Individualistic Conformity

Modern morality consists in accepting the standard of one’s age.  I consider that for any man of culture to accept the standard of his age is a form of the grossest immortality.

– Oscar Wilde[1]

Conformity
Photo credit to Studiousguy.com

It’s 1:26pm on a rainy Friday afternoon.  It has been a long, busy, productive, and tiring week.  I consider that I might stop for the day, binging on a book of historical fiction that has caught my fancy, taking a run through the misty streets with one of the dogs, or, perhaps the wisest of all courses – stopping cold, and allowing my busy mind to slow.  

But after five minutes of staring in a sort of mindless stupor at the world around me, that pang of guilt sprung up in my stomach and I jumped back into work.  You know the feeling?  The one that says to work hard is morally superior to taking it easy.  The one that says hard work is worthwhile, above and beyond any actual gains from that work.  While I, for one, subscribe to a 40+ hour work week, inwardly I kick myself for rarely retaining my weekend work schedule that got me through – or detracted from – my 20’s.  

And why 40 or more hours per week, but not 30 – as is the norm in many European countries?  Simple. The guilt accompanying a 30 hour work week would surpass the benefits gained. Indeed, on the rare occasions that my schedule is not full enough for a 40 hour week, I find no more than a few days pass before I start inventing new projects that will fill up my time – most of which are promptly forgotten about as soon as time again grows lean, revealing those projects for the unproductive distractions that they were.

Have you ever stopped to wonder why it is that so many of us feel the need to work so hard, so often?  Why, if you are anything like me, you feel a twinge of guilt if you take an hour or a day away from work?  These emotions are often attributed to a “Protestant Work Ethic” or to “Protestant Guilt”, but in fact these emotions reach beyond any one religion, ethnicity, or even society.  In fact, this need for achievement is but one manifestation of highly individualistic and highly competitive cultures like the United States.[2]  My gnawing unease on this Friday afternoon illustrates the extent to which we tend to internalize our societal values, and of our deep-seeded desire to conform to the norms of our cultures – in my case, a gravitational pull even when halfway around the world.

Conformity, when we act differently from how we might act if alone, is a well-documented and powerful phenomenon.[3]  Consider the famous Milgram experiment of 1974, better known to some as the “Shock Experiment”.  In this study, participants complied with the directions of an apparent authority figure dressed in a lab coat, and willingly unleashed one electric shock after another on their fellow research subjects.  Unbeknownst to the test subjects, the shocks were fake and the targets actors feigning pain, but the vast majority of subjects proved ready to obey the exhortations of this man because society had taught them that men in lab coats are important figures not to be questioned.  Milgram, the lead author, used this study to help explain the conformity that fueled the diabolical barbarism of so many seemingly ordinary Nazi Concentration camp guards.[4]

Nearly two decades before Milgram, a social scientist by the name of Solomon Asch revealed the role of social pressure in conformity.  In this classic study, participants were asked to compare the lengths of different lines on a screen.  Unbeknownst to the study participants, several other individuals participating were in fact actors, and on cue they offered responses that were, beyond a shadow of a doubt, incorrect. And yet, around three-quarters of the participants bowed to social norms and agreed with their peers rather than express disagreement. By contrast, less than 1% answered incorrectly in the absence of pressure to conform.[5]

A considerably less well-known study took place in the Central African highlands of Rwanda.  Rwanda is a place associated in the minds of many Americans with genocide.  Memorialized by Hollywood in the film Hotel Rwanda, the year 1994 was the bloody culmination of decades – if not centuries – of disharmony, distrust and low-grade genocide between the country’s ethnic Hutu majority and its powerful Tutsi minority.  In that year, the Hutu majority, fearing the pending incursion by Tutsi forces from nearby Uganda, engaged in a systematic campaign of genocide against the Tutsi people.  In a matter of months, nearly a million Tutsi and moderate Hutus were dead – representing the majority of the Tutsis then residing in the country.  After Tutsi military forces gained control over the country, retributive campaigns on Hutu refugee camps in Congo and elsewhere resulted in several hundred thousand additional murders.[6]

This occurred within many of our lifetimes.  Perhaps you even recall reading about these events in the international section of your newspaper or seeing the occasional press conference by Western leaders – who mostly stood by and watched the horror unfold.  Today, however, Rwanda is in many ways a country reborn.  It is not perfect, and its government is occasionally criticized for behavior that falls short of liberal democratic standards.  From absolute levels of violence, however, Rwanda is ranked as one of Africa’s safest countries.[7]  Physically decimated in 1994, the country is renowned for its strong and growing infrastructure, for its nearly universal education and healthcare programs.  It’s economy grows year after year, and it serves as something of an oasis in the region – a place where aid workers position their headquarters so that they may access the troubled countries all around, while enjoying the pleasant cafes, restaurants, and year round spring weather that leaves trees and plants in a perpetual, colorful bloom.

