From the moment we are born, others’ expectations shape our behaviors, choices, and definitions of success.  We usually build our personal and professional lives around those expectations, and at some point, many of us start wondering if we are on the right path.  We may want to make changes, but it’s difficult and we don’t know where to start.

My view is that the best place to start is by gaining awareness of what those expectations are that others have of you, where they came from, and whether or not you actually want to follow them or if you’d rather create your own path.  

So to get started… let’s talk about conditioning (sometimes called socialization) which is a core concept in the studies of culture.  We are all conditioned with certain core values and beliefs, with certain cultural narratives, and with certain ideas about the way things are supposed to be.  In the book “Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind,” Geert Hofstede et al write, “The sources of one’s mental programs lie within the social environments in which one grew up and collected one’s life experiences.  The programming starts with the family: it continues with the neighborhood, at school, in youth groups, at the workplaces, and in the living community.” We internalize others’ ideas as our own until we gain awareness and perspective and realize we can make our own choices if we want to.  

The conditioning process is a part of every society.  It includes the values that get passed down through generations, the myths that society believes about itself and others, the principles that guide behaviors, and the definitions of what makes for a good life.  This conditioning starts when you’re a child, continues through your schooling, and goes on into your working years. It can be so comprehensive that you don’t even know it’s happening.

  • You assume that others think like you do and share your perspectives — although they may not.  
  • You assume their conditioning was the same as yours — although it may not have been.  
  • You assume because of your conditioning that there are a “right” way and a way things are “supposed” to be — although much of your society may not be reflected in that.

Basically, because of this cultural conditioning, you assume that everyone else is seeing the world through the same lens that you are, although this may not be.

Conditioning isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, it can be quite helpful for a functioning society given the many informal behaviors that happen every day without anyone thinking about them.  Conditioning helps you know what is and isn’t considered appropriate behavior in public, and it’s why when you travel abroad, you notice that others may smoke in elevators or wear clothing that you consider too modest or too revealing, or chew with their mouths open.  You don’t notice your own conditioning, but you notice when others are doing something that is in conflict with it.

But if you’re blindly following your conditioning to pursue a path that is not right for you, well, then it’s not so great.  In that case, conditioning can be leading you to pursue a version of success that’s not right for you, and it often leads us to pursue indicators of success that are derived from others’ expectations of what success means.  Let me give you some examples of indicators of success that you may be pursuing today:

  • Your title at work (as an indicator of fortune and power)
  • How many people work for you (as an indicator of power)
  • The neighborhood and home you live in (as an indicator of fortune and status)
  • Where you go to school (as an indicator of future fortune and status)
  • What kind of car you drive, the watch you wear, the handbag you carry, and the brands you choose (as indicators of status and wealth)
  • Where you go on vacation and how you travel there (as indicators of fame, power, status, and fortune)
  • How many followers you have on social media (as an indicator of power and status)
  • How many likes you get (as an indicator of influence and status)
  • How much access you have to others with power and influence (as an indicator of power and status)

Our common conditioning in the US, which I like to think of like the love child of the Protestant work ethic and capitalism, drives us to seek those external signs of success with the hope that others will see us as successful and, as a result, their external validation will lead to our own internal validation.  

And this is all fine if those are the things that you really want in life.  But if you want to be Gutsy… if you want to live a life that is yours, not a life that others have defined for you… if you want to define and pursue your own version of success… it’s important to peel back those layers of conditioning and decide what works for you.