Neo-Collectivism: Rejecting American Individualism and a Call for Cultural Renewal

By: Tom Bussen

Below is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of my latest book, co-authored with Henry Biggs and Timothy Bono and which is still in the writing stages (expected publication 2022). We welcome your comments, suggestions and criticism.

I write to you from the lush surrounds of Rwanda, a highland country in the remote, rather isolated parts of Central Africa.  I sit on the veranda of my home, the weather edging just towards warm, but rarely if ever hot, thanks to an elevation similar to that of the mile high city in Colorado.  Plants flourish in such an environment, and my small yard in my shared house includes two palm trees, an avocado tree, and a banana tree, its thick leaves soaking in the sun.  Though my home is in a rather upscale part of the city – with the Malian, Algerian and French embassies just around the corner, the roads paved with a European-esque cobblestone – my roommates include not just Egyptian expats, but dogs (and occasionally puppies), bunnies, and a chicken which gifts us a fresh egg most days.

Just one of many beautiful locations in Rwanda.

I teach on the outskirts of the city, riding 20 minutes on the back of a motorcycle for a dollar – though sometimes I overpay with the equivalent of a $2 bill.  We twist through traffic, passing cars and other “motos” so closely that I at times squeeze my knees tight against the moto body. We pass pedestrians, bikers, men in western attire and the occasional Muslim garb, women in heady coverings and bright African dresses, often with a baby tied to their backs. Most are young, with a median age of just 20 in the country. 

We reach the African Leadership University, my current work home, situated atop a 1,500 foot tall hill and looking down across Kigali – nicknamed, appropriately, the land of one thousand hills.  The campus is modern, opened only in 2020, and home to an assortment of overachieving but mostly underprivileged students from not just Rwanda but across the African continent.  For most, this education is, despite the cliché, an opportunity of a lifetime.  It is a chance, perhaps their only chance, to get out of the village; to avoid a life of farm work, which remains the vocation of necessity for nearly 70% of Rwandans and 61% of Africans.

Exterior of African Leadership University

I hear their stories and wonder at their lives – the death of a brother, an uncle, a mother, all taking students away for funerals at rates far exceeding that of any American classroom in which I’ve spent time.  The floods and other natural disasters visited upon my West African students, the man-made disasters of political conflict or worse in Nigeria, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Mozambique, and more.

I also see the hope and optimism of these young people, the belief that the future holds something better than the present.  I share their hope, but I fear for the world that they envision; for it is the world from which I come, and one which, I fear, has grown sick – though, I must believe, not terminal.  It is a world of rampant competition. Of money-making, status claiming, Mercedes driving, two story house living. Of vacations in Paris, America, and Japan. 

I hope that as countries across Africa and elsewhere rise – and I do expect them to rise – they can avoid the mistakes of much of the Western world, and of the United States in particular.  As rural Africans own cellphones but not landlines, so too may they achieve prosperity without materialism; personal success but also social equity; professional success but also work-life balance. 

And so, teaching Organizational Behavior and Cross-Cultural Management to a class of African students, I speak of the myriad and growing studies that affirm the old saw that money does not bring happiness – at least not once your basic needs are met.  Do they believe me?  Some do.  Will they act on what I say?  No, most won’t, at least not yet.  

But the time will come when these young people, among the unlucky half of the world population who find themselves just lucky enough to have the chance to get out, will take jobs at McKinsey, KPMG, Microsoft and Goldman Sachs.  They will quickly find relative wealth, but many will also confront a growing sense of dissatisfaction.  The long hours, the weakening personal relationships, the diminishing satisfaction with each luxury purchase will molder into a simmering discontent.  Just as so many other professionals before them have experienced.

