronounced his name “Wine-boig.” He left school at fifteen. He had scars on his back from knife fights in his preteen days, when he sold evening newspapers at the Hamilton Avenue terminus of the Manhattan-Brooklyn ferry.

At sixteen, he made a visit to Wall Street, keeping an eye out for a “nice-looking, tall building,” as he later recalled. He picked 43 Exchange Place, where he started at the top floor and worked his way down, asking at every office, “Want a boy?” By the end of the day, he had reached the third-floor offices of a small brokerage house. There were no openings. He returned to the brokerage house the next morning. He lied that he was told to come back, and bluffed himself into a job assisting the janitor, for three dollars a week. The small brokerage house was Goldman Sachs.
From that point, Charles Ellis tells us in his book, “The Partnership: The Making of Goldman Sachs,” Weinberg’s rise was inexorable. Early on, he was asked to carry a flagpole on the trolley uptown to the Sachs family’s town house. The door was opened by Paul Sachs, the grandson of the firm’s founder, and Sachs took a shine to him. Weinberg was soon promoted to the mailroom, which he promptly reorganized. Sachs sent him to Browne’s Business College, in Brooklyn, to learn penmanship. By 1925, the firm had bought him a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. By 1927, he had made partner. By 1930, he was a senior partner, and for the next thirty-nine years-until his death, in 1969-Weinberg was Goldman Sachs, turning it from a floundering, mid-tier partnership into the premier investment bank in the world.

The rags-to-riches story-that staple of American biography-has over the years been given two very different interpretations. The nineteenth-century version stressed the value of compensating for disadvantage. If you wanted to end up on top, the thinking went, it was better to start at the bottom, because it was there that you learned the discipline and motivation essential for success. “New York merchants preferred to hire boys who lived in poverty, on the theory that they worked harder, and were more resolute, obedient, honest, grateful, loyal, and cheerful than middle class boys,” Irvin G. Wyllie wrote in his 1954 study “The Self-Made Man in America.” Andrew Carnegie, whose personal history was the defining self-made-man narrative of the nineteenth century, insisted that there was an advantage to being “cradled, nursed and reared in the stimulating school of poverty.” Carnegie believed that poverty forces you to confront adversity and you soon learn how to embrace and overcome it. It is by overcoming adversity that your character becomes strong and your life becomes meaningful.

The character of Lincoln and Weinberg were not exceptions. Once upon a time in America character, integrity, hard work, and independence were the norm. Americans took pride in overcoming adversity and learning from it. They were strong individuals and supremely confident. Americans believed that all one was entitled to was a natural birth. Everything else was up to the person. This was “The American Dream.” Thomas Jefferson summarized it this way: “Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; however, nothing on earth can help the man with wrong mental attitude.”

Today, the American Dream has been shattered. After World War II, intellectuals proselytized “inevitability theories” about how everyone’s life was shaped by genetic or environmental factors that were beyond their control. There began a promiscuity of the teaching of helplessness and the “can do” American spirit was replaced by the “we are all helpless victims” spirit. If your destiny is already predetermined by internal and external factors that you cannot change, why work hard and try to persevere and succeed? Our helplessness is learned.

A classic example of learned helplessness is from the motion picture “Freedom Writers,” which is a movie about a young teacher who tries to inspire students who have learned to be helpless. The students allowed their ethnicity, their economic status, and their social environment to determine the fate of their success. Often, members of the same social environment think in similar patterns, drawing the same inferences and or conclusion.

Many politicians, community organizers, community leaders and spokespeople for minorities preach the concept of helplessness and continually reinforce it in their campaigns, speeches, and social actions. Your adversity was caused by other groups, government, other political parties, banks, corporations, other religions, the other sex, the wealthy, or something in history that happened hundreds of years ago. The message is one of entitlement. If you are not able to provide, it is not your fault. You are entitled to financial, housing, food, education, and employment assistance from society. Society is responsible for your well being, not you.

The emphasis is not on the individual learning how to overcome adversity; the emphasis is on how to use adversity to gain socioeconomic entitlements from government. The more adversity one can claim they face, the more benefits that person will receive. For example, the more children a single unemployed mother has the more financial rewards she receives. The larger a welfare family becomes, the more benefits the family receives. Government has made it more attractive to for people to default for government assistance when faced with adversity rather than overcoming it as our ancestors did.

We now elect politicians based on the entitlements and bounties they generously offer with tax dollars. The helpless have become dependent upon the politicians for entitlements, and the politicians have become dependent upon the helpless for votes. Illegal immigrants are now gaining socioeconomic benefits and civil rights for their potential votes. In fact, many politicians were the teachers and promoters of helplessness as community organizers, counselors, and lawyers before they were elected. Other politicians come from the public sector where they promoted the same agenda.