Moreover, the animosity between Hutus and Tutsis has declined from view.  It is in fact now illegal to claim membership in either ethnic group. It is also taboo to do so, indicative of a cultural as well as legal shift. Today, rather, all are Rwandan.

A 2020 episode on National Public Radio’s Hidden Brain shed some light on the psychological mechanisms underpinning this transformation.  Shankar Vedantam tells the story of a nationally popular radio soap opera, Musekeweya.  The writers and producers worked with Holocaust surviving psychologist Ervin Staub to develop the show and to incorporate three core themes into the show: 1) that genocide accumulates slowly as individuals are devaluated, 2) that innocent bystanders have an obligation to stand up to wrongdoing, and, 3) that intermarriage between ethnic groups helps reduce intergroup tension.[8]

The NPR episode tracks down Princeton psychologist Dr. Betsy Paluck, then a Yale graduate student that studied the effectiveness of the Musekewaya’s message in shaping minds.  She found that most people did not buy into the messages of the show.  Though historians trace the multinational tit for tats preceding the genocidal eruption, the lived experience of many survivors was that the genocide erupted “like a sudden rain”.  Locals also reported that contrary to Musekewaya’s message, bystanders were in reality helpless in the face of the genocidal flood. Finally, many claimed to know first-hand of Hutu husbands that had turned against their Tutsi wives or other family members, and they dismissed the claims that intermarriage reduced ethnic tensions.[9]

In a twist on the expected causal direction, however, Paluck found that behaviors, if not attitudes, had changed.  She reported on peacemakers in villages standing up to those calling for violence, and of increased acceptance of intermarriage.  She noted that in many cases, people still believed that intermarriage was wrong, but as it became the norm, they conformed and publicly claimed to agree to that norm – just as had Asch’s participants all those decades ago.[10]

In fact, the consequences of Musekeweya were likely somewhat more complex than that reported by NPR.  In all likelihood the radio program had changed the attitudes of at least some listeners.  For others, it offered the imprimatur of legitimacy for attitudes that they had already held.  These people were in the minority – minds, after all, are hard to change – but these first-movers managed to alter what the more stubborn majority viewed as acceptable norms of behavior.  Once norms changed, the conformist majority adapted.  As the law of cognitive dissonance holds, the mind abhors a vacuum, and so soon adjusted to fit the behaviors of its bodily host.

Asch had illustrated this process nearly half a century earlier.  In a variant on his study, he inserted a “confederate”, an actor like the others but one that accurately reported the results.  Even though the number of actors answering incorrectly far outnumbered the single confederate answering correctly, the percentage of study participants (incorrectly) conforming to the majority view dropped by about 80%.[11]

Together, the Asch experiment and the Rwandan Radio program suggest the power of conformity.  It does not take all of society believing something is right, it only takes a minority, and, often, the rest will follow. In Rwanda, both the virtues and the vices of this instinct have been seen within the same one or two generations. In the United States, we suggest, the vices are already well on display, but the virtuous potential is largely untapped, awaiting those of us willing to act as first movers in establishing an alternative norm. 

It is true that the collectivism of the Rwandan people may have increased rates of conformity, a point raised in the NPR episode.[12]  But the Asch experiment and the Milgram experiment were conducted on American participants, and there too conformity occurred.  Indeed, all human societies are “groupish” in the words of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, and as a result seek acceptance within their communities.[13]

While we often try to boost our status above others, we also compare ourselves with others to assess whether we are fitting in.  If we see women carry purses, wear earrings and dresses, and men typically not, then we tend to accept that as “normal”, although objectively speaking it is an arbitrary cultural norm – in some societies, for instance, ear stretching is common for both men and women, while in others nose piercings are the style par excellence.  

Arbitrary affectations though they may be, societies have very real ways of sanctioning those that act outside of the accepted norms.  When a man carries a bag, for instance, it may mockingly be referred to as a “man-purse”, and so not so subtly discouraged. Social sanctions of this sort encourage conformity.  

