Why does Michael Phelps keep returning to a brutal training regimen in the pool, long after he’s achieved every imaginable accolade as a swimmer? Why do men who have earned hundreds of millions of dollars, even billions, work relentlessly to earn even more, long after it could possibly make any material difference in their lives? Why does a substantial group of politicians with no remote chance of being elected president feel compelled to traverse the country campaigning 18 hours a day for more than two years?
As little as these varied people have in common, their shared core hunger is for value. Once our basic needs are met, we human beings arguably crave value above all else.
We each want desperately to matter, to feel a sense of worthiness. In a 2008 analysis of more than 200 studies, the highest rises in the subjects’ levels of cortisol — a hormone released into the body in response to stress — were prompted by what researchers summed up as “threats to one’s social self, or threat to one’s social acceptance, esteem and status.”
In his book “Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic,” James Gilligan recounts the story of visiting with an inmate who was out of control. The man was in solitary confinement 24 hours a day and attacked his guards whenever he was approached. “What do you want so badly,” Mr. Gilligan asked the inmate, “that you are willing to give up nearly everything to get it?” Ordinarily so inarticulate that he could barely be understood, the inmate didn’t hesitate in his reply.
“Pride, dignity, self-esteem,” he said. “If you ain’t got pride, you ain’t got nothin’.”
Over 40 years of studying violence, Mr. Gilligan was struck “by the frequency with which I received the same answer when I asked prisoners, or mental patients, why they assaulted, or even killed someone. Time after time, they would reply, ‘Because he disrespected me.’”
Or as Elijah Anderson, a sociologist, characterizes what he calls “the code of the streets:” “Respect is viewed as an entity that is hard won but easily lost so must constantly be guarded.”
How different is it to tenaciously seek and accumulate wealth as a source of value? In these cases, what’s so easily lost in these cases is not the wealth itself but any enduring sense of value it provides for its accumulators.
In my own relatively small way, I learned this lesson at an early age. Nearly three decades ago, at the age of 35, I wrote a book with Donald Trump called “The Art of the Deal.” It became a No. 1 best seller, and I earned more money in a short time than I had in all the rest of my working life.
The book’s success provided a welcome relief from financial anxiety and greater material well-being, but it did not fuel any enduring sense of value. To the contrary, the fact that so much external success didn’t deliver what I had always imagined it would left me feeling empty and bewildered. What it did prompt was a search for a more sustainable source of value that has continued for the rest of my life.
There is little doubt that we each need the basic source of value that money can provide. By giving us the ability to meet our basic needs, it frees us from being preoccupied by them.
The problem is that we can so easily be seduced into believing that generating more external value – whether in the form of wealth, status or even achievement — leads to a greater sense of internal value. Each of these, pursued as a means to ensure our value, deliver diminishing returns over time.
Any single-minded pursuit, unmoored to a deeper purpose, has the potential to take on the characteristics of an addiction. More and more is required to obtain the same high, and the compulsion of the pursuit prompts a growing sense of the despair and unworthiness it is meant to solve.
My search for the deepest sources of value is not over, because the journey is lifelong. But one simple principle does seem increasingly evident. We derive the greatest value not by seeking to build a better case for ourselves. Instead, we do so by understanding better what we value most — meaning, what we stand for most deeply and who we really want to be. Then we use that conviction and those skills in the service of others.
We feel best about ourselves when we stop focusing obsessively on filling our own sense of deficit. Paradoxically, making others feel more valued makes us feel more valuable.
This blog was originally posted on May 1, 2015.