When you listen to the campaign promises of politicians, you will hear them tell you about the benefits and rewards voters will receive from them if they are elected. In addition, they will tell you about the entitlements their challengers will take away from citizens if they are not. Political campaigns are now all about who can give the helpless the most. We no longer ask “What can we do for our government?”as JFK suggested when the American dream was strong and we reached for the stars. Now we stand in the mud and ask “What can our government do for us.”
Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius; ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.

Tags: activism, education, learning, philosophy, psychology, society, work
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The Artist as Social Entrepeneur – By Ben Irvine

By Ben Irvine | Jun 25, 2012
The Creativity Post

Social progress, like great art, dwells in a sweetspot between political extremes.

“Equality” – I spoke their word as if a wedding vow.
But I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.

Bob Dylan, from ‘My Back Pages’

When a disgusted audience member yelled out ‘Judas!’ during a concert at the Manchester Free Hall in 1966, the onstage performer, Bob Dylan, was out of favour with just about everybody. It wasn’t always so. Though he had spent his early twenties as an acoustic guitar-strumming singer-songwriter goading the establishment with warnings that “the times they are a changin’” and “your sons and your daughters are beyond your command”, such outspoken lyrics had earned him a legion of ideological young fans and the tag of ‘spokesman of a generation’.

But by the mid-sixties Dylan himself had changed. Denying he was a ‘protest singer’, he had recently acquired an electric guitar and a rock-and-roll backing group, and begun composing new material which was more personal, less overtly political. In the eyes of the folk traditionalists, Dylan had sold-out. On tour, he was repeatedly met by boos, slow-handclaps and mass walkouts, while previously sympathetic journalists criticised his ‘downright bad manners’ and ‘rude and uncooperative behaviour’. They had a point. After being accused of betrayal in Manchester, Dylan snarled back “I don’t believe you, you’re a liar” and instructed his band to “play fuckin’ louder”, before launching into a blistering version of his greatest song ‘Like A Rolling Stone’.

Dylan was a social pioneer as well as a musical genius. In rebelling not just against the powers-that-be but against the popular forces of rebellion, he steered a progressive path between right and left ideologies; one which is increasingly being walked today. On the right is a callous individualism which would allow economic forces to run riot through a graveyard of social values. On the left is a buck-passing statism which would allow a centralised government to mop up the resources it is supposed to reallocate.

As Dylan stood at the microphone, with his marketing men lurking in the wings, and a flock of frowning socialists arrayed in the stalls, perhaps he saw clearly how the mentalities of individualism and statism conspire, like two pendulums cajoling each other into motion. The individualist with his one-upmanship becomes trapped in the conformity of consumerism, condemned to be free to keep up with the Jones’s; the statist preaches the power of the collective yet selfishly delegates to someone else the exercise of its will. Like mania accompanying depression, the extremes of egotism and groupthink come to jointly characterise society.

In other words, Tony Blair’s ‘third way’ got it disastrously wrong. To create a fair society and a thriving economy we must minimise, not maximise, both statism and individualism. This amounts to a political position which is doubly contrary, yet far from nihilistic. Its adherents are social entrepreneurs: movers and shakers who seek to make ethics more economical and the economy more ethical, melding left and right in a way that obviates both. In improving the welfare of their client groups and running projects with integrity and conscientiousness, social enterprises can achieve the aims of a redistributive and regulatory state while minimising the need for one.

David Cameron calls it the ‘Big Society’; Neil Kinnock called it ‘neighbourhood’, ‘community’, ‘brotherhood’, or just plain old ‘society’. Whatever you call it, it is a far cry from the rich man protecting himself from antisocial behaviour by installing bigger bars on his windows, or the socialist achieving similar peace of mind by paying higher taxes and taking refuge in the amnesic properties of a bottle of wine. When a Conservative leader starts sounding like a Labour leader, you know that something significant is happening. A vital truth is rising like the sun over warring camps. The neurotic extremes of individualism and statism are giving way to the down-to-earth placidity of honest enterprises striving to make life better for their surrounding communities, up and down the land.

Of course, people will always want to better themselves, the state will always be required to supply public goods, and these two forces will always be complementary. But to the extent that social entrepreneurs succeed in doing good for themselves by doing good for others, the ideologies of individualism and statism, and their damaging consequences, will fade away. We will cease to use the economy and the state as vehicles for our neuroses.