Criminal laws may signal behaviors that are seen as so far beyond the pail that they are punished with imprisonment or fines.  Other non-conformist behaviors may be prohibited, as was the case with same-sex marriage throughout most of American history.  Communities instill compliance to norms, as well, through social ostracism or stigmatization, or as was the case in ancient Greece, through exile.[14] In addition, nearly all religious communities throughout the world impose the threat of supernatural punishments during life or after death for acts of non-conformity.[15] Christians, for instance, stress the day of judgment that one will face on death,[16] while Hindu karma suggests that one’s behavior in this life – including conformity to a rigid caste system – impacts the desirability of one’s reincarnated corpus.[17]

Social scientists have documented our desire for conformity through something known as the “door in the face technique”.  This theory – tested and replicated in multiple studies – finds that compliance to a request is increased “by preceding the request for a truly desired action with a more extreme request that is likely to get rejected”.[18]  After rejecting the first, unrealistic request, in other words, conformity studies show that we are more likely to accept the next request in order to maintain harmony.

In a similar study, researchers conducted a field experiment in hopes of encouraging hotel guests to re-use their towels as part of an environmentally friendly agenda.  The researchers left one set of hotel guests a note that read in part: “the majority of hotel guests reuse their towels”, but the note did not mention environmental or any other benefits of reuse.  Another set of guests were informed of the environmental benefits to reusing their towels, but the note did not mention the behavior of other guests.  Consistent with this theme of semi-mindless conformity, guests were more likely to reuse their towel when told that others had done the same than when told that doing so would benefit the environment.[19]  

This pressure to conform dates to the earliest days of humanity. Conformity overtime gave human societies – particularly complex societies – an advantage over more free-wheeling societies.  Consequently, we are biologically programmed to care, sometimes quite deeply, how others see us.  Indeed, generation after generation of evolutionary pressure brought biological consequences that reward conformity and punish non-compliance.  For instance, conformity makes us more likeable and trustworthy and thus helps us to fit in. Gaining acceptance within a group, in turn, brings increased self-esteem and self-worth.[20] Research also suggests that being respected by others improves our emotions by around 9%.  Conversely, when we feel disrespected, the quality of our emotions decline by about 3%.[21]  

This gets us back to my Friday afternoon need for achievement. The standards to which we conform in the United States include extreme individualism, and extreme competitiveness.  One byproduct of a highly competitive society is to hold the act of achievement in particularly high regard as a signal of “victory” over others.  I, perhaps like you, am conditioned to work at least within the long ago established norms of the work week.  When I do not, I experience guilt, my mind flashing across friends and family that I assume are themselves hard at work. And, perhaps, my subconscious mind suggests, getting ahead of me? Perhaps this is why the Protestant work ethic has another name: it is Protestant guilt. 

Similarly, Americans (among others) value work as an end in and of itself.  Consider the many that brag about the long hours they work – though thankfully something of a countermovement seems to be rising against this norm.  Social scientists have shown that employed Americans have higher self-esteem than unemployed workers, not just because of their financial well-being but because of their higher status within society. For instance, the well-being of low income but employed workers is higher than their economic positions alone would predict.  Conversely, unemployed people are substantially less happy than their economic positions alone would predict.[22]  The implication is that we work, at least in part, because we are expected to. This all begs the question whether more Americans would take time off work, perhaps even an occasional sabbatical to travel or master a new hobby, if not for the expectation that we work virtually without cease from 20 to 65.  For instance, designer Steven Sagmeister gave a Ted Talk about his decision to devote one year out of every seven to world travel. Naturally for an achievement-oriented society, his Talk and accompanying media coverage focus little on lifestyle benefits, but “more importantly”[23] on how this has made him a “more creative and successful artist.”[24] It is indeed only at the age of retirement that relaxing into the sunset is socially acceptable, with older people seeing minimal declines in well-being upon retirement, probably because most societies accept retirement as the natural reward of a life of hard work.[25]   

To go against the group may subject the individual to criticism and anxiety.  When we conform to the norms of our societies, by contrast, we gain acceptance.[26]  So valuable is conformity that our minds deceive us, convincing us to defer to the wisdom of the masses and assume that if everyone is doing this or believing that, then it must be right.[27]  In the Asch experiments, for instance, we might assume that study subjects conformed to the group even while knowing that the majority assessment was wrong. After all, the correct answer was obvious 99% of the time to subjects that were not burdened with norms of conformity.  However, the conforming respondents did not just pretend to agree with their objectively wrong peers.  Many decided that they could not trust the evidence of their own eyes and convinced themselves that their peers were in fact right.[28]  

