The United States is a culture that idealizes the individual. On a daily basis, we are bombarded with depictions of the successful persona; of the idea that a single individual can build a multinational corporation, form a successful start-up, become a famous musician, an inspiring influencer, or a multimillionaire solely from personal talent, grit, and perseverance. Yet this reverence of the individual often misses a crucial aspect of what it means to reach such a high level of success in the modern world: working with others. To generate capital from your passion, you need to promote and sell your content, your image, and your product, as well as network, communicate, and work with corporations, fans, marketers, and other artists to generate a base following that will support you. To create a successful startup or business, you need financial support via clients, investors, co-founders, workers, savings from prior jobs, and funding or loans from connections. To raise a confident, grounded child, you need the help of a co-parent, relatives, teachers, and a supportive community. To become balanced, emotionally stable, healthy, physically fit, and successful in your career and hobbies, you need a partner, friends, caring relationships, or paid workers to help clean, cook, do laundry, pay the bills, raise the children, encourage your efforts, and help with the considerable amount of unpaid labor required to sustain life on a daily basis.
The point being, even the most fortunate, hardworking, and exceptional of us live in a world that requires interaction with others. Therefore, no one is entirely self-made, as inspirational as that ideal may seem to be. Yet because the myth of the self-successful individual is so pervasive in modern cultures, it’s important that we ask ourselves why and when we began to generate this cult of the individual.
The majority consensus is that rampant industrialization, technological advancements, and a global emphasis on free-market capitalism during the past century has brought about this obsession with the individual. While I agree that the above elements of modern society have encouraged an almost cult-like worship of the individual, I believe that the modern focus on individualism extends back to prior centuries. If we take into account social constructs such as feudalism, colonialism, dynasticism, and imperialism, along with the idealization of monarchs, kings, lords, pharaohs, emperors, knights, vassals, and nobility in past myths, fairytales, stories, legends, nursery rhymes, and historical relics, we can infer that the obsession with powerful, influential personas has been around long before the current century. Now, it is a thought to consider that the manner in which we interpret the relics of these eras could be influenced by our modern biases. Furthermore, it should be noted that these past systems seemed to be more focused on a family, community, city, or nation unit than they were on a single individual. (Which- in retrospect- helped to foster a collectivized reverence in one’s country, culture, religion, or ideological doctrine that allowed the brutal conquest and conversion of foreign colonies and their inhabitants to take on a moral standpoint). But-to return to the point of modern individualism- it may be that the makings of having an idealized view of individuals or a group of people with similarities acting as a unified entity is something that has been present for millennium, and our newfound belief in the power of a sole individual is just an altered version of historical nationalism or familial inheritance; and because of the decreased emphasis on community in the most recent century partly due to our ability live safe, independent lives, be accepted in society as an unmarried, childless individual, travel expansively and efficiently, speedily communicate with large audiences via the internet, and the pervasive use of social media as a means to cultivate an individual identity, our need to bring honor, power, and success to our families, communities, towns, cities, or nations is now a need to bring honor, power, and success to our individual selves.
But, as important as it is to use the past to form connections with the present, it is even more critical that we try to infer the patterns of the past that will likely continue into the present and influence possible future outcomes: in this case, extrapolating the societal effects that our individualistic ideology will have in the present and future.
One of the greatest developments of individualist societies is the increase in single, childless adults. Due to the ease and ubiquity of social communication in the modern age, many individuals- particularly those in densely populated cities- live a life that is focused on their individual needs and goals rather than on those of a collective. They live alone, even if they share a living space. They commute alone. They shop alone. They cook or eat alone. They clean alone. They perform work tasks alone. They do errands alone. They spend a substantial amount of their free time alone. They enjoy their hobbies alone. They sleep alone. They travel alone. They form independent and non-binding connections. (The list is endless.) In a positive manner, this can encourage a self-aware, self-actualized individual who is comfortable acting by and being by themselves. It also allows individuals who prefer to live a life of solitude and introversion a place in society. However, considering our globally connected culture and the fact that- even if we are alone- we are often in perpetual contact with individuals via our electronics, many of us don’t experience the positive traits of solitude that are encouraged in an individualistic society but rather the negative traits of loneliness. And to further the adverse effect that individualism has on our psyche, our particular physiological responses have not evolved to the point where we can live in such an isolating manner unscathed, as the majority of us are biologically conditioned to form communities, make connections, and experience deep partnerships. It’s why human touch, deep conversation, and mirroring reactions are powerful enough to make us become codependent with a particular individual, regardless of their negative traits or hurtful actions towards us. It is why rejection, isolation, and loneliness are such power forms of torture used by some of the most powerful militaries and correctional facilities. It’s why social media is such a successful, influential, and addicting medium. It’s why many of us in the modern age feel dejectedly lonely rather than peacefully alone.
Yet perhaps the unique qualities of those who can thrive in solitude are why we have become so infatuated with successful entrepreneurs and artists as well as so adamant in our portrayal of the individual genius, for innovative ideas require a great deal of solitude, introspection, and distancing oneself from one’s community; and those who succeed in establishing a successful company or creative career are able to endure the immense pain, anxiety, fear, and risk that comes with sidestepping our biological survival instincts, spending grueling years of financial, situational, and communal insecurity incubating a product and/or ideas before the they take hold on a public audience. (If it ever does.)
But, for those of us who are inspired by such individuals, it’s important to remember that once the ideas and content are generated, it does necessitate communicating and networking with a broad range of individuals if the goal is not only the ability to adequately provide for your physical needs in the material world, but also to successfully implement your content into the community, society, or global culture you wish to influence. For even if the ideas of global visionaries such as Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple), or Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), and internationally recognized artist personalities such as Nina Simone, Madonna, or Adele, can be ignited by a single individual, the amount of effort, communication, and conciliation they had to manage to get their work, products, and persona accepted by not only large audience, but a crucial following, is substantial, so substantial in fact that it is essentially incongruous with reality for them to have gotten where they are without the help of a supportive community. And to believe otherwise is detrimental to ourselves and global societies as a whole; as our unwavering ideals of the self-made individual will inevitably extend into the public sphere, with the potential to harm an entire nation and the interconnected world order.
Unfortunately, the belief that we as individuals or as entire nations are mainly accountable for ourselves fails to understand the inevitable fact that- in order to survive- we have to interact with other beings and systems. This means that I can be impacted by another person, no matter my wealth, status, power, intelligence, strength, or emotional stability. This means a country’s policies, actions, and moral structure will impact other countries, and that impact will affect the acting country in return. For example, if country believes in its own superiority, invincibility, and isolationists principles, yet continues to exert its power globally, have corporate structures abroad that negatively impact local communities, and instigates or embeds itself into foreign wars and conflicts, the inhabitants of this country will- regardless of hardline immigration policies- suffer mass ingress into the country due to the international instability generated by the country’s corporations, policies, wars, and weapons. Furthermore, if the country fails to adequately respond to the potential consequences of their policies, disorder and chaos are essentially an inevitable outcome.
In essence- if we don’t make the effort to comprehend how our modern individualistic belief structure will influence our present and future actions, the uncooperative and unsympathetic attitude that it inspires will be catastrophic: to the earth we inhabit, to our own citizens, to the citizens of allied nations, to the citizens of enemy nations. And in our increasingly individualistic societies, it’s important to remember that we are not in a world of individuals. We are in a world of many particles. Of many people. Of many species. Of many towns. Of many cities. Of many societies. Of many nations. Of many planets. Of many stars. Of many solar systems. Of many galaxies.
And in order to achieve success as individuals and as a species interdependent on the connected order of the planet we reside in, we should learn to act accordingly.