The Dark Side of Individualism

April 2009

In this issue:
1. 1. Readers’ Comments
2. Newsbits
3. Editorial: “The Dark Side of Individualism”
4. Preview: Next Month’s Editorial
5 5. Quote of the Month – Rabindranath Tagor
7 6. Hot Link of the Month
7. Want to Blog?
8. 8. Click and Play of the Month


Thanks to Desmond Berghofer in Canada for the kind words. In part, he writes about last month’s editorial, “This is the best treatment of the butterfly metaphor I have read. Thank you. I will pass it on….”

Thanks also to Suzanne Zeman and Arlene Miller for their kind words and to Wes Thomas and David Sibbett for their design suggestions. You will see changes taking place over the next few months.

I received lots of favorable comments on my adventure into poetry last month on my blog. Thanks for all the kind words. It was fun to integrate a song rolling around in my head with the financial crises in which we are currently swimming. For those who missed it, you can read the poem.

Mark Thompson, co-author of Success Built to Last, volunteered the following endorsement for me on LinkedIn: “John is an open-hearted visionary, with a spirit of genuine caring and a belief that the world can work for everyone. It’s a privilege to know him.” Thank you, Mark! Unsolicited acknowledgement is always sweet.


John Interviewed on Voice America Business Radio

On Friday, April 3, at 10:00 AM PST, my interview with Cheryl Esposito will be aired on her weekly online radio program, “Leading Conversations.” This was my second time on Cheryl’s show and we included the financial meltdown in our conversation. The last time I was on her show was in mid-2007 and the meltdown wasn’t on our national radar yet.

White Paper on the Global Economic Meltdown Available to My Subscribers

As some of you know, I have been very active in Shaping Tomorrow’s Foresight Network, consisting of mostly futurists from all around the world. In December of 2007, I started a very popular international discussion forum about empire collapse which morphed into the Wall Street crisis in September of last year. Having submitted some proposals to the U.N. a few weeks back, we just published a 13,000 word white paper for the upcoming G20 summit on April 2 in London..


America has long been known as an individualistic society where a certain cowboy-like self-reliance seems indelibly etched into the psyche of our people. This culture rubs off on those who migrate here as well as those born here. Its roots have been attributed to early immigrants who fled more oppressive societies and welcomed – nay, longed for – individual liberty and free self expression.

While this individualism has been key for much of our entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity, few have looked for a potential downside to this Yankee personality trait. The current financial crisis prompted me to think about whether or not this trait could have contributed to this meltdown on Wall Street. After all, everything has a dark side when the ego takes control.

The idea that there could be a relationship first occurred to me during a three-week chat discussion hosted by Global MindShift a few weeks back. Kern Beare, GMS’s Executive Director who was hosting the conversation, asked me what I meant by a phrase I used in a post to the discussion – “silos of independent individualism.” I explained we Americans have developed a culture whereby many feel a need to become self-reliant as early in our lives as we can and avoid ever needing help from anyone else. As a result we become silo-like, each of our silos being a container for our self-reliant, “brand you” individualism.

In contrast to many other cultures, where the community comes first and interdependence is instilled in their societies, the U.S. has not only created a “me first” culture but we’ve exported it around the world through our movies, television shows, music and other byproducts of Westernization. We avoid relying on the community while it is implicit in other cultures. In fact, this drive is so strong in Americans that research is starting to show that we fear being dependent on others as much or more than we fear death!

Ironically, we strive to be independent and avoid any reliance on others, then wonder where that sense of community has gone. In the same discussion mentioned above, Beare responded by comparing human relationships to the water in which fish live. Webs of relationships are to people like water is for fish. It is vital to life! Thinking of it this way, it makes sense that as we become more isolated in our silos of independence we lose the “oxygen” we need and gasp for “air,” in this case a sense of community.

We can only have so many silos without negatively affecting the rest of our citizenry and the rest of the world. So this drive to be so independent means each silo has everything material one requires which generates enormous consumption of material goods and so much duplication and redundancy that those who aren’t as fortunate or successful in creating similar amounts of wealth and independence are not able to gain access to having their basic needs met.

Consumerism has drastically changed what many people of means think of as essential or required. So independent lifestyles in some social circles can mean the essentials include a luxury SUV, a Hummer, a boat or two and a 20,000 sq. ft. home. This could look like selfishness on a global scale, not to mention how unsustainable it would be if many more people are successful in creating their silos.

According to former Fed head Paul Volker, who now presides over President Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, one of the many factors in bringing about the financial crises is Americans have been living beyond their means. We can look at this from multiple perspectives – individual, national and global. While many of the super rich can “afford” to live opulently and therefore are not living beyond their means, Americans as a culture are. Many Americans have been living on credit, spending tomorrow’s anticipated resources to enjoy the benefits today. Some of these benefits are the construction materials with which we are building our own silos.

Generations ago there was a popular phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” which addressed how families were over-extending themselves to look as well off or match lifestyles with their neighbors. Today Americans are caught up in a relative lifestyle race that could have more to do with individualism and self-reliance than on keeping up with anyone else. The race may not be with other people but with our own projections of where we think we should be. If this is so, then we are competing with our own egos not with other people.

From a global perspective, Volker’s admonition could point toward Americans as global citizens, leaving a ecological footprint five to six times our share, that’s 500 – 600% more than the rest of the world. Additionally, our footprint is double that of our closest rival, the European Union! If our “means” were to be viewed as our natural resources, Americans are living well beyond our share of the global commons. This might be one of the darker expressions of our individualism.

It is time for we Americans to wake up from our self-absorbed, egocentric trances and start taking on the more adult responsibilities of being global citizens, sharing this planet with many others in a sustainable, thoughtful and compassionate way. Instead of building walls around our neighborhoods or our country, we can start engaging with the other 95% of the world as neighbors and help create a world of neighborliness. In such a world there is a place for everyone, even cowboys!

4. NEXT MONTH’S EDITORIAL: “Women in Business: Putting the Powerful Feminine to Work”


“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” – Rabindranath Tagor

6. HOT LINK OF THE MONTH (see a complete list of links):

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.: Publishers of progressive business books; based in San Francisco, California; have published some of John’s created anthologies – two in paperback and one in hardcover.


My blog – “Exploring the Better Future” – is located at the Global Dialogues Center; a new topic every month; take a look and post your comments. I’d love to hear from some of you subscribers! April’s topic will be “Pandemics of Orthodoxy.”

8. “CLICK & PLAY” OF THE MONTH: (also see Audio and Videos)

John Interviewed on Leading Conversations; listen live on April 3rd (10 AM PDT) or from the show’s archives after that date.

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John Renesch

John is a seasoned businessman-turned-futurist who has published 14 books and hundreds of articles on social and organizational transformation.

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