We conform because we believe others are right, not simply because we recognize the social value of conformity or fear sanctions for non-compliance. In return, we are rewarded both socially and biologically, and those positive emotions may reinforce our belief in the moral correctness of the norm.  Consequently, whatever society it is that you were born into, it is likely that you have absorbed – often without critical question – many of those lessons.  This is one explanation for ethnocentrism, or the belief that one’s own society is superior to other.  The scholar James Hollis writes, “All generations are seduced into [ethnocentrism], tending to defend their vision of the world as superior to that of others. So, too, we succumb to the belief that the way we have grown to see the world is the only way to see it, the right way to see it, and we seldom suspect the conditioned nature of our perception.”[29] 

Conformity to group norms may seem antithetical to an individualistic culture.  But consider how strongly Americans as a whole subscribe to beliefs about freedom from government and others, or in their beliefs about the importance of personal responsibility and self-reliance.  In fact, and yes somewhat paradoxically, Americans conform to individualism. To do otherwise is to risk association with the foreign “other”: socialist, un-patriotic, un-American.  In the United States, therefore, it is competitive individualism which is the dominant norm, animating vast swathes of American life.[30]  

Societal norms are often tried and true methods that have given society a greater chance of survival over time.  They are in this way a form of evolution, a survival of the fittest adaptation. From this perspective, there is good reason to demand compliance, and good reason for our biology – which after all wants us to survive and reproduce – to reward us for doing so.

And yet, there is a dark side to conformity.  Societal norms to which we conform may be abused by those in power[31] – such as occurred in 1990’s Rwanda. Leaders there took to those same radio ways on which Musekeweya would later advocate peace, and used it to demand that the general population participate in the extermination of the “cockroaches”, meaning the minority ethnic Tutsi men, women, and children.[32]  A “Ten Commandments” was also published, demanding that the Hutu majority “stop having mercy on the Tutsi”.[33]

The original purpose of norms may also, over time, grow irrelevant or outdated, even as conformity leads to a continuation of the status quo.[34] Consider for instance the ongoing commitment to distinct gender roles – men at work and women in the house. While a logical division of labor in the days when hunting or farming were the norm, the physical advantages of men are decidedly less useful when coding software or designing a high-rise apartment. And yet, no society on Earth yet exemplifies gender egalitarianism, with movement towards gender equality instead, at best, incremental.[35]  Thus, cultural conformity is seen throughout the world, and on the whole this is probably quite useful, but at the margins it can lead to inequities and downright disasters.  

Ask yourself this: Are the norms of America’s competitive, individualistic society leading us in the right direction? Is it possible that some of the norms have outlived their utility? 

I spoke with Neurosurgeon and Stanford professor Dr. James Doty about all of this.  

And if you would like to learn what he had to say, then stay tuned for the published version of this material  🙂 🙂


[1] The Picture of Dorian Gray

[2] Scott, Ciarrochi, & Deane (2004).

[3] Kiesler & Kiesler, 1969; Myers, 1996

[4] Milgram 1974

[5] Asch 1956

[6] Van Reybrouck, D. (2014). Congo: The Epic History of a People, trans. Sam Garrett. New York: Ecco [an imprint of HarperCollins], 131-39.

[7] https://reports.weforum.org/travel-and-tourism-competitiveness-report-2017/sub-saharan-africa-results/

[8] https://www.npr.org/transcripts/602872309

[9] https://www.npr.org/transcripts/602872309

[10] https://www.npr.org/transcripts/602872309

[11] Asch, 1956.

[12] https://www.npr.org/transcripts/602872309

[13] Haidt, The Righteous Mind

[14] https://oxfordre.com/classics/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199381135.001.0001/acrefore-9780199381135-e-2603

[15] Johnson, D., & Bering, J. (2006). Hand of God, mind of man: Punishment and cognition in the evolution of cooperation. Evolutionary psychology4(1), 147470490600400119

[16] Johnson, D., & Bering, J. (2006). Hand of God, mind of man: Punishment and cognition in the evolution of cooperation. Evolutionary psychology4(1), 147470490600400119

[17] Isabel Wilkerson, Caste.

[18] Cialdini, et al., 1975.

