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What truly gives meaning to life, and what reduces it to a rat race of chasing after the next achievement? (This is Part Four of a series; you can read Parts OneTwo and Three at the links.)

There’s nothing wrong with being a high achiever. Where things do go wrong is when we draw all our satisfaction and happiness from those achievers, rather than the benefit of others.

Sadly, today it’s too easy to buy into a separate, winner-takes-all competitive view of life. We’ve created a society that values the one winner; that is, we champion the champions.

For examples, look no further than our competition-based educational model. We separate the super-achiever and the non-performer from the pack, based primarily on academic results. Excel, and you’ll be rewarded and distinguished from others, and given opportunities they can only dream of.

This means that great emphasis is placed on getting the right answers, so we get the right results and land in the right, best-earning jobs. Little consideration is given to passion, interest, or contribution to society.

Businesses are also set up around the concepts of scarcity, competition and domination—and so how significant we are is measured in how much we can buy, afford and own at others’ expense. People can be used, exploited, and discarded past their use-by dates.

In his book Man’s Rise to Civilization, Peter Farb studied the development of culture and technology. Common to all of them was what happened when people accumulated private property beyond their needs—they began to exploit each other in the quest for more. Farb’s Native American subjects called such people wetiko (literally, ‘cannibals’).[1]

In I Am, director Tom Shadyac relates the story of a tribe that has lived in peace and harmony for thousands of years. Hunters go out to hunt and when they return, they share their spoils fairly with all members of the tribe. No one is hungry or neglected—not even the weak, sick or elderly.

One day, the most skilled hunter declares, “I am the best hunter. I’ve killed more deer than the others. Why should I share my bounty with the rest?” He begins storing his meat in a mountain cave. And then more and more skilled hunters begin to do the same and refuse to share, keeping it among themselves in high mountain caves that no one else can reach.

Something happens to the tribe that’s never happened before: The weak, the sick and the elderly became hungry while others have plenty to eat. Over time, it grows so commonplace that no one ever questions it. The fact that many people starve while others have more than they need becomes a simple part of life. Even worse, the elders begin to teach their young to become successful by emulating the habits of the hoarding few.

This is a true story—and that tribe is us.

In most cases, nature has followed another, very different law for billions of years. Few things take more than they need—a redwood doesn’t take all of the soil’s nutrients, just what it needs to grow. Lions kill one gazelle at a time; they don’t learn ways to kill more gazelle faster and more efficiently.

And when our cells begin taking more and more for themselves, with no concern for the rest of the body, we call that cancer.

Is this selfishness part of our genetic and cultural makeup? We are enculturalized to believe so… but I now believe that’s far from the truth. It’s too destructive to be, and the human race can’t have thrived for so long with it.

What the wetiko cannibalism of eating another person’s life is—is pervasive, insidious and life-threatening. You can fight it, or surrender to it.

But there’s a third option. We can work with others to heal ourselves and them of this disease.

Cooperation is in our DNA. Although we are separate beings, we are one humanity—born to connect with each other, and depend on one another to walk, talk and live. We are connected with each other at a fundamental manner. If there are people hurting and suffering, it affects me.

That’s why we feel empathy when we see photos of malnourished children, stricken by disease and poverty. It’s in our DNA. It’s what enables us to keep making a difference, one small act of kindness and love at a time.

We have to reverse and rebuild our economies. They need to function for the well-being of others, instead of being competitive, brutal winner-takes-all sports.


The Secret of True Happiness

Shadyac admits in I Am that after his Oscar-winning films, he could do (and have) anything he wanted:

I bought a little 7,000 sq feet house in the hills of Beverly Hills. I was flying privately everywhere, vacationing, looking for properties. But something odd happened to me, I moved into my first Beverly Hills house that kind of took the edge off my buzz. One day, I was standing alone in the entrance foyer after the movers had just left, I was struck with one very clear, very strange feeling. I was no happier.

He recognized that he was part of that cancer. He changed his lifestyle, gave generously to social causes, and sold off his property. Through I Am, he began teaching and living out this truth of connectivity, sympathy and cooperation in our human nature.

Every word we utter to another human being has an effect, and it’s those effects that add up to make the world a better or worse place. Let’s not get discouraged, because big problems are solved the same way you eat an elephant—one piece at a time.

We can’t cure global poverty overnight, but we can feed one poor person at a time. We can’t make the whole world happy, but we can make one person happy at any moment.

That’s why  I resolve every day to smile at others, and do my best to feel for and be kind to them. I resolve to express all the graciousness and gratitude I can, and make people feel good about themselves.

We can because it’s in our nature to love and be loved. We are ‘DNA-ed for relationships’—a mandate that has remained through the ages as a key pillar of human flourishing.

In the nineteenth century, a London newspaper asked various people a simple question: “What’s wrong with the world?” The writer GK Chesterton gave the best known reply:

Dear sirs—

I am.

Because it’s within our power to make the world a better, more loving place. The answer to both questions: “What’s wrong with the world?” and “What’s right with the world?” is the same.

I am.


[1] Peter Farb, Man’s Rise to Civilization (London: Penguin Books, 1991).

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