Universal Ethics > Thought of the Month > February 2019


Be the kind of person you wish to be. That is a more reliable source of happiness than prestige that others may grant.

It is commonplace for people to believe that they will find happiness through their achievements, so they set goals accordingly. A goal may be to climb the corporate hierarchy at their workplace, with each level up being a step-up in money and prestige. Or the person may seek fame in professions like sports or entertainment, in which they develop a skill, and then "try out" or audition for their part. If successful, they believe that they will at last be appreciated, and then they can be happy.

If you choose to follow that same strategy too, you may experience some frustration! There are two main reasons for that:

  1. happiness is a journey not a destination, and
  2. any form of prestige is outside of your control.

In the example of someone wishing to climb a corporate hierarchy, what is the destination? If it is the top of the pyramid, consider that only one person can be at that point at any given time. So if that's what a person must have for happiness, consider that most people are doomed to be unhappy!

Moreover, being promoted to the next level is not within the applicant's control. Sure, he can develop the knowledge and skill that will make hime a qualified candidate. But when a position is filled, consider how it is done: the hiring manager(s) pick a few qualifying candidates to interview. In just one hour each, the candidate's years of education and experience are to be judged. Diligent performance in one's current job is not always considered relevant, and academic scores from past education are typically ignored in favor of a few interview questions that will judge it instead. It's a process subject to bias, and if there are many qualified applicants the result can be almost random.

A similar situation occurs in the entertainment industry. I recall reading about the selection process for a child actor in a popular movie, in which hundreds of children were auditioned. They chose one child even before the auditions began, who had starred in a previous movie. Two others were chosen based on their "fit" to the directors opinion of what those characters should look like. For those, some level of acting ability was needed, but it was not the determining factor. Hundreds of prospective child actors were disappointed.

In an attempt to gain freedom from a "boss's opinion," some people choose to be self-employed, but even that is subject to external opinion: the opinion of the potential customers! An example which I recall from my own home town is a small family business that began as a tiny confectionary. It expanded to a small grocery store, and it was successful for many years until a 24-hour convenience store moved in next door and put them out of business. It wasn't the family's "fault." There was no fault. They just couldn't compete with a multinational chain store.

It is said that "luck favors the prepared," and while that is true, it is no guarantee to always "win." A person will have better luck to be flexible, so that when one path fails they pick another. If a person chooses to be happy or unhappy based on achieving some particular prestige that others bestow--whether from a boss, customers, or anyone else--that is a very risky strategy.

However, there is one thing that a person does have control over: himself! (or herself!).

You have control over what you choose to learn, and what skill you choose to practice. And most important of all, you have control over your own character.

If you imagine the "ideal person," what would that person be like? Would he (or she) be kind, honest, creative, perseverent, cheerful, courageous...? No doubt those are all good things, but there may be a particular constellation of characteristics that you especially admire. If you strive to be as close as possible to your own ideal, that can give you fulfilment and peace of mind regardless of prestige that others may or may not give you.

I recently watched the movie Ghandi on DVD, which was produced a few decades ago (and it won 8 Oscars). The movie had a cast of thousands, which made it very impressive, but what comes to my mind right now is a scene in which Ghandi was visiting with some starving people. The landlord had raised the rent on the land they were farming, and they couldn't pay it.

Solving the problem was outside of Ghandi's control, but he did make one promise: "what we can do, we will do."

To tell you more might be a spoiler, but it turned out that there was something that he with others did do to improve the situation. In fact, he made a tremendous difference.

Most of us will not have as big of an impact on our country as Ghandi had on his, but neither are most of us in such a situation. Sometimes it is a case of being in a particular place with a particular skill in a time when it is needed.

But there is one thing that each of us can say, when we find that there is a need for our help, or when there is an opportunity:
"What I can do, I will do."

To conclude, you have control over yourself, to be the kind of person you choose to be. Sometimes you might fall short of your own ideals, but also that can be a learning experience. So, strive to be the be the best you can be, and feel accomplishment from that. If by chance you also get prestige awarded by others, that's nice, but don't expect it, don't count on it, and don't let the lack of it ruin your happiness.

- Arthur de Leyssac, February 2019.


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