[19] Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008)

[20] Cialdini, R. B., & Goldstein, N. J. (2004); Cialdini, R. B., & Trost, M. R., 1998

[21] Needs and Subjective Well Being Around the World

[22] Clark, Diener, and Georgellis, 2000; Clark & Oswald, 1994; Frey & Stutzer, 2000

[23] https://matadornetwork.com/life/every-seven-years-man-takes-year-off-travel-heres-made-successful/

[24] https://matadornetwork.com/life/every-seven-years-man-takes-year-off-travel-heres-made-successful/

[25] Diener & Diener, Will Money Increase Subjective Well-Being?

[26] Kasser et al., 2004

[27] Imhoff, R., & Erb, H. P. (2009), citing to Deutsch & Gerard, 1955 and Cialdini, 1993, respectively

[28] Asch, 1956

[29] The Middle Passage

[30] Singelis, et al., 1995.

[31] Cialdini, R. B., & Trost, M. R. (1998). Social influence: Social norms, conformity and compliance

[32] https://www.npr.org/transcripts/602872309

[33] Tracy Kidder, Strength in What Remains

[34] Cialdini, R. B., & Trost, M. R. (1998). Social influence: Social norms, conformity and compliance

[35] GLOBE.

“I’m No Mother Teresa. And Neither Are You”

A Conversation with University of Virginia Professor and Co-Recipient of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, Jerry White

By: Tom Bussen

Visiting Israel in 1984, Jerry White was a 20-year-old college student learning about the geopolitics and Abrahamic religions of the Middle East.  One holiday week in April, Jerry went camping with two friends.  In his book, Getting Up When Life Knocks You Down, Jerry writes of a “sunny day…hiking the beautiful hills north of the Sea of Galilee.”  Walking ahead of his close buddies, Jerry recalls when “the quiet morning is punctured by a loud thud.  The earth opens, and spits up at me, and I’m swallowed by dirt and rocks.  The blast of soil in my face blinds me.  I fall on my hands and knees.”

Jerry had stepped on a landmine, a remnant of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.  His lower right leg was gone, his life nearly lost, but after an arduous recovery in an Israeli hospital, he would once again walk with the help of a prosthetic leg.

Fast forward to 1996.  Jerry is traveling through Cambodia and meets a young girl with no leg.  While Jerry has a $17,000 prosthetic leg, the child leans on a homemade crutch.  It is with a child’s innocence that she does not comment on the differences between them, but instead sees their shared histories. She looks into Jerry’s eyes and says in her local Khmer tongue, “You are one of us.”  

“I realized she was right,” Jerry writes. “I asked myself what I could do to help support that little girl and the hundreds of thousands like her—people who, through no fault of their own, had slammed into some kind of horrible date with destiny.”

This led Jerry to co-found Landmine Survivors Network (later, Survivor Corps). “Corralling the voices of mine victims around the world,” Jerry wrote, “We set out to ban the use of landmines and help survivors get legs and find work.”  And corral he did.  Jerry gained the support of luminaries including Princess Diana, Senator John McCain, Jordan’s King Hussein and Queen Noor, and the Dalai Lama, and helped secure the landmark 1997 Mine Ban Treaty – which now boasts 164 state signatories. 

This breakthrough led to the coalition’s receiving the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. In addition to this work, Jerry served as US Deputy Secretary of State to launch the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, testified before Congress and the United Nations, and won countless humanitarian and human rights awards.  

Jerry has, in short, made a mark in service to humanity like few others – and he was gracious enough to sit down with me to explain some of his motivations.

The Hedonic Treadmill of Contemporary America: Money and Power and Fame

Or fame or life, Which do you hold more dear? Or life or wealth, To which would you adhere? Keep life and lose those other things; Keep them and lose your life. 

-Laozi, China, 6th Century BC 

Looking back on his 1984 “date with destiny” in the hills of Israel, it’s the tough love Jerry seems to recall most clearly.  This was Israel, Jerry explained, and no matter how significant his own pain or suffering, he was told time and again that only he – not the doctors or nurses – could improve his circumstances.  He remembers in particular a visit from another landmine victim, a former Israeli soldier, who asked whether Jerry could still have children.  Yes, said Jerry, to which the older grizzled amputee declared, “What you have is a nose cold – you’ll get over it.”

Jerry appreciated this tough love, and brought the same attitude to his interview with me.  He offered a no-holds barred, no-nonsense perspective on the ills of the modern world.  Yet he also held out massive hope, articulating a pathway for those truly devoted to the public good, rather than simply one’s own good.  It was his own personal brand of tough wisdom.  