But perhaps, I hope, they will have something that many of those before them did not – the vision of another way, of an altogether different value set, without which one may give way to depression, angst, or simple denial. They will instead in that moment, five, ten or perhaps even twenty years from now, just maybe remember that gangly, zealous American professor sermonizing about all the things worth pursuing in addition to money.  In that moment, they may finally fully appreciate the lessons of that course. They may then join the ranks of people such as Jerry White, whose work in mine eradication led to a Nobel Peace Prize, or the  lawyer-cum-Peace Corps volunteer Sean McElhatton, best-selling author Chris McDougall, social entrepreneur Willie Foote and all the others that we profile in the coming pages – trading money for things of infinitely greater value, and virtue.

How did I get to this place, lecturing young Africans about a value set in sharp contradiction to that which I was raised to hold, and which I long believed?  And what arrogance leads me to believe I have something to offer you, dear reader? 

It was nearly ten years ago that I was a newly minted JD and MBA.  I was no Einstein, but these degrees were enough to inspire some positive impressions among the employers in St. Louis, Missouri. I soon gained employment as a litigator at a boutique law firm, unduly proud to wear my newly tailored suits and colorful ties to work every day.  

The big pay day had not yet come, but this was just a stepping stone, one more badge of honor as I climbed my way to fame, or at least fortune, which is what I really wanted.  The offers with promises of modest riches were beginning to come in – from a multinational in Chicago, from a financial investor in New York. I was to this point in my life a typically ambitious, competitive young male.  I considered myself a good person, and probably in some ways I was. But I also spent far more time thinking about my own advancement than advancing some greater cause, and to the extent I thought about others, or about the social issues of our country and world, I thought about it as something that someone else really should fix, but for which certainly I had no responsibility.

 And yet, less than two years into the job I had spent the better part of my life building towards, I walked away. While my departure seemed sudden to those on the outside, in fact a gnawing dissatisfaction had been growing for years.  A sense that surely this could not be all that life was.  

I remember the moment when this feeling took hold, jogging after work one day at a pleasant little park near my pleasant little home.  As I ran, I did the math in my head – how many years until I had enough money to retire?  60, I figured. 50 if things went well.  And then my heart sank. I envisioned doing what I was doing for decades into the future. I could see little else but that unrewarding work, and I wasn’t wrong, for the hours required of a successful lawyer are well-documented.  And all of that for what?  For reaching not a point of something great or transformative, but simply a point where I would no longer have to do, but would instead live out my days in hedonic pleasure on a golf course, whiskey in hand–neither of which I like. 

Perhaps, you may say, I lacked the imagination to see all that could have been.  But all I saw in my mind’s eye was a materially prosperous but emotionally bankrupt future. 

At this point, I was following what Steve Collins might have  termed negative motivations – I was rejecting a certain set of values, but unsure what I was walking towards. I had few role models, and instead felt myself surrounded by young professionals living out little microcosms of my retirement dream – grinding away Monday-Friday or Monday-Saturday in order to drown the weeks’ displeasures in booze, drugs, sex or food – or all of the above. The jaded older professionals that surrounded me in courtrooms and in the office – including my well-meaning, prosperous, but nonetheless painfully unfulfilled bosses – gave me little hope that the times would change.  

But one person I had long admired – had taken a different path.  Henry Biggs quickly became in my world a name worthy of emulation.  A Harvard graduate, Biggs had decided on a less remunerative academic path, and in his alternate universe, money did not seem to rule over his decisions –the relentless acquisition of knowledge, family, personal freedom and international understanding were king.  

Having earned his PhD at UCLA, he continued his advanced studies in a variety of fields while serving as a professor and dean — a Masters in Computer Science, MBA,  JD, and LLM followed.   He did not shy either from absurd athletic challenges — swimming the English Channel, swim-circling Manhattan and running a score of marathons in between.  He seemed to relish the moment rather than be in a state of eternal deferment. And he was the happiest person I knew, perhaps best evidenced by the animated dinners with family and friends I had the privilege to be a part of, as he doted on his  family and welcomed a vast circle of friends.

