I think Matthew Arnold nailed the definition of culture in his 1868 essay, Culture and Anarchy:
“Culture is then properly described . . . as having its origin in the love of perfection; it is a study of perfection. It moves by the force, not merely or primarily of the scientific passion for pure knowledge, but also of the moral and social passion for doing good.”
Arnold’s work eventually fell out of favor because he had no practical ideas about how to attain a perfect culture. Here’s mine:
First, acknowledge that there is rarely a single culture to define anymore. Instead, there are an infinite variety of micro-cultures. Each athletic department has many teams with many micro-cultures. Each political party is a micro-culture. Each person with a Twitter feed has a personal micro-culture. We can argue whether or not this is a good thing, but we can’t deny that it’s happening.
Second, realize that each micro-culture has a leader that drives the culture forward, and that leader has answered the question, “What is the change I’m trying to make?” There is no culture if there is no clearly defined change you’re trying to make. If the only change you’re trying to make is to improve your winning percentage, or increase your market share, or increase enrollment, at best there is a weak culture–there’s only “success.”
Third, recruit people who are excited about the change you’re trying to make. People who are excited about the change will tell their friends, and the culture will get stronger.
Occupy Wall Street fizzled out because its leaders were unclear about the change they were trying to make. Starbucks succeeded because Howard Schulz was clear about his change: transform Maxwell House-drinkers into people who appreciate quality coffee.
Define the change you’re trying to make and you’ll define your perfect culture.
“An advisory has been issued urging Village (of Fredonia) and town (of Pomfret) residents to boil their drinking water until further notice as a precaution, because of a large water main break early this morning. The break has been located and the plant is working to capacity again but this is a precaution we must take. Please share this information.” ~ Village of Fredonia NY Facebook Page — October 21st, 2017
George Carlin, perhaps the most famous comedian of all time, started many of his shows by asking the audience if the local water was safe to drink. He claims to have never gotten a positive response. Here’s an example from his 1992 HBO special in New York City:
“It amuses me that no one can really trust the water anymore, and the reason I like it is that it means the system is beginning to collapse, and everything is starting to break down. I enjoy chaos and disorder . . . And of course it’s not just in nature–in the country, the social structure (is) just beginning to collapse. You watch–(it’s) just beginning to come apart at the edges and the seams–and the thing I like about that is that it makes the news on television more interesting! It makes it more exciting! It makes the TV news more fun! I watch TV news for one thing and one thing only: entertainment. That’s all I want from the news: entertainment. You know my favorite thing on television? Bad news.”
The five-minute clip is hilarious and worth watching to better understand this post.
The astute observer notices that Carlin is pointing out our human tendency to watch the news, including water main breaks, as a consumer of entertainment rather than as an engaged citizen.
When people fear that their civilization is receding they often cry out to “make it great again!” The technical term for this perceived process is “social degeneration.”
But what, exactly, is receding? Success? Money? Comfort? Prestige? Happiness? Will more of any of these “make it great again?” Degeneration has always been poorly defined.
In 1851, the poet Matthew Arnold feared that English civilization was receding. Then the most powerful country in the world, Arnold worried that England was ceding it’s cultural authority to other nations, particularly France. This is the final stanza of his poem, “Dover Beach,” which he wrote while looking at The White Cliffs of Dover:
“Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
In uncertain times, Arnold finds refuge in the relationship between two people. Indeed, it is the only thing that was ever great in the first place.
That was the title of one of the most popular New York Times articles ever written. Author Mandy Lee Catron, drawing on research by Dr. Arthur Aron, claimed it was possible to make two people fall in love in just 45 minutes. Here’s the procedure:
Sit two people across from each other and have them ask each other personal questions in alternating fashion. The questions get more sensitive the further they go.
For instance, the first question might be, “What would constitute a perfect day for you?” A question in the middle of the series might be, “What do you value most in a friendship?” A question towards the end might be, “Of all the people in your family, whose death would be the most disturbing?”
Then, have them stare into each others’ eyes for four minutes. That’s it.
Certainly the procedure doesn’t cause people to fall in love every time, as Catron acknowledges in the article, but it does create emotional closeness that’s unparalleled in such a short time span. In his book Pre-Suasion, Robert Cialdini explains why the procedure works so well:
“Dr. Aron described two aspects of the procedure that she felt are key to its effectiveness. First, the items escalate in personal disclosure. Thus, when responding, participants increasingly open themselves up to one another in a trusting way representative of tightly bonded pairs. Second, . . . participants do so by acting together–that is, in a coordinated, back-and-forth fashion, making the interaction inherently and continuously synchronous” (p. 202).
It’s worth pondering how many of your interactions work like this, whether online or off.
“What I found in my dissertation was that if the leaders of a team tend to drink more alcohol, then the whole team tended to drink more. If the leaders tended to not drink, the whole team tended to not drink. The interesting thing that I found was if a team has an alcohol policy beyond what the college already has, the team wouldn’t adhere to those rules unless it was decided by the team. It didn’t matter how many times a coach tried to implement an alcohol policy, there were still violators. But when the team said it, the team would do it.” ~ Dr. Amber Warners, three-time national champion as Head Women’s Volleyball Coach at Calvin College
I think it works the same way with maintaining a high GPA, personal fitness, or any other quality you’re looking for a team to display.
If the leaders do it well, everyone else tends to do it well too.
Here’s a list of Leonardo da Vinci’s interests:
- Civil engineering
- Mechanical engineering
- Anatomy and physiology
Thankfully, da Vinci never went to college. If he did, he might have “majored” in only one of these areas.
Athletes are often scared to leave their comfort zones because they might get yelled at (or glared at, or however your coach expresses disapproval). It’s the same reasons students are scared to raise their hands in class–because they might be wrong.
As Seth Godin puts it, “This might not work.”
But the fear is the very reason to try. Yes, you might get yelled at, and yes, you might get the answer wrong. But that’s the very reason to do it anyway.
Charles Darwin did more for scientific inquiry than anyone else in human history, but he was also a proponent of eugenics. Darwin was wrong.
Leonardo da Vinci is the most celebrated creative of all time, but for most of his life he supported slavery. He was wrong.
The only way to get to ‘right’ is to be wrong a lot, or get yelled at a lot, or whatever the case may be.