When I asked Jerry to talk with me about professional ambition, he began by describing the three ego traps of contemporary America: money, power, fame.  “Each one has its cultic allure, but they seem to be three age-old things,” Jerry explained. 

First comes the money trap – “Wall Street is one version of power.  Greed is one of the dominant and iconic flavors of NYC,” White explained. 

Second, there’s the power trap. “That’s the D.C. version.  So many people are motivated by proximity to power. Who’s in, who’s out. There’s a social power, political power obsession regarding who’s at the top.   Who do you know?  Were you in the room where it happened?  Even Capitol Hill interns carrying Congressman’s donuts and coffee believe they are somehow powerful.  There’s a lot of self-importance.  That’s another type of ego inflation.”

“And then there’s the LA cliché, which is the pursuit of fame. I need my media hits, I need my online likes, I need my fans, I need my Oscars, and I need to be near celebrity.”  

White characterized these three ego traps as addictions.  Everyone just wants another hit of that money, power, or fame.  “They get addicted to their personal ambition.  It’s like drugs and addiction, you’re addicted to an illusion, you’re addicted to an ephemeral feeling.”

White is describing what social scientists refer to as the hedonic treadmill, which holds that we quickly adapt to new pleasures in life – including money, power and fame.  After getting that initial “hit”, as White describes it, we soon revert to our baseline levels of happiness.  Like with a drug, to get a new high, we must run ever faster on that hedonic treadmill – earning more money, claiming more power, seeking more fame.[1] The risk, as author Stephen Covey explains, is that “a person in this state becomes almost entirely narcissistic, interpreting all of life in terms of the pleasure it provides to the self here and now.”[2]

Eventually, White explained, “You have the fruit of your ambition staring up to you in the face. You’re like, ‘why did I do that?’  Nonetheless, too many never get off this hedonic treadmill. “There are those that get addicted to their ambition. They’re unhappy, but they’re on the Merry-Go-Round and can’t get off.” 

Jerry continued, “I’ve run around the world with royals and celebrities and billionaires, but I don’t want to be any of them.  I don’t want their lifestyle.  I’m never envious.  Perhaps that’s my freedom or advantage in this life.  I’m not trying to get on their yachts or their planes.  I don’t really give a shit.” 

From One Treadmill to Another: The Ego Trap of Humanitarian Giving

Happy is he who has overcome his ego. 

-Gautama Buddha, India, 5th to 4th century BC

Here’s the thing.  Jerry is not a “holier than thou” kind of guy.  He believes that most all of us are on this treadmill together, himself included.  “I am no Mother Teresa,” White said.  “I used to be addicted to work and success,” White admits.  “I found great meaning helping people, and I was good at it.  And because I was good at it, it just so happened that no one called me out on my workaholism.  I flexed my muscles in the gym of social impact.  We all tend to do things that we’re good at – it can be a trap, a loop of virtue recognition.”

“For me as a social entrepreneur, doing good in the world, no one felt they could criticize.  No one could do the equivalent of a family intervention on me for being so ‘noble’ for sharing in the Nobel Peace Prize.  I’m running around the world, like, helping millions of people and saving lives.”  Describing the jet-setting lifestyle of himself and many humanitarian workers, Jerry continues: “You’re on a lot of planes and sleeping in too many hotels.  But it looks as if I’m constantly surrounded by people missing arms and limbs from every country and conflict.  It appears as if I’m always in the trenches, risking my life.  If someone actually challenged me, to say, ‘Now you need to go wipe someone’s ass and take care of them in a wheelchair, to really be of service,’ I’d be like ‘No, I can’t do that.  I can’t handle gross.’  Obviously, I don’t live in rural Angola or Mozambique or Cambodia or El Salvador.  The stranger or ‘expat’ can always go home.  That’s my privilege.  Most humanitarian workers can go home.” 

White continued, “At the end of the day, I’m really not interested in mentoring someone just for them to feel better about themselves.  Unless you are serious about service to humanity – but some don’t appreciate me challenging their concept of generosity, coming in and raining on their parade of giving.”  

Jerry’s point is that the world of social work, aid and development are all filled with people – often times young people – that have chosen this path to set their ladder and begin their climb.  No less a figure than Dorothy Day, said this about her early efforts in social work: “I do not know how sincere I was in my love of the poor and my desire to serve them.  I wanted to go on picket lines, to go to jail, to write, to influence others, and so make my mark on the world (emphasis added).  How much ambition, and how much self-seeking there was in all of this.”  