One night over dinner, I asked him, almost embarrassed, whether he thought it a good idea to quit it all and join the Peace Corps.  This came as less of a surprise to him than to others, for he had seen my dissatisfaction, perhaps secretly rooting that I would not become just another corporate automaton.  For me though, this idea of packing off to a far off, poor country was heady, maybe crazy, stuff. But I’ll never forget his words.  “Sometimes, he said, “you don’t know whether you can swim until you jump.” He paused.  “But I think you can swim”.

 A few months later and I had departed to my unlikely new home – Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia – to seek a new perspective and a new way forward.  Nearly 10 years later, and I still don’t have all of the answers – I never will.  In fact, this is one of those books that is as much about the education of self as it is of readers; of doing what I say and not what I sometimes still do.  

But I can reflect back on the moment I walked away from all that I thought mattered as the best decision of my life, because, over time, my life has transitioned from the rejection of that which I believe did not work, to the positive motivation of that which I trust does work.  It is this lifelong journey which motivates this book and which motivates my teaching, to offer up a recipe not just excluding the ingredients of all those things we already know are toxic, but the infusion of that which our society has long ago forgotten are the true fruits of life.

It takes a particular type of vanity, I must admit, to follow a particular, indeed a fringe path, and to believe it worthy of emulation.  I speak throughout this book, however, not of anecdotes, or, beyond this initial indulgence, of personal experience.  Rather, I speak of empirical research which speaks true in the way a singular experience never can, and of converging life experiences of Americans and others that are – we should all be able to agree – worthy of emulation.

In this book, therefore, we take a particular position: a full throttled rejection of American individualism. We argue, with the support of dozens of scholars as well as well-placed interviews subjects, that an American culture espousing individual achievement, ostentatious materialism and cut-throat competition has resulted in undermining each of us, our society and our world.  

We will go beyond the cliches of keeping up with the Jones and see why it is that Americans – but not all peoples of this world – feel envy and disgust when close others such as family and friends succeed.  Similarly, we will see that power is not so corrupting, that is, unless you are an American.  We will, finally, see how the hedonic treadmill leaves us wanting – in fact needing – more and more material accumulation, in return for short lived boosts to happiness. 

But we do not stop there.  For that is the negative motivation which animated my departure from the practice of law.  We will materialize the positive motivation too, and in so doing offer a new pathway.  We will see how money, power and status alike all can be used beneficially. In so doing, we will seek to leverage the best parts of American culture and thereby illuminate a path which is not so foreign – certainly not as foreign as Central Africa or Asia – to the American palate.  

But in the end, all of that follows the trajectory of a traditional self-help book.  Woe to you, woe to me. We can do better and do our best to show you how.  But here we are not quite so forgiving.  We argue that to remain on the current trajectory is not just a personal choice; one which you can delay until a more providential time approaches.  Rather, it is a choice with very real consequences – yes, for you, but more importantly for others. 

It is the source of inequality that, should we ever stop and truly look upon it, should make us all blush in shame. It is a dog-eat-dog world that leaves us and everyone else anxious. Far from working less in these times of historic prosperity, we work more, we stress more, and we burnout more.  

We glorify this ideology. We teach our children to care for others and yet we transmit it to our children with every attitude and behavior which signals we ourselves do not practice as we preach.  And, as my Rwandan students show and research supports, we are exporting this ideology throughout the world, and indiscriminately damning future generations of young people from Pakistan to Peru.

 It is therefore not just that you should reframe your ambitions for your own benefit, but that your failure to do so – to read these words, recognize their truth and still to change nothing – is in fact, yes, unethical.  

A cultural reckoning is overdue. A recalibration in favor of the modest, the self-interested but also other-oriented, a universal identity, and, ultimately, what we term the neo-collectivist person.

This book is not an attack on you. You and all of us are the products of our selfish genes, our individualistic environments and our national myths, and the purpose is not to disseminate guilt or confer an inferiority complex. Instead, it is a call to recognize that which you have, to challenge the convenient narratives of modern America and to do something about it.  It is a call to action.