Dylan is a fine poster-boy for entrepreneurialism, not just because in his early career he dragged himself up by his bootstraps in the biting cold of New York, but because art itself has much in common with social enterprise, and Dylan is one of history’s greatest artists. Paintings, songs, poems, sculptures, plays; the finest examples of all these originate in a mindset which is imbued with the dynamics of social enterprise. Such works hit a sweet spot. In their willingness to lay down a challenge, morally or aesthetically, they steer clear of the pandering groupishness of statism. And in their eagerness to please, console, educate or inspire, they avoid the self-indulgence of individualism; indeed, one of the most beautiful qualities of great art is that it embodies the artist’s selfless and painstaking efforts to understand and present truths in new ways that can help others come to terms with the world and their experience. Leonard Cohen once remarked that his songs are for other people to use.

In contrast, the worst examples of art thrive when right and left ideologies predominate. Creativity veers into frivolity; sympathy veers into derivativeness; conviction is found wanting. Nowhere are these wayward trajectories more obvious than in TV singing competitions, wherein conformity and egotism merge and the result is noisy hysteria. The comedian Bill Hicks’s appeal to musicians – “play from your fuckin’ heart” – has fallen on deaf ears.

It has long been sensed by artists and critics that art is somehow inherently political, yet the idea that art should be ideological has never felt quite right to me. The best art is neither socialist nor indifferent to the needs of others. Rather, it is socially entrepreneurial. It glorifies the artist yet enhances all of our lives and acts as a true force for change. This is the kind of art that society needs more of, yet it’s these kinds of artists whose messages are all too often drowned out. When Dylan rallied his band in Manchester, he knew precisely what he was doing.

About the author:
Ben Irvine is a writer, publisher, campaigner and recovered philosopher. He is editor of the Journal of Modern Wisdom (, a collection of essays which seeks to put wiser ways of living back on the agenda for both academics and members of the public. He also edits Cycle Lifestyle (, a free magazine which is currently running the London Cycle Map Campaign, lobbying for a Tube-style map and network for cycling in the UK capital. Ben’s wider interest is in using insights about human nature to promote well-being, mutual understanding and co-operation in society. As well as writing a regular blog for The School of Life, he is an Honorary Associate in the philosophy department at Durham University.

Is There a Creativity Crisis? – By Steven Pfeiffer

The Creativity Post

Is There a Creativity Crisis?
By Steven Pfeiffer | Jun 09, 2012

While we may not yet be in a full-blown “creativity crisis,” we may be heading in that very direction!

I just returned from South East Asia, where I was on sabbatical from my faculty position at Florida State University. A recurring question that educators and parents asked me during workshops that I led in Singapore and Hong Kong and during visits to schools throughout SE Asia was whether we are facing a creativity crisis. One might think that this is the case, according to two respected pop culture authors writing on recent trends in creativity. According to authors Bronson and Merryman, American creativity scores, once ever-rising, are now in a state of steady decline. They cite in their Newsweek article a 2011 study authored by Professor Kim at The College of William & Mary. Dr. Kim analyzed almost 300,000 scores on a popular creativity test – The Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. According to Kim, creativity scores have been steadily increasing until 1990, but then have sharply declined. Kim’s research suggests that the decline is particularly serious for younger children.

Kim’s findings are intriguing and provocative. However, it is premature for educators, parents or policy makers to panic. We need to wait to read the findings of other well-designed studies in peer-review journals before concluding that creativity is under threat. And studies need to go beyond a single measure like the Torrance Test, which is a far cry from actual measures of real-world creative products by kids.

Although the time to panic is not yet upon us, it does seem prudent to examine whether we are doing all that we can to encourage creativity in our schools…and in our homes! Here in America and globally. Just about everyone agrees that creativity is important and valued in today’s society. Creativity is valued in almost every field. Creativity is valued in medicine, the sciences, engineering, teaching, the arts, business, government, and law. CEOs of Fortune 500 companies identify creativity, ingenuity, and imagination as critical leadership skills.

Yet, in today’s schools – both in the U.S. and from what I observed on sabbatical in SE Asia – we seem to place a premium on and emphasize standardized curriculum, rote learning of facts, memorization, and high-stakes testing. Although this might sound like a gross oversimplification and unfair stereotype, America’s schools continue to focus considerable time and resources on the learning and recall of information. America’s schools ask our students to define, describe, identify, know, match, name, recall and recognize information, when viewed from Bloom’s well-known taxonomy of learning objectives. Schools demand less of students in terms of higher-level cognitive skills, including understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating and creating. From this perspective, one might infer that if we are not presently facing, we might be drifting toward a creativity crisis!