While White’s warning rang true, it nonetheless dawned on me that this world-renowned, beyond reproach giver had now lobbed criticism at traditionally ambitious professionals, at diplomats and expatriates, humanitarian workers and even $3 a day Peace Corps volunteers. And, of course, at himself.  Somewhat mystified, I told Jerry frankly, “you sound cynical.”  

Jerry adamantly rejected the characterization: Laughing, he explained, “Sorry for my venting. Truth be told, I’m not pessimistic and I’m not cynical.  At all.  I may sound a bit harsh in my assessments.  But that’s just me being mean about the truth. My eternal deepest hope is that each of us, whether hedge funders or humanitarians, is able to look in the mirror and have an “aha” wake-up moment.  We have in us this capacity to become healing transformers for humanity.  No, I have never ever lost hope.”

Getting Off the Treadmill: Walking with Purpose

“A person starts to live when he can live outside himself” 

– Albert Einstein

Jerry believes a global wake-up call is in order.  The hedonic treadmill represents a “collective neurosis.”   “Most of us are walking around numb like zombies.   And there are a few vampires out there in this horror schtick, too.  They will suck your blood, if you succumb.  We have to wake up so that power predators in the USA or Russia and elsewhere don’t feed on innocent people who are completely unaware.”

“As many zombies as we can wake up to ‘a-ha moments’, where they start to discover their inner capabilities and superpowers – which are powerful – will reverberate out to the world.  I think we start to heal by waking up and then working daily and doggedly towards our higher dreams.” 

Those who do awaken are “exhilarated about the prospects of really knowing themselves and then being in service, which is a different energy.  If you shift from personal ambition for yourself and your tribe and your family, or money or bank account, to ambition for the other, that requires your higher self in service to planet and people, which is a different service.”

Jerry believes these “a-ha moments” serve as the impetus to jump off the hedonic treadmill and to begin walking with purpose.  “These conversions – the ‘a-ha moments’ – the epiphany can happen today in a minute, if and when you want to see yourself as you are.  Even an opioid addict yesterday can be clean by tomorrow.”

“There are many role models in every community who have done it, with whom you can surround yourself.  Very often, it takes a crisis like bankruptcy or a cancer scare.  You are suddenly brought low and your ‘a-ha moment’ is expedited by crisis.”  In other cases, “It’s more like a chronic illness inflicting ongoing pain.  Or maybe you are the successful lawyer on the road to making partnership, with the golden handcuffs of security and high pay.  You’ve climbed the ladder but reduced your identity.  It’s living with these compromises that trap us, where we drink the Kool-Aid of social approval, every step of the way.” 

After waking the zombie and getting off the hedonic treadmill, Jerry stresses the beauty of being “vocationally called to the work of meaning.  You can’t just do it as a hobby.  This is a very deep place and a sacred job – serving others.  To hold everyone in dignity and equality.  You are no better and no worse.  We’re all dirt together.  I don’t romanticize The Human Condition, but I do romanticize and love our potential for transformation.”

Baby Steps, Mental Leaps

In the final minutes of the interview, I asked Jerry to talk about proactive steps we all can take to get off the hedonic treadmill and be of service to others.  Jerry began, “People look at me negotiating treaties, traveling the world, and say, ‘I could never do that.  I’m an introvert and need to pay the rent.’  That’s you letting yourself off the hook.  Each of us has to start small or somewhere.  You don’t have to become a monk or join a convent; you don’t have to hop on a plane to visit a refugee camp.  Just start giving, you bastard!  All those maxims we have heard since youth matter: “Bloom where you’re planted!”  Be generous and pay it forward.  Donate to Save the Children, anywhere on the frontlines.  “Giving anywhere will have ripple effects everywhere.”  

“I’m not really worried about your ‘doing’ abilities,” Jerry concluded.  “Anyone can and should bring their specific skills to the table of life. If you’re good with numbers on the business-ambition side, then you’ll be good on the other side.  But after an a-ha moment, you can no longer think the same way.  Once you have a conversion moment to the deepness, the humility of our interdependence, the humility of our dignity and equality, and the humility of being a subset of nature, belonging to Mother Earth – yes, from that space, you can work miracles.”

If you enjoyed this article, you can receive notifications of future articles by signing up for free under the “Subscribe for the Newsletter” page.


[1] Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. American psychologist60(5), 410.

[2] Covey, S. R., & Covey, S. (2020). The 7 habits of highly effective people. Simon & Schuster.

Bridging the Gap

By: Tom Bussen

Welcome to the Biggs and Bussen website!

Let me begin by introducing myself, Tom Bussen.  I’m a writer of three books, a cross-cultural researcher, and a professor with the African Leadership University based in Rwanda. I’ve spent far too much money on college tuition, with a JD, an MBA, and a Doctorate of Business Administration on the horizon. And although – or because – I’ve rarely pursued money for the sake of money, I see my work as an extension of a joyful, meaningful life. 

After graduating law school I took a job practicing law, and eyed the corporate ladder.  It was on my third interview with a New York investment firm – right around the time they were explaining that while the pay was good, I could expect to endure long periods of boredom – that I made the decision. Thanks, but no thanks. Life’s too short for boring. I’m joining the Peace Corps.

I quit my job at the law firm, wrote a book with the accomplished Dr. Nitish Singh, then started a new life teaching throughout the Kyrgyz Republic.  I would before long join the faculty of the American University of Central Asia, where I learned once and for all that work can be fun, meaningful, invigorating. I taught in a valley below the craggy mountains of the capital city Bishkek for 2.5 years, then hopped over to Budapest for a 4 month research fellowship during which I lived next door to the infamous Parliament and jogged daily on a leafy island in the Danube. Finally, I returned stateside to embark on my doctoral studies, adding a black lab and fantastic running buddy to my side.

I began a doctoral program in the humid, gator filled swamplands of the University of Florida, gaining the tools to conduct scholarly research while learning under some of the most objectively brilliant minds the world of academic management has to offer. But just as I went to law school never wanting to be a lawyer, I joined a doctoral program not really wanting to a traditional academic career. Instead, I wanted to mature as a writer, and to do that I needed to have an insider’s understanding of how the top researchers were conducting their research.

Though the learning is never complete, two years later my course work is done. In that time I learned not only my own strengths and weaknesses, but, at least as important, the strengths and weaknesses of the research process itself.

For instance, I learned that most academic research is conducted on WEIRD participants – that is, western, educated, industrialized and developed country participants.  In fact, we can go further. Most research participants are US undergraduate psychology students.  So while academics like to say that their findings are “generalizable” – that is, universally applicable – the reality is less expansive.   This is just one example of the “academic-practitioner” gap, in which academic practice fails to replicate the practitioner reality.

This gap led to my most recent project with the multi-talented Dr. Henry Biggs. While I had been working to build up my academic experience, Henry spent these past years refining his professional chops. A Harvard grad, a long time Washington University in St. Louis professor, Biggs was already an established academic and professional when he jetted off to Paris with his wife and youngest son. There, he’s taken on a new role as CEO and general counsel of ofCourse Scheduling, while enjoying his fair share of French wine and cheeses.

Together, we partnered up to work on Shaping the Global Leader, a book in which we applied our cross-cultural experiences to help identify unique and effective leadership practices from all around the world.

As in Shaping the Global Leader, in this forum Henry and I draw on our respective academic and practitioner knowledge to help bridge the research gap. We question whether something which is true in the US is also true elsewhere in the world. We interrogate American culture for its weak spots, and seek alternatives which may contribute not just to a more productive culture, but more importantly to a happier people.  And most excitingly, I think, we bring you the stories of real people that are exemplifying these best practices.

This website is not the beginning, but a continuation. It is a continuation of my long-time work with my good friend and mentor, Henry Biggs.  It is a continuation of a book writing career that began shortly before that departure to the Kyrgyz Republic.  But it also represents a maturation, a point at which we both are ready to more confidently and competently bridge the gap between academics and practitioners, to identify the best that the academic world has to offer – and it does have much to offer – and to bring it to the professionals that can most benefit from it.

In so doing, we hope to make our readers – and ourselves – more educated, effective and ethical global professionals. But we need your help to do that. Unlike a book, this venue allows for immediate feedback.  Let us know what you like and what rubs you the wrong way, but, perhaps even more helpfully, let us know what you want.  The hope is that the work of this blog will serve as the bones for a future book, and we hope for you to be the guiding forces for that work.

Mark Twain once said he would have written a shorter letter, but he did not have enough time.  I fear that I have been too wordy in this introduction, and so, without further ado, let us begin minding the gap.


[1] Banks, G. C., Pollack, J. M., Bochantin, J. E., Kirkman, B. L., Whelpley, C. E., & O’Boyle, E. H. (2016). Management’s science–practice gap: A grand challenge for all stakeholders. Academy of Management Journal59(6), 